Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rosh Hashanah

Well as Jews who move to new places may know, we have to figure out our surroundings fairly fast. Because sure enough, a couple weeks after showing up it's time for High Holy Day services. This means finding a temple and getting there. At school this was a cake walk. Services were held on campus and half the student body attended. Here in Cairo, my quest for a Rosh Hashanah service was not so easy. I did a bit of research online, which was less than encouraging. There are fewer than 100 Jews left in Cairo, and possibly Egypt. Articles claim that there is only one functioning synagogue and it was attacked in March of this year. This same synagogue's head rabbi fled the country after fraud charges. Alright, I thought, I will get in touch with the Israeli embassy and see what advice they have to offer... oh wait, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website is down. Which seems... suspicious. I got in touch with some writers who had written pieces about the remaining Jews in Cairo to ask them how to pull off attending Jewish services in a Muslim country. They were very nice and wrote me back but couldn't promise any accurate information. So I did my best to piece together an address for Shar Hashamayim, the 'Gates of Heaven' synagogue that I had read about in downtown Cairo. I didn't know what to expect, but when I saw the fleet of police outside I knew I had found the place. We spoke to security from the Israeli embassy. They took our passport info and asked us several questions. They turned us away at first, because we had not been invited. This is, of course, understandable. Then after some talk, they told us to come back in an hour and see what happens. So we did, and after some calls to the Israeli embassy we were welcomed in to the synagogue. The rabbi introduced himself. He had come in from Paris especially for the occasion and spoke to us and the congregation in French. It was a short service followed by a communal dinner. We met other Americans, mostly students, and other expats working in various industries in Egypt. All in all, it was a lovely, safe, and rare (given the dwindling size of Cairo's Jewish community) evening.

On the cab ride back from services, I felt very proud for pulling off what is a delicate move. Showing up unannounced to a synagogue in Europe is hard enough, let alone a Muslim country. But I am very glad I tried, and very glad I was able to attend. I don't consider myself too religious, but the High Holy day services are an annual tradition. Not going would be simply disorienting. Also, in a strange, jostling city such as Cairo, it's nice to find, albeit briefly, a moment in time in which you belong, and can joke with others about being Jewish in a city that is not.

That said, the Egyptians running security at the synagogue and helping to serve dinner were very respectful and friendly towards us. Some describe Egypt's peace with Israel as cold. But tonight, it made all the difference.

A safe and happy New Year to you all.

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