Rosh Hashana at the Adly synagogue, Cairo

Josh Weil and a companion, two self-confessed Jewish agnostics studying in Egypt, visited the Adly synagogue in Cairo for Rosh Hashana. As they recount in the November issue of Guernica magazine, what they found – an elderly remnant of a once-glorious community largely ignorant of their heritage – was not what they expected.

Where did that vibrant Jewish community go and why, and, especially, what happened to those who stayed? And so, on the eve of Ramadan, in the center of the Arab world, we found ourselves – two agnostic Jews who thought we had no interest in, let alone ties to, the Jewish community back home – submitting to a host of ID checks and metal detectors and glares from passersby in order to join in prayer and to worship with the remaining Jews of Cairo. (…)

Cairo has no Rabbi, so one had to be flown in from France for the High Holidays. He hadn’t been speaking for more than a minute when a cell phone shook the quiet. An old woman answered, made herself comfortable in her pew and settled in for a good chat. A man drew out his camera, crossed to the women’s side, snapped a few pictures as worshippers posed and grinned, then turned to click off some frames of the kids who had been loosed to run wild about the room. Every few lines, the Rabbi attempted to get the congregation to join him in prayer. But his encouraging smiles, his flapping arms, were all in vain. The Egyptian Jews – those who weren’t chatting or posing for pictures – stared back, mute. An old woman leaned in to her friend and whispered, “What holiday is this again?”

As the service wore on, it became clear that none of the Egyptian Jews could read Hebrew. The only people who followed along with the Rabbi were the Israelis from the embassy. When the Rabbi left his place on the bima and crossed to the ark where the Torahs were kept, the entire room seemed relieved at the promise of an action it could understand. The Rabbi pulled back the emerald green curtain embroidered with curling grape vines; the ark doors opened. At the sight of the ancient Torah scrolls, their velvet casings worn by the hands of so many generations of Egyptian Jews, the congregation quieted at last. And the Rabbi’s lilting prayer filled the hall. But too soon the doors were shut. And beneath the din of renewed chatter, the Rabbi, unable to figure out how to close the curtain, summoned the synagogue’s Muslim caretaker to draw it shut.

At the service for Simchat Torah, which we would attend two weeks later, three ancient scrolls were actually taken out of the ark and paraded around the room. For the first time since we’d begun attending services, the congregation displayed a real religious intensity. As each Torah passed by, the old Egyptian Jews grasped it, touched it, and kissed it with so much fervor that the men carrying the scrolls had to pull away. But even this flew in the face of accepted religious observance. In Judaism it is sacrilegious for members of the congregation to touch the Torah with bare hands; normally, prayer books and talits are the only things used to make contact. But this was not a synagogue where traditional rules of Jewish conduct were applied, or even known. This community, the last remnants of Egyptian Judaism, lacked even some basic understandings of Jewish law and common practice.

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