In Egypt, Judaism practised with liberal values

The Succot holiday draws to a close. In Egypt, the festival was taken seriously, with succot (temporary booths) popping up everywhere to recall life in the wilderness for the Biblical Children of  Israel. Growing up in Cairo,  Levana Zamir remembers that even Christian and Muslim friends came to experience life in a succah. Interview with Rachel Avraham on Jerusalemonline (with thanks: ASF):

The Succah at the El-Hanan synagogue in Cairo (Photo: International association of Jews from Egypt)

Her memories of celebrating Sukkot in Cairo were even more vivid than
they were for Yom Kippur: “All over the streets of Cairo, even in mixed
areas, everywhere there were balconies that became sukkahs.   They
brought in palm trees and put them on the balcony with white sheets.  My
friends loved it for it was fun and nice to be in the balcony with us. 
We had Christian and Muslim friends who were also aristocratic.   It
was good.”

“Then, politics are politics and one day, all of this disappeared,”
Zamir noted.  “The Muslim Brotherhood came to put bombs in the Jewish
Quarter and all of this disappeared for we were afraid of what they
could do to us.  Today, there are no more Jews in Cairo.  Only eight old
women and one man in Egypt.  They have a president of a non-existing
community.  It is very sad.  There is no more Jewish life not only in
Egypt but also in all of the Arab countries.  There were a million Jews
in Arab countries.”

“Until today in Cairo, the El Hanan Synagogue courtyard has the
remains of a very big sukkah,” Zamir described.  “In every synagogue,
they had a very big sukkah.  After the prayers, they went there for the
Kiddush and the nice food.  You can see it is very old.    It was
important to not only eat three meals in the sukkah but also the men and
boys had to sleep in the sukkah.  It had to be very big.   We had a
house in a suburb of Cairo and had a very big garden.  We had a large
sukkah.  My father had to sleep there with the two elder boys.”

According to Zamir, the idea of sleeping in the Sukkah is a Mizrahi
custom that is not practiced by most Israelis today: “In Israel, people
mostly do not sleep in the sukkah.  I remember my mother told me that
her father was living in the sukkah the whole time, like the people of
Israel did in the Exodus.  They did not just eat in the sukkah.  It was
their house.  They did the right thing, not like today.  We are building
a sukkah for the children, not for us.  I am not talking about the
religious people who do it based on those principles.  My husband always
every year built a sukkah for the children.  When they left home, it
finished.  We did not build a sukkah anymore.  It is a big difference. 
There, we did it because it was part of our life as Jews.   That’s the
difference between what it was there and what it is here.”

However, unlike Sukkot, where she feels that the way Egyptian Jews
celebrated it in Cairo in the past was superior, Zamir believes that the
experience of commemorating Yom Kippur in Israel is better than what it
was in Cairo: “I like very much Yom Kippur here.  In the Diaspora, it
was a normal day.  In Israel, all of the streets are empty and everyone
is quiet.  It is something that is very special for Israel.  For me, it
is very moving.  I knew it was not like that.   Egypt is part of the
Diaspora.  My roots are there.  I was born there.  My character is more
Mizrahi and Oriental.   Here in Israel, Yom Kippur is very moving.  I
know that it is my place.   We need this.”

According to Zamir, Egyptian Jewish culture combined a strong
commitment to Judaism with liberal values.   One day, she related that a
group of Egyptian Jewish students asked a great rabbi if they could go
to the cinema on Shabbat.   He replied that they could so long as they
bought their tickets in advance.   Some of the Jews drove on the
holidays, while others rode in special oriental carts or had
chauffeurs.     Many Jews were forced to work or go to school on Shabbat
because the day off was Sunday.   However, religious Jews used to try
to work for Jewish companies so that they could keep Shabbat. 

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