Hidden eyes watch over the small Jewish community in Egypt. The rumor about the Passover Seder, which was to be held in the ancient synagogue “Shaar Hashamayim” in Cairo’s noisy outskirts, traveled by word of mouth. No messages were sent, nor was it publicized on the community’s website—it’s too hard to know who reads and who follows what these days, and what they could have planned.
It’s not easy to hold a Jewish event, with Egypt full of long beards and veils, with stars of David drawn around the head of presidential candidate Omar Suleiman in order to burn him at the polls, when leaders of new political parties insist on formulating a constitution that will see a strict version of “true Islam” ruling over daily life.
Thirty people were invited. Ultimately, 45 sat around the Seder table: less then 10 women from the elderly community; a mixed couple consisting of a Jewish woman and a Muslim man who were not afraid (there are dozens of mixed couples that don’t dare reveal themselves, especially not when Egypt is burning); the U.S. ambassador, who came to show her support; Jewish diplomats from foreign embassies; students; and even a group of curious onlookers. In the last century, before they escaped, the Jewish community was the most vibrant in the Arab world: it numbered 70,000 before the big expulsion.
Two years ago, during one of my last visits to Cairo, for the opening of the Maimonides Synagogue that had been wonderfully renovated in the “Jewish neighborhood,” my eyes fell on a beautiful woman behind a red veil. She followed, with bright eyes, the dancing and singing of the Chabad [Hassidic Ultra-Orthodox] delegation from Israel, and the bottle of wine that irritated the worshippers in the adjacent mosque.
What was a Muslim woman doing in a Jewish holy place, I asked. My name is X, she said, whispering her first name, leaving me no room for doubt. And the veil? I was curious. It’s my insurance policy in public. So that I’m not bothered. It’s best to fade into the local landscape like everyone else. Why don’t you immigrate to Israel? I continued to pressure her. X, with such a Jewish name, pointed to two old, stern women relatives. Without them I won’t leave. I wish I could.
Carmen Weinstein, the president of the community, calls on Rabbi Mark Alfassi, who came especially from Paris to conduct the Seder in the synagogue’s big hall, the white and fearless knight. He was warned that it’s dangerous in Egypt. He was told that even the handful of Israel diplomats and their guards wouldn’t be able to come this time because of security issues. In post-revolution Cairo, after the violent outbreak at the embassy, no visas are granted to Chabad officials, and there is no way for an Israeli to sit at the head of the table and read the Haggadah [liturgy of Passover].
And the slightly confusing ceremony was thus held in four languages—for speakers of Arabic, Hebrew, French and English. The community provided the meal, the guests brought flowers, wine and matzos were flown in, bitter herbs and haroset were eaten. Thirty local security guards let guests enter only after thoroughly examining their identification cards and passports.
Here, where the story of the exodus is the most relevant to tell, it is emphasized that the Jews left thousands of years ago. They skip the escape after the Suez crisis, the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition and the crossing of the canal in 1973—up until we reach the peace agreement.
We salute Carmen Weinstein from here, an Ashkenazi Jew roughly 80 years old, who was born and spent her life in Cairo, who knows how to insist and how to tiptoe, how to maneuver in a hostile environment without giving up. She is not a simple figure, and her great life story cannot yet be told. We have already learned that what we see from here is viewed differently in Egypt.
It is impossible, in light of the circumstances, to say thank you from Jerusalem, or to invite her to light a torch in honor of the glory of the State of Israel. Better not. And against this backdrop, it is impossible not to ask—what will happen to the property of Egypt’s Jews? At least five synagogues, and the Genizah treasures from the Jewish library?