Alexandria lives in a cloud of Islam. (As does most of the Middle East and North Africa, for that matter.) Five times a day the air ignites with the call to prayer that booms through every street like thunder. Moisture from the cloud makes it necessary for almost every resident woman to cover her head and arms, and sometimes face and fingers, while out of doors. It tints perceptions and expressions and architecture. It is sometimes heavy and sometimes light. It is beautiful and intricate to the eye that can see its particles. And in this city, it is all encompassing.
That is why I did not expect there to be high holiday services at the Alexandria synagogue. The other Jewish students and I joke that our 9½ strong presence has increased the Jewish quotient by at least 200 percent, but it is not really a joke. Though once the comfortable home of a vibrant Sephardic community, Egypt has been all but void of an active Jewish community since, oh, around 1948. There are Muslims and there are some Christians, and if there are Atheists or Agnostics or Buddhists or Hindus, they keep it to themselves.
But Jewish holidays wait for no man or woman to settle into a new land, or try to get to Israel, so after a week in Egypt I boarded a train to Cairo to scrounge for Judaism. Fortunately some of the other Jews were willing to come along, so it was five of us wandering down a darkened Cairene street, unable to ask for directions to a place of Jewish worship. After several moments of scowling frustration with the lack of building numbers or street names, we spotted it standing above and apart from the other buildings.
It was surrounded. A full legion of police offers had come to celebrate the Jewish New Year, as had several conspicuous Israeli shin bets with curled chords behind their ears. My friend felt nervous by the presence of guns, but I, whispering to her that a bomb-clad backpack had once been unsuccessfully planted, felt safe.
Contrary to my expectations, a few other people had shown up to services. The congregation consisted of a Minyan’s worth of Egyptian women, hunched with age, speaking Arabic inflected French, brought over annually by their hijab wearing daughters. There were some Egyptian men, I think, one of whom was confusedly trying to figure out what books we had taken from the glass cabinet and another who was handing out tissues to combat the heat. There was a rabbi who was flown in from France. There were a considerable number of expats, including a several English teachers, a journalist, and a Brown student who knows one of my best friends. After a fifteen minute, fairly rushed and generally unrecognizable service the whole lot retired to a delicious pot luck dinner that unfortunately did not include apples and honey.
The next day four of us took the metro to the synagogue. Among the dusty car’s passengers were several men reading the Qur’an, fitting in the morning’s prayers. Descending into the lovely ex-pat neighborhood of Maa’di we again worried about asking for directions, but were soon clued in by the conspicuous presence of guards, Egyptian and Israeli.
Though we were running on Jewish time, meaning late, we were the first ones there, aside from the French rabbi and the journalist we had conversed with at dinner the evening before. Slowly and painfully a minyan (counting only the men) filled out. Later on several Israeli looking women and a few mothers of kippah clad children noisily appeared. And just as we were about to leave, after the shofar but before the end, a girl looked right at me and smiled. She didn’t know my name but she knew my face from the Jewish Day School I attended in Maryland. She had been a student there too. The Jewish world is ridiculously small.
I returned to Alexandria uplifted by this bubble of belonging. After having to hide, or at least omit, this part of my identity among the Muslim mist it felt good to be open and in touch. But after ten days back under my protective umbrella of secrecy, I felt uncertain of what Yom Kippur would be like in Alexandria. Still, for the first time ever I was the least optimistic one in a group of Jews, and so I tagged along to the synagogue with a scarf on my shoulders and a siddur in my bag.
The entrance to this synagogue was not so conspicuous. But it was still armed. Tucked in a bustling, cosmopolitan part of the city called Mahat Ramal, we were only able to find the alley that led to the entrance gate because someone had spotted it on the scavenger hunt we participated in a few days prior. There was a van in the mouth of the alley, and through the window I could see twenty squished soldiers watching us. I felt extremely self conscious. It was the first time in Egypt that strangers on the street knew for sure I was Jewish.
After passing the test of a decidedly-not-fooling-around guard we turned right back around to eat our pre-fast meal. We scurried to the nearest Mohammed Ahmed, a chain restaurant whose name is appropriate in a city where one is hard put to find a man not named one of the two. We feasted on falafel, ful, omletes, a myriad of salads and endless baskets of pita, all for less than two American dollars. The others were insistently optimistic that there would be a service to follow. Han’shuf, I said. We’ll see.
A older man with a thick white mustache and a page-boy cap smiled and welcomed us in Arabic. The synagogue was the most beautiful of the three, built in the 19th century with towering Corinthian marble columns and two levels full of carved wooden benches commemorating members past. Evening sunlight smiled down at the velvet bima through lavender and green stained glass. But most beautiful aspect were the Jews; actual, practicing, breathing Jews in the pews! And they were Alexandrian! At least, they were, once. Now they were Israeli, living in Bat Yam, coming back for Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur and Pesach to wake the giant religious home of their youth from its slumber.
They were happy to speak to us in Arabic, though among themselves they spoke a delightful mixture of French, Arabic and Hebrew, often in the same sentence. There was no rabbi, but there was a scholarly looking congregant who was thrilled to find that with our addition of three men we stretched to an actual minyan. He sang one unbroken torrent of prayer, not stopping to change pages or breaths or tune. At one point my friend realized that we had never said the Kol Nidrei, the most famous and essential prayer of the service. She casually mentioned this in Arabic to a man sitting next to her, (the only man in the women’s section… worn out Orthodox Judaism is an odd beast). In anguish he stood up and started shout-whispering to the other women, “Kol Nidrei se le plus important! La’a, b’gad! T’srichim lihagid lo!” (Kol Nidrei is really important, no really! We have to tell him!) With my shards of French, rusty Hebrew and functional Arabic, I understood his frustration but could hardly stifle the laugh summoned by this curious dialect. For the duration of the service my friend and I giggled and whispered “se le plus important, b’gad!”
We returned the next morning, and again in the evening. How could we not after they
beamed at us so, asking us umpteen times whether we’d return tomorrow, and for Pesach, and the next year, too? The sun simmered out through the stained glass, its eventual setting heralded by a chorus of “blow the shofar already! We’re hungry!” in many languages. In the vestigial administrative building next door, among plates of French pastries and Middle Eastern fruits, the Jews of Alexandria sang Hava Neglia, Oseh Shalom, and Hinei Ma Tov, feeling how truly nice it was to be sitting together as brothers.