Celebrating Rosh Hashana in Cairo

The Shaar Hashamayim synagogue on 17 Adly Street in downtown Cairo is an old gray structure with steps facing the street and a large star of David carved into a concrete column. I might not have noticed it but for all the white-uniformed policemen and small armored vehicles present. Two men stood outside writing down passport numbers and names and asking questions "What are you doing in Egypt?" "Why are you here?") This impromptu border patrol gave you the feeling of entering another country. But it was more like entering another era, a lost period of time. Though Cairo used to have a flourishing Jewish community, most either left or were kicked out circa 1967 and the 6 day war with Israel. The numbers are not definite, but according to an older woman I met there, there are only ten Jews left in Cairo. And they are all women.

Inside, the scene had the old world feel religious feel of high vaulted ceilings and prayers resounding in the space's natural acoustics. Plain clothes Egyptian policemen in blue blazers stood in the back, every now and then checking their ear pieces, communicating with other guards carrying guns, ostensibly on the lookout for trouble.

The Rabbi, named Mark, wore a stylish all-white suit and resembled an entertainment director at a casino. Originally from Morocco, he had to be flown in from Paris where he lives. There is no longer any head Rabbi of Cairo. Those days are over. I arrived late into the friday night Shabbat service on the eve of Rosh Hashana. There were only a few dozen people in the pews. The Rabbi was concluding the service and started wishing everyone a happy new year. La Shana Tovah! La Shana Tovah! he said as he went around the temple and shook hands. I was in the back, and after he shook mine, he turned to the Egyptian guards and said "Ramadan Kareem!"

The small group descended some stairs and into a small dining room where a meal was prepared. The Rabbi broke out the staple apples and honey, a bowl of pomegranate seeds, and asked me if I would help distribute the grape juice, which made me feel temporarily important. Prayers were uttered over the bread, over the wine (grape juice). No one seemed to know the prayers in Hebrew but Rabbi Mark, who had an acquaintance of his bang on the table like a judge with a gavel when people were talking too loudly and ignoring his incantations.

I met an American Jewish woman on a Fulbright. There was a tall man from the Israeli Embassy who chatted with people and gave out his business card. The older Jewish woman whom I mentioned earlier showed me her official Egyptian ID card. It had the word "Yehudia" written in Arabic in the space for a person's religion. "Jewish."

Margaret Scobey, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, sat to the right of Rabbi Mark and said little. She cut such a low profile if someone hadn't pointed her out to me, I would not have seen her. After the prayers and the meal someone broke out an acoustic guitar and started singing. I looked at the Rabbi's table and spotted two bottles of Israeli wine on it, not the weak grape juice he asked me to distribute, so I covertly helped myself to a generous amount and sipped its sweet taste.

The older Jewish women switched back and forth between English, French and Arabic. After the meal, everyone headed out into an open-air courtyard and took in the breezy evening.

The wine settled in. For a few blessed moments it felt absolutely natural and fitting to celebrate Rosh Hashana in Cairo with its farrago of Egyptian policemen, Rabbi Mark from Morocco by way of Paris, the man strumming the guitar, and the last Jewish women of a vanished society.