Life & StyleSociety

Communities: Remnants of a Jewish past

A taxi pulls up to the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue on Adly Street in downtown Cairo. The driver has to wait for the manic traffic to calm down before he can unload a wheelchair from his trunk, unfold it, and help a frail, elderly woman into its seat.

The occasion is the Jewish holiday of Passover, and the woman is one the few remaining Egyptian Jews. The driver wheels the woman past some 20 security guards stationed in front of the synagogue. Entrants, with some exceptions, need to be on a list before being allowed into the seder, the ritual dinner that celebrates the holiday. According to two of the seder’s opening lines: “All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover with us.” But here, security concerns appear to take precedence.

The seder is held in a multipurpose room adjacent to the synagogue’s impressive, high-walled central courtyard. Almost all of the Egyptian Jews present are elderly women, sitting at two small, round tables at the back of the room. A long, white-clothed table runs down the center, at the head of which sits Rabbi Mark El Fassi, the president of Les Enfants d’Abraham (the Children of Abraham) organization in France, who has been imported to lead the seder.

Fassi conducts a short and not overtly religious service, reciting only a few Hebrew prayers — which at one point compete with the Arabic call to prayer echoing through the downtown streets outside. He cycles through Arabic, Hebrew, French and English in an attempt to accommodate the language capabilities of everyone in the room. He tells a few jokes. The food is plentiful and the conversation friendly. And there is wine.