An unexpected question confronts a pair of Jewish visitors in Cairo.
The initial plan was spectacular. While studying at Hebrew University in 1990, Arie Katz, a Princeton grad who currently serves as the chair of the Orange County Community Scholar Program in California, and I journeyed from Israel to Egypt the week before Passover to tour and admire our ancestors’ handiwork, otherwise known as the pyramids.
The most memorable part of the week was surprisingly a dinner, a Ramadan evening break-fast, at the home of our tour guide, Rhandah. This middle-aged woman, educated in the West, was a devout Muslim and a loving mother, sophisticated and modern. Her home, decorated with paintings ranging from Impressionist scenes to scribal passages from the Koran, reflected the wide spectrum of interests shared by her and her husband.
During the meal, we sat on a rug with the family and their guests. Seated around us were several highly educated Egyptians, also working in the travel industry. As the evening unfolded, they asked Arie and me routine questions about where we call home and went to school. These questions were familiar enough and felt like a round of Jewish geography.
When our new “friends,” however, heard that we were students in Israel, their tone changed. Stares flashed across the room. The tenor of their questions shifted from simple friendly inquiry to political statements about Israel. Their words could no longer be defined as opinion. They spoke in absolutes, and, from their perspective, articulated truisms about their northern neighbor.
What ensued was a heated diatribe about the Israeli-Arab situation, and an unabashed wholesale debasing of Israelis, their business ethics, their manners, their diplomacy. With every passing moment, I regretted our presence and our acceptance of the post-Ramadan break-fast invitation.
With every mouthful, the hummus tasted more and more like maror, the bitter herb, and the pita like lekhem oni, the bread of affliction.
In a well-intentioned attempt to shift gears and break the palpable tension, one of the women asked us, “Isn’t there a Jewish holiday next week? Passover, no? Would you mind explaining it to us?”
Dumbfounded, Arie and I looked at each other. He stiffened. Sweat dripped down my brow despite the cooling effect of the fans circling overhead.
How exactly were we to explain Passover to Egyptians?
I imagined our unedited response: “Approximately 4,000 years ago, our God, represented by a stuttering prophet named Moses, demanded that Pharaoh release his Israelite slaves. Upon Pharaoh’s refusal to ‘let our people go,’ God released 10 devastating plagues upon your people. You know the Nile, right outside your window, the first plague turned it into blood. The last plague killed every first-born child in every Egyptian home. At this point, feeling somewhat defeated, Pharaoh Ramses II released our people, approximately a million men, women, and children. We left in a hurry with flat bread called matzah, and our pockets filled with Egyptian wealth as back-pay for the pyramids. After Pharaoh let us go, he changed his mind so he followed us to the banks of the Red Sea. We thought we were trapped, but God split the sea, through which every last Hebrew passed safely. The entire pursuing Egyptian army was not so lucky.”
Taking a deep breath and smiling, I responded, “Passover is our festival of freedom. It is when our ancestors were released from slavery and became a national entity. ... So what’s Ramadan all about? ... Please pass the pita.”
After the discussion about Israel and Passover, the spirit of friendship quickly escaped from the room and was replaced with awkward silences and stilted conversation. It quickly became obvious that it was time for Arie and me to leave. As we stepped through the threshold, our host’s token wishes of “salaam aleykum” felt hollow.
The rest of our sojourn in Egypt was colored by the discussion at this one meal where true dialogue was taboo. What I hoped would have been a cross-cultural exchange turned out to be wake-up call on how Israel and Jews are viewed in the Arab world. That night at our tour guide’s home the children of former slaves and the children of former slave owners joined together for what could have been a powerful opportunity for healing, even on a minute scale.
However, it became transparent that many today are still enslaved by prejudices and preconceived notions.
I have never been more appreciative of Israel than when our bus crossed the border the day before Passover. Not only did I feel safe in Israel, but also the seder awaited us. The seder that year in Jerusalem was one of the most liberating in my life because there was no boundary to our questions as well as our answers.
Every year at the seder when we recall our people’s slavery in Egypt, I recall sitting on the rug in our tour guide’s home. More questions remain than answers.
Rabbi Charles Savenor is the executive director of the Metropolitan New York District of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.