I make it a point to go to shul on Saturday morning, and that wasn’t going to change when I found myself in Cairo last summer. Yes, it is in an Arab country, but it is my Arab country, where I was born and where of late I have found myself traveling again and again. There is no one there for me — the 80,000 Jews who once lived in Egypt are pretty much gone, as are all my relatives. Cairo, to paraphrase Janet Flanner, was yesterday.
While at a festive gathering at the home of the United States ambassador, I asked if there were services I could attend that coming Saturday. Everyone shrugged, but then the head of Egypt’s virtually nonexistent Jewish community, Carmen Weinstein, spoke up to say there was certainly a place where I could pray, and I thought I detected a certain edge in her voice.
I could go, she informed me, to the magnificent central synagogue, Shar Hashamaim — The Gates of Heaven. My parents were married there back in World War II, and I have always had a romantic attachment to it. When I’d first returned to Egypt in 2005, I saw little beauty in the careworn massive stone building. Like most of the synagogues in Cairo, it looked like the house in the Addams Family: dark, frayed, forbidding.
But since that time, Weinstein had overseen a major renovation, encouraged and embraced by the American Jewish Committee, to restore the temple to its former splendor. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were apparently spent by the Egyptian government to fix it up, and there’d been a formal ceremony marking its reopening. The Gates of Heaven has no rabbi and no regular minyan, but come certain holidays, the handful of Jews who remained in Cairo, many quite elderly, venture out and reunite in the sanctuary.
One Saturday morning last June, my husband and I made our way to downtown Cairo, the hub of what had once been an intensely glamorous city; the synagogue had been situated steps from delightful patisseries, fashionable department stores, cinemas and boutiques. But, of course, that was when Jews and a multitude of Europeans — French, Swiss, Italians, British and Belgians — made Cairo one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Since these “foreigners” were thrown out or forced out, Cairo had become hopelessly provincial. The elegant stores gave way to cheap emporiums. And the Gates of Heaven was essentially abandoned — there were no Jews left to pray.
I spotted a small, armed militia outside the temple’s doors. They looked suspiciously at us, but I was ready for that: Egypt likes to post armed guards outside all its Jewish sites no matter how dusty. Gotta give them credit. How many other Muslim countries protect their Jewish sites with such diligence? Once we showed our passports, we were free to enter.
The synagogue was poorly illuminated, but it was clear much work had been done to restore it to its original splendor. The marble steps leading to the Holy Ark were gleaming. And the wooden pews that once accommodated hundreds of worshippers had some of their original luster. On the bima, I saw an open Torah scroll.
There were all the elements of a great synagogue except one: people.
I went up on the bima and put my hand on the scroll. Then, I climbed the marble stairs and kissed the velvet curtain that covered the Holy Ark. I looked around me, unsure what to do next.
I felt excruciatingly lonely. Though I have prayed the Sabbath morning prayers a thousand times, I didn’t feel I could recite them anymore, not without the soothing voice of a rabbi or a cantor or fellow worshippers. It all seemed heartbreakingly pointless.
The Gates of Heaven had once accommodated several hundred worshippers, and its women’s section upstairs alone had scores of seats. I had been told the strict separation between men and women only encouraged romance; young men would stealthily look up as pretty girls dressed in their loveliest clothes would preen as close to the balcony as possible, to make sure they were noticed by their intended. There were flirtations and matches and fateful encounters, every Shabbat.
I grabbed a prayer book and flipped to the page of the Amidah, the silent devotional, and prayed quietly. Then, after taking one last walk around the empty sanctuary, I picked up my passport from the guard in the booth, took my husband by the hand, and left.
I could think of nothing more to do on this lonely Levantine Sabbath.
* * * *
In the last couple of months, we’ve heard that Egypt is repairing more synagogues; indeed, that they expended funds to restore the most venerable temple of all, Rav Moshe, in the Old Jewish Quarter, where Maimonides was said to have studied and prayed some 800 years earlier. Egyptian Jews, myself included, regularly went to Rav Moshe when they were sick, hoping to be healed. I traveled to Cairo again last month to visit Rav Moshe and was impressed by the meticulous restoration. The Egyptians have also begun work on a broken-down Karaite shul and vowed to renovate some other once-grand institutions.
It all has seemed pretty wonderful to me — an Arab country faithfully restoring its Jewish institutions? It was as if my most fervent wish was coming true. Or was it? Is fixing up the empty, abandoned Jewish properties in countries devoid of Jews really worthwhile?
Looking back at my less-than-transcendent experience at Shar Hashamaim, I wonder if what I did had any meaning. Perhaps I could have communed with God nearly as well by staying in my room at the Marriott and davening there. It would have been more cheerful.
In Philadelphia, Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Congregation Mikveh Israel, who was born in Egypt and even sang in the choir of Gates of Heaven as a child, echoed the view that repairing it and other synagogues is essential — if only to remind the world, he says, that once upon a time Jews were there and in substantial numbers.
Since he left Egypt decades ago — after spending some years in prison camp, which is what happened to Jewish men who lingered — Rabbi Gabbai has had no desire whatsoever to go back, except to his synagogue, except to Gates of Heaven. He embraced my decision to pray there. “It means that you are reclaiming the place for Jews — for you as a Jew, and for all the Jews — [saying that] it belongs to them.”
Not everyone would agree. Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center casts a tepid eye on efforts to refurbish synagogues in places where there are no Jews; from Poland to Egypt, he wonders what is the point other than to attract tourist dollars.
“Is it better for a synagogue to be rehabilitated instead of being torn down or made into a mosque? Halachically, yes. But what is sadder than seeing an empty synagogue?”
Rabbi Elie Abadie, who presides over the Edmond J. Safra congregation in New York, staunchly argues in favor of restoring these lost synagogues. As a native of Lebanon, he has suffered the heartbreak of watching grand houses of worship destroyed or converted or sold or abandoned — as most were in and around Beirut. He passionately believes that the governments that drove out their Jews “have the financial and ethical responsibility to restore the synagogues.”
As for my woebegone feeling on that Cairo Sabbath, he says, “If a person is praying in a synagogue — albeit empty — those prayers are at a higher level and more meaningful because the synagogue maintains its sanctity. Even if there is no minyan [quorum of 10 men] the prayers are at a higher level,” Rabbi Abadie contends. God, he says, was of course there in the original Great Temple, and then in the Second Temple. “Once the Temple was destroyed, its sanctity was transferred to all synagogues all over the world,” he said. When a synagogue is built, he said, “it is believed that God enters it and remains there,” till eternity.
I found comfort in hearing that while I may have felt desperately alone that Sabbath morning, God was indeed there beside me in that great cavernous space in Cairo.
Lucette Lagnado is at work on a companion volume to "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" (HarperPerennial), a memoir of her Egyptian-Jewish family.