Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Passover Seder in Downtown Cairo

See corrections here

Passover Seder in Cairo is held in a low-ceilinged white room behind the USAID-restored synagogue downtown. There are easily thirty guards outside. If you’re not on the list (RSVP by email or phone) you’ve got to have your passport copied. Most of the Jews who arrive found out by word of mouth or email list. They don’t advertise on the website, because, in community leader Carmen’s words, “you don’t know who could be reading it.”

The Rabbi has been flown in from Paris. He is originally from Marrakesh, Morocco, and leads the Seder in a mixture of languages, English being the fourth tier behind French, Hebrew, and Arabic.

There are Jews at the table from Egypt, of course, as well as France, and the U.S., and lots of Egyptian Muslims who are here either due to intermarriage or friendship and curiosity. The Israeli Embassy used to take charge and provide the ritual foods, but they have drastically downsized their operation and now go back to Israel on the weekends. The U.S. Ambassador is here, sitting next to the Rabbi at the head of the table. 

Most of the rituals are familiar but different, and mostly unexplained. Most of the attendees maintain conversations throughout the long, traditional chants by the Rabbi and chomp on matzah as they wait for the food. They don’t have haggadot, although the booklets are available in a far corner, stacked in a lonely pile. Wine and matzah have been donated, though the latter is surprisingly available in Cairo’s fancier neighborhoods. At one point, we are dipping the parsley in the haroset. Then, we are eating the matzah before washing our hands. I attempt to ask about this, but since I only speak the fourth tier language well, and the third tier language passably, I give up after a lot of confusion.

There is an American Jewish journalist who hopes to write about the dwindling community, and then an American Jewish non-journalist who is assumed to be a journalist because she does not ‘appear’ Jewish. And then there is Emily. The community’s lawyer seems to think she is Filipino.

The Rabbi, telling the story of Exodus, attempts to address the obvious irony, which had so often led to laughs at our small seder among friends the night before:  the fact that we are celebrating Passover in the country that Passover celebrates having left behind. “Now,” he says in broken English, translating from French, and then in Arabic, “Jews, Christians and Muslims all together, no problem. But back then, they did not like the Jews, so we had to leave.”

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