A Biographical Essay: Religious Life
by Albert Bivas

I am an Egyptian-born Jew. I emphasize and explain, my religion is Jewish and my nationality by birth and by law is Egyptian, though currently I use an American passport as a naturalized American citizen of the United States of America. There is no contradiction between these facts, there should not be and I do not want it to be nor do I want to think or believe that there is any contradiction in spite of some appearances or myths that may exist.

As a Jew I come from a rather religious family, conservative as one might call it, orthodox, traditional or observant as others might call it, depending of one’s culture, usage and definitions of these words. On my father’s side we descend from the eminent Chief Rabbi of Spain Abraham Bibas after whom the Sepharadi synagogue of London, England “The Bevis Marks Synagogue” was named. On my mother’s side we descend from The Gaon of Vilna and numerous Chief Rabbis, Rishon Lezion of Palestine.

In Egypt, in the Middle East, among Sephardim, we rather did not have the institutionalized separation of degrees of religiosity or commitment to our religion, such as orthodox, conservatism, reform or liberal etc… We had the one Jewish religion according to its laws and customs with our rabbis and institutions, then the degree of observance was left to the individuals according to their inclination and ability as molded by the various circumstances in their lives. May be that is due to the tolerance of the Sephardim as opposed to the apparent rigidity of the Ashkenazim or the more tolerant regime in Islam than the more suppressed regime in Eastern Europe and other regions.

In Egypt we had a few synagogues, obviously, wherever Jews lived. The Main Synagogues of Cairo was the “Shaar Hashamayim Synagogues” in the center of Cairo, on Adly Street, the most currently talked about and the one many have probably heard of. That is the one my family attended. When we stayed in Alexandria, we attended the main synagogue there, in the center of town, the “Eliahu Hanavi Synagogue” on Nebi Daniel Street. I do not know all the Synagogues in Egypt; I have only heard of the Ben Ezra Synagogue long after we had left Egypt. I knew then of perhaps only two other synagogues that I had gone to, both in Cairo, in the Jewish Quarter called “Harat el Yahud”, meaning the street of the Jews, loosely perhaps the equivalent of the Ashkenazim “Ghetto” or the Moroccan’s “Kasbah”. These two synagogues mentioned above are:

l. The “Rab Moshe Synagogue” which is the synagogue of Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, known as Maimonides. The Sepharadi Rabbi and physician, whose family fled from Spain at the time of the inquisition, went to Morocco, Palestine and Egypt. He was the personal physician of the Sultan and others in the elite of that times and he also was giving much of his time serving and treating all the people that needed it, for free if required, in addition to his occupation as Rabbi and his duties as leader of the community. That benevolence on his part might be called the “Free Universal Health Insurance” of that period “Mitzvoth” or “Good Actions”. “Our society of today may have much to learn from it”. We would go in his synagogue on pilgrimage for cure for some diseases that we might have, there was a room where we could sleep in, people could leave messages in a niche in the wall, there was a small pool with blessed water, people could lit some light with oil in small glasses and also leave some money “tzedakah” for the maintenance of the synagogue and for the neediest

The “Baal Haness Synagogue” of a Rabbi who practiced miracles to solve any ills that might occur. We would go there also for prayers and lighting of holy light with special oils and to give charity.

There were other Synagogues in other neighborhood and suburbs of Cairo, such as in Meadi, Zamalek, Daher, Heliopolis etc. for the benefits of those who lived there. In Alexandria almost every neighborhood had their synagogues too. There was at least one large Ashkenazi synagogue in Cairo and the Karaites had their own synagogues, Rabbinates etc…

We had “Kosher” as Ashkenazim call it, or rather as it is more correct “Kasher” butchers. We kept “Kasheroot” at home. We had separate services for dairy and meat. We also had separate services for Passover. We celebrated all holidays and Shabbats appropriately. On Shabbats, all synagogues, even very large one such as the main ones of Cairo and Alexandria were completely full with young and old alike, in sharp contrast to some synagogues in New York who cannot have a “minyan” on Friday evenings and are content to use their smaller chapels on Saturday evenings as well with an audience of perhaps less than twenty people in a town and neighborhood of so many Jews.

On the evenings of Rosh Hashanah and the first two evenings of Passover we usually celebrated in large group of family invited in each other homes.
At Purim, we would send sweets and home made pastries to each other’s.
At Hanukkah, we all would light the candles at home and visit families and relatives. We would eat oil-fried pastries, not doughnuts or latkes like Ashkenazim but the kind of Greek fluffy dough made with sugar or honey and fried in oil.
At Succoth we would build a Succah and use the Etrog and the Lulav of course.
At Shavu-ot we would eat dairies.
At Echa… a sad time of remembrance we would observe it accordingly etc…etc…
And so forth with every holyday.
Bar Mitzvahs and weddings were usually celebrated on Sunday in the synagogues. Bar Mitzvahs in the morning and weddings in the afternoon.
Circumcisions –Meela- were performed by a Mohel in the same hospital or doctor’s clinic where the birth occurred.

We had our cemeteries, schools, social and cultural programs, sports teams and events. We were well involved in all the life of our country, political and otherwise on a par with all our fellow countrypersons.

When we all left Egypt, much was lost, although we all tried to do the most and the best of it, first as refugees in rudimentary quarters and then as we, more or less, settled in one place or another. We had to put up with many forms of constraint: cultural, mode of living, ways of life, new environments etc… sometimes even hostile behavior and intentional. Unfortunately, many may have succumbed to it in some ways or others. They may have been lost… Lost to “Am Israel”… Lost to the soul of Israel… Lost to the “Chehina”, the Community of Israel. They may have lost their “Neshama”… They may have fallen from the “tree of life”, the Eternal Tree of Life. But all is not lost: HAMAshiah will come and the All-mighty will bless all as the late Rishon Lezion Rabbi HAyyim Moshe EliAchar, the HAMA would probably say it in some very select fashion or others in his supremely unusual calm, very erudite and wise manner. ”May G-d bless his soul and all of Israel forever.” Amen.

Albert Bivas

Published in Los Muestros #68, September 2007