Travels with Nancy

Alexandria, Egypt (May, 2009)

image: context map

With some awkwardness, I managed to convey to my Muslim cab driver that I wished to visit the Jewish synagogue of Alexandria. He informed me that no one was allowed to enter, but he would stop in front and wait for me to take a look. The synagogue was situated on a busy commercial boulevard and its huge gates were heavily guarded by armed soldiers. I peered through the bars and asked if I could enter the compound to photograph it. The answer was a resounding “no.” But I could come back at another time and speak to the officer in charge.

A day or two later I returned. There, at a side gate, I was questioned by a second officer and asked to show my passport. “Only Jews are allowed to enter,” he said. I pulled out the chain hidden beneath my clothing and flashed the Star of David. That promptly changed everything. The officer radioed to another guard and soon a soft-spoken Egyptian gentleman appeared and asked, “Are you Jewish?” “Yes,” I said, flashing my ‘badge,’ and I was admitted into a building.

image: Great Synagogue of Alexandria. Photo by Nancy Cuevas Guzmán.

Great Synagogue of Alexandria.
Photo by Nancy Cuevas Guzmán.

I noted that the attendant who escorted me from the gate was wearing a fashionable cap and I suspected that it was his “disguise” for a kippah (scull cap). I was asked to wait and I ran my eyes over the walls covered with old black and white photographs of synagogues and congregations long since gone, writings in French and names of Jews from the past, letters of recognition and lists of donors and friends.

I was brought into an office and interviewed by a man who I assumed was an Egyptian in charge of administrative duties. There I showed my passport, which he carefully studied and then asked the inevitable question, “Are you a Jew?” This time I mentioned some schools I attended and places I lived in Israel.

“Okay,” he responded, “this gentleman will show you the synagogue.”… whew! I felt like I had just passed three judges, one at a time, at a Beit Din (court of law)! My guide confirmed my suspicions when he told me that he was also Jewish, which left me shocked… I thought all the Egyptian Jews were gone! He also informed me that on special holidays, Jews still came to the synagogue to worship.

Up to this point I had not even glimpsed the actual synagogue and I had no idea what was in store for me. My guide led me through well-manicured grounds to a magnificent building with steps leading to a pillared entrance and huge doors. When he opened the door, I was shocked! I felt like I was stepping into a time warp… a time when buildings were made with fine dark wood, marble and stone and many elegant details. This synagogue is a masterpiece with chandeliers, giant pillars, balconies and beautiful woodwork.

Despite some camera malfunction I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to photograph this wonderful synagogue. I lingered, breathing in the spirituality permeating this quiet, lonely monument to Jewish Egyptian life, a glorious era gone, the histories of many Sephardic (Jews of Spanish descent) families now ended on Egyptian soil. And I wondered what became of those faith-filled worshipers and what will finally become of this grand old “Great Synagogue of Alexandria” in today’s Egypt.

Tunis, Tunisia (March, 2010)

When I heard that a small community of Jews still lived in Tunis, and with my Spanish visa about to expire, I decided Tunisia would be close enough to my current home base of Mallorca for a short visit. After receiving no response to my calls and faxes to a Chabad-run school on Palestine Street (I am not kidding) that a friend from Valencia, Spain had given me, I decided to just show up. I needed help in locating a hotel and a place to spend Shabbat (Sabbath). Once again,> I was faced with armed guards and had to present my passport. Again, I was asked to return later, this time to meet the school’s director, a Mr. Hattab.

image: Little girls dressed up for Purim in Tunis. Photo by Nancy Cuevas Guzmán.

Little girls dressed up for Purim in Tunis.
Photo by Nancy Cuevas Guzmán.

When I arrived two hours later, Mr. Hattab greeted me from a second story balcony and beckoned me to come in. I climbed the stairs, and at the top, I found a happy, bearded middle-aged man who did not speak a word of English! The room was full of beautiful, smiling children, sitting like perfect angels at their desks. He was teaching a class. When he asked me in French what I wanted, I answered in a mixture of English and Spanish. Mr. Hattab called another teacher who knew some English.

I asked for help in locating a hotel in walking distance to the synagogue for Shabbat (Sabbath) and a family to visit with for Shabbat and Purim (Jewish holiday), which was that same weekend. When I asked about the Chabad rabbi, they told me he died some years ago and no one had replaced him. As a result, there is no one to receive a fax or phone call. Mystery solved.

Friday morning I went in search of the synagogue per instructions from the hotel’s reception desk. After walking a long way without finding the synagogue, I realized I must have been going in the wrong direction. But everyone I questioned pointed in the same direction. It wasn’t until I arrived at a Catholic Cathedral that I realized that for Muslims, a non-Muslim meant Christian. I had no choice then but to use the magic word “Israel” for people to understand that I was looking for the synagogue. With that information, they sent me on my way, in the opposite direction. At least now I knew where to go for services.

When Shabbat came, I arrived at the synagogue ready to pass through the front door, but instead, I was led to a back door and a small room overflowing with men. As the only female present, I sat outside the room following the service from a siddur(prayer book) in the dimly lit grand synagogue. After the service Mr. Hattab, his sons and the teacher walked me to the Hattab home to celebrate the Shabbat.

The room was full of beautiful, smiling children.

The Hattab family consisted of Mr. Hattab, his beautiful wife and 10 beautiful children. The day was marked by respect for everything Jews hold sacred. The husband praised his wife; the children showed great respect for their parents. During the Purim service, all the attending families were modest and simple. The children were well behaved and the poor were given seats at the Purim table. That was particularly touching for me to watch. I heard the Megilla (scroll of Esther) reading and Mr. Hatab’s lectures in French, Arabic and Hebrew and then Mr. Hattab escorted me to my hotel with cakes that he had baked himself.

When all the festivities were over, the chag (holiday) and Havdallah (ritual to mark the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week) were past, I was given my chance to photograph the Great Synagogue. By then, the photography was secondary to the experience of the wonderful people who had opened their homes to me.

Belmonte, Portugal (May, 2010)

Prior to my visit to Belmonte, I had been warned that community members there are wary (and perhaps weary) of outsiders coming to their town to meet them…the crypto Jews of Belmonte…the Jewish community that practiced Judaism in secret for over 500 years and had just been “discovered” some 80 years ago. I didn’t know what to expect.

image: Beautiful little synagogue in Belmonte, built 1977 with donations from French benefactor. Photo by Nancy Cuevas Guzmán.

Beautiful little synagogue in Belmonte, built 1977 with donations from French benefactor.
Photo by Nancy Cuevas Guzmán.

I arrived unannounced at the synagogue on Saturday morning and went straight up to the balcony. I watched from there as the Hazzan (cantor) motioned to another member of the congregation that “an intruder” had entered the synagogue and to go get me. I heard the man coming up the stairs to where I was sitting and continued to read from my siddur (prayer book). The first thing he said to me was, “Get out.” I turned to him and smiled. He seemed surprised by my response and questioned me about where I came from. I responded in Spanish telling him that my mother is Jewish, a Levy and my father a converso (Crypto-Jew) and that currently, I was living in Puerto Pollença, Mallorca. A few more questions and he smiled back and reassured me that all was good.

After the service was over, I descended the stairs of the balcony hand-in-hand with an elderly woman who had motioned to me that she needed my assistance in getting down to the main sanctuary. For me, this was a normal learned gesture from my Latino background, walking arm-in-arm with an old woman. The congregation recognized it as such and showed me great respect and acceptance. They were warm and welcoming and invited me for Kiddish (blessing over the wine after Sabbath services) and made sure to tell me the time of the next service.

By the afternoon mincha service, the whole town seemed to know my entire background, even people on the street. People greeted me wherever I went. When I entered the synagogue the second time, a 12-year-old boy came over and asked if I was from Spain. The people of Belmonte seem to respect the Spaniards as neighbors who had experienced a similar fate as the Jews of Portugal during the Inquisition. (Of course, many Spanish Jews originally fled to Portugal to escape the Inquisition.) It seemed we were all Crypto-Jews (secret Jews).

When the service was over, one of the women from the congregation walked me back to my rooming house, sheltering me from the rainstorm with her umbrella, and, like any other Jewish mother, chewed me out for not being married. She was probably 35 to 40 years old herself. After Shabbat I was invited to join a group of young people in their 20’s at a local restaurant. One young woman spent an hour talking to me about boys and the problem of finding a suitable mate in her community. When I suggested she might go to Israel, she said she did not want to leave her family, which I think is reflective of Latinas (Latin women). She did say she wanted to marry a Jewish man, not, interestingly, a “Crypto-Jew.” Unfortunately, the teacher Michael Mseiyas said some members of the community have married Catholics because of the lack of choice in finding a mate.

By the afternoon service, the whole town seemed to know my entire background.

On Sunday before mincha, I was invited to attend a class given by Mr. Mseiyas, an American of Portuguese descent, who had came to Belmonte from Jerusalem to teach Hebrew to community members. Among the students were the Hazzan and some other men. The Hazzan could read Hebrew but prior to the arrival of this teacher, he did not understand a word of what he prayed. I was the only woman present and was not allowed to pray with the men. I had to sit outside the room.

When I think about my experience in Belmonte, I am overwhelmed by the community’s acceptance of me. Obviously, there was a commonality of shared history. It was my Spanish heritage that erased any barriers that might have been between us. It was the unspoken gestures and mannerisms of the “small village” that Crypto-Jews recognize among themselves. My father used to point them out to me…all the old fashioned, secluded Latino ways. This was my childhood; this was my family. My responses were automatic and came from my inner self. I have to say that these behaviors are not characteristic of today’s Spanish communities; they represent the behavior and air of the old world… the world of my parents and the old secluded world of Belmonte. I know this culture. The visit was very special for me. I felt like one of them. And they treated me as such.

Nancy Cuevas Guzmán is a descendant of Spanish Jews and traces her roots back to the Spanish Inquisition and the Jewish community of Curaçao. She has been trying without success to find acceptance as a returnee in Israel’s orthodox community.