The idea of living in Cairo as Jews was problematic from the beginning. Rabbi Sohn and her family were advised by many to not advertise their Jewish faith and not be open about it.
Upon arriving to Cairo, she and her family were overwhelmed with warmth of the Egyptian people. Her main personal project was to learn Arabic language. During her stay, she developed close relationship with two Egyptian women – Zaynab and Mahabba. Much of Rabbi Sohn’s talk focused on personal stories with the two women, each of which was remarkable in her own ways. Especially personal was Rabbi Sohn’s story of matzah bread and how Mahabba connected to it through Egyptian customs.
In her encounters with Zaynab, Rabbi Sohn focused on spiritual challenges of being a woman, issues of modesty, especially with regard to the hijab (head covering for Muslim women). Even though, as a Western woman, she could not fully agree with Zaynab’s position, Rabbi Sohn developed a new appreciation and understanding of the hijab issue.
Political conversations were always bound to be difficult, particularly with regard to the US foreign policy and the case of Israel. While frequently on the opposing side of the argument, Rabbi Sohn and her Egyptian interlocutors engaged in lively conversations about the US foreign policy in the Middle East, the status of Muslims in the US, and issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
After the talk, the participants engaged with Rabbi Sohn in numerous issues, including: history of Jewish people in Egypt, the Jewish cemetery in Cairo, the question of Western visitors to Muslim countries with special reference to Winston Churchill’s The River War, the Palestinian suffering and the Arab complicity, and many others. It was clear by the end of the session, that there are so many questions that would need to be answered on another occasion – such was the interest in Rabbi Sohn’s talk.
Ruth H. Sohn is a rabbi, teacher, and writer based in Los Angeles, and the author of Crossing Cairo: A Jewish Woman’s Encounter with Egypt. She directs the rabbinic mentoring program and teaches rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.
Photos on Flickr
Link to Rabbi Ruth H Sohn's book