I had few expectations before my visit in the winter of 1999 to Cairo’s Rav Moshe Synagogue, also called the “Rambam.” I only knew it to be an obscure synagogue and yeshiva associated with the renowned twelfth-century theologian, sage, and physician, Moses Maimonides.
I left Egypt as an infant with my parents in 1951. Now I was finally back, hoping to experience the place that had shaped my family. Accompanied by a Muslim Egyptian friend, I walked the streets my parents had walked, attended services in the elegant downtown synagogue where they’d been married, tasted the familiar foods of my childhood, listened with delight to the melodious sounds of Egyptian Arabic. But seeking the Rambam was little more than a whim, sparked by a few lines in a Guide to Jewish Travel in Egypt. “Not on any tourist itinerary,” the brief blurb stated about the derelict synagogue in ‘Haret al Yahud, the city’s medieval Jewish quarter, far from where my parents had lived. Still, I had to go.
After a bewildering search through labyrinthine streets, we found the Rambam at the end of a garbage-strewn alley guarded by two Egyptian soldiers. When my friend explained that I was an Egyptian Jew returning to my homeland, the men graciously invited me to approach the synagogue’s graffiti-covered, locked doors. Standing there, I suddenly began to cry hot tears that seemed to rise from a source more ancient than the city’s stones. The guards and my friend imagined I was mourning the losses Egypt’s Jews had suffered when they left the country in the 1950s and 1960s, and they respectfully let me weep . . . but I wasn’t in fact mourning. I couldn’t explain myself, couldn’t understand the force welling up from within, making me cry but not making me sad.
That night, alone in my room, I dreamt I was sleeping beneath a huge dome inlaid with myriads of Jewish stars, ebony and gold and mother of pearl. At the center shone a man’s face, an old Jewish man, his head wrapped in a turban, gazing benignly down.
I woke with a jolt, sure the dream had come from a source other than myself. Riffling through a stack of newsletters I’d been given by the President of Cairo’s Jewish Community, I found a brief article about the Rambam. It made clear that for centuries the place had been, not simply a synagogue and yeshiva, but a healing center, a kind of asclepeion where people with illnesses would spend the night in hopes of an “answering dream.” Everyone came—women, men, children; Muslims, Jews, Copts; rich and poor–but, mostly, women, seeking help conceiving or bearing children. That explains it, I told myself: I must have cried because I’d unconsciously sensed the place’s healing power. Satisfied, I slipped back into sleep, still covered with a dome of stars.
Although Sherwin B. Nuland, in his book Maimonides, claims that “the real Rambam [Maimonides himself] would have condemned the rituals carried out in his name,” there is plenty of evidence for healing at the synagogue; numerous Jewish Egyptian memoirists (including Lucette Lagnado and Jean Naggar) have recorded their experiences there as children, and even King Fouad is said to have found a cure for his ailments after a night at the Rambam.
For me, the most haunting evocation of the site is in the novel I’m currently translating from French, ethno-psychiatrist Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble (This Land That Is Like You). Set in ‘Haret al Yahud during the early 20th-century, the novel recounts the experiences of a young Jewish woman, Esther, who, in her intense longing to conceive after seven years of marriage, participates in the North African zar ritual—a women’s trance dance involving spirit possession. Later, after a near-miscarriage, she is tended by a ritual priestess who uses a viper’s fangs to protect her and the fetus. Yet, when her neighbors accuse her of “consorting with strange gods,” Esther rushes into the Rambam:
It was cool. The place breathed calm. Without asking permission, she descended into the crypt, placed both hands on the empty tomb from which the presence of the blessed philosopher still radiated more than seven hundred years after his death, closed her eyes, and promised in a whisper, “Rav Moshe, if God grants me a son . . . I will name him Maimon, for his life will be devoted to study and his soul to good.” Then she began to yawn, once, twice. Her eyes were closing. A strange torpor fell over her. She placed her hands on her belly and felt warmth rising in her breasts, in her throat. She sat on a stone, turned onto her right side, and fell asleep. An image jolted her like lightning. She slipped onto the hexagonal tiles of the synagogue’s courtyard. She was startled, but immediately plunged back into her dream. An immense silhouette rose before her. It was Rav Moshe himself: Maimonides, as she’d seen him in images that circulated through the neighborhood, simultaneously severe and kindly, wearing a light-colored kaftan, his head covered in a turban, his beard trimmed, his eyes black, piercing.
“Oh! You’re here!”
The figure of Maimonides reassures Esther, revealing that he too is a follower of the zar, that he has a snake’s forked tongue, and that he carries the ritual dance in his belly. It’s a wonderful vision, synthesizing Jewish, Muslim, and “pagan” lore, uniting masculine and feminine in one striking symbol. Maimonides offers Esther a lotus flower, and instructs her to rub her belly with oil infused with its essence. The child is born.
When I returned in 1999 from that first trip to Cairo, I was eager to share my experiences with my parents. “Did you know the Rambam?” I asked. “Of course,” my mother said. “Your Aunt Suzanne was brought there when she was a girl, when she had an illness no one could cure.” After her night at the Rambam, Suzanne was healed. “You went there too,” my father suddenly reminded my mother: “The year before we had Joyce, when you were hoping to get pregnant again.” My mother had suffered four miscarriages before the successful pregnancy that brought me into this world. “You went there with your mother and spent the night,” he recalled.
That’s when I finally understood: my tears at the Rambam were the tears of a soul that had found its way home.
In memoriam, Nelly Chalom Zonana, b. Cairo, Egypt, July 8, 1921; d. Brooklyn, NY, June 14, 2016. May her memory be a blessing.
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey (Feminist Press 2008). She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. She is the recipient of a 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award for her work on Ce pays qui te ressemble. Her translation of Henri Bosco’s Malicroix is forthcoming from New York Review Books.