An agnostic Arab girl walks into a Synagogue by Mariam, Egypt

Mariam, EgyptAn agnostic Arab girl walks into an Orthodox synagogue in Budapest, Hungary.

This is not the first sentence of a joke! It’s what actually happened at 7:50 am on October 12th.

Okay, I do owe you some kind of explanation, so here we go…

I have been interested in Jewish culture for almost 2 years now– since February 2014. It all started when I stumbled upon a song by Rinat Bar called Ahov Sheli (“my love”) which I found on a language learning group. Before that, all I’d ever known about Judaism and Israelis was that they were my sole enemies, and that they had a pretty rough history. That’s it – no more, no less.

After listening to that song, everything changed – from slowly realizing how beautiful the Hebrew language sounded, to becoming rather knowledgeable about Jewish history, rituals and customs. The main impact of the song for me was that it humanized this group of people. As a result of decades of fighting, alienation and incitement, I had no idea who those people were.

So fast-forward to 2015: I went to Budapest and one of the highlights on “my to-explore list” was to visit the Jewish quarter of Budapest. I went on a Jewish walking tour. Whenever I heard people speaking Hebrew, I’d tell them in broken Hebrew how much I love “musica mizrachit,” especially Omer Adam!

I even attended the Morning Prayer in the Vasvary Pal street synagogue. It was pretty early in the morning and, once I found the entrance, the security guard asked to check my bag and my identification. I thought: “Okay, this is the part where he checks your Egyptian passport and tells you to get out of here!”… But instead, he invited me to walk in.

I went upstairs in the women’s section. I was the only woman in the synagogue. I observed the prayers and their rituals, understanding practically nothing that was being said, but feeling that I was at the right place nonetheless.

After the prayers were over, I walked out of the women’s section and found all the men sitting together and eating breakfast. I left the synagogue immediately without speaking to anyone.

Something was not right…more interaction was needed…I would never have such an opportunity once I left Budapest. I remembered how disappointing and depressing it was to enter the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, it was so empty and lifeless.

I wanted to go back. I had to go back. But…there were so many barriers: I am rather shy; I would be the only woman in a conservative community; I am agnostic; I am Arab…

“Forget it! What’s the worst that could happen?! Just go in, now!”

So I went back. I asked one of the men if I could drink a cup of coffee. He smiled and said yes. I sat down sipping my coffee. I was excited and nervous, but I started talking to the men in the room. I began by telling them that this was my first time attending a service in a synagogue, and then I told them the big news: I AM EGYPTIAN!

Some were surprised, some were skeptical, some were excited. But all were confused:

  • “Are you Jewish?”
  • “Do you have any Jewish family members?”
  • “Why are you here?”
  • “How did you find us?”

The truth is that the alienation and the fighting drove me toward this community. I needed to prove to myself that we are all normal people – not enemies, not spies, just normal people.

After solving the initial riddles, we continued to talk.  I listened to them as attentively as I could.

Levy, a cute boy who was not more than 12 years old, had the strongest impact on me.  He told me about a philosopher he likes, shared his opinion on the Middle East and was extremely cultured and confident. I admired how the older men listened to him attentively and I admired that he wasn’t considered “just a child who should keep quiet.”

What impressed me the most, though, was the fact that, despite all the differences and barriers, we managed to communicate and to bond.

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