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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
After a hiatus of over a decade, I have been drawn back to the hero of my PhD - Moses Montefiore. Invitations to lecture at Oxford University, Harrow Limmud and Ramsgate have made me wish I was retired and could devote myself to writing my long delayed biographies of Judith Montefiore and lehavdil, Rabbi Richard Feder. Longstanding members might remember that it was Kolin & its rabbi Feder that connected me to Montefiore and his travels. However a trip down to Ramsgate last month brought to mind a connection between Montefiore and Pesach and the Jewish people's curious relationship with the land of Egypt.
Of course last night's celebration and the next 7 days diet will make us remember the core moment in Jewish history, the exodus from Egypt. We lived there, presumably peacefully, for generations; ever since our boy Joseph rose to become Prime Minister and brought his whole mishpacha down to enjoy the bounty of his adopted homeland. Until a new king arose and overnight, it seemed, our condition deteriorated rapidly and we became oppressed slaves a people persecuted by a xenophobic king. How often the scenario to gets repeated in our history....and, yes, in the stories of so many minority peoples.
But Egypt, the land where we had known good times, now the bad; Egypt, from where we were delivered, so miraculously according to our ancient stories, and the moment remembered, not just in our festivals, but as a reason for Shabbat in the Ten Commandments, and in the prayer after the Shema in all of our services. Egypt that attracted a mitzvah, one of the 613 commandments in the Torah that forbade the King from sending the people back to Egypt even for commerce or to find wives (though King Solomon broke both rules, and it did him no good!)(Deut 17:16). Yet later in Deuteronomy it says: "You shall not hate an Egyptian for you were strangers in their land.(23:8) And another mitzvah....though it was made difficult for an Egyptian to convert to Judaism...with other nations like the Moabites it was made impossible. So always a hate/love relationship with Israel's neighbour, even within the Torah.
And in Greek and Roman times a huge Jewish diaspora in Egypt. Alexandria reported to have a million Jews. Elephantine Island having a replica of the Temple in Jerusalem with cohanim and sacrifices. Later times...Maimonides making it his home. In the first half of the 20th century a considerable Jewish presence, in commerce and the arts and administration. Of course, now all but extinguished...thrown out after 1948 and the Sinai war in 1956......and after the recent Arab Spring the last tiny vestiges destroyed. Last year the interim government not letting a few Egyptian born Jews from Israel enter for the High Holydays so there was no minyan in Alexandria or Cairo. The bad and the good times: three modern wars between Israel and Egypt, yet still there was a Peace Treaty, beneficial to both sides...and now? We await and see with a little trepidation.
Now, change the subject....Montefiore & Egypt. He visited at least 3 times and became very friendly with the Pasha and when the Pasha's son came as a tourist to London he stayed in the Montefiore home in Park Lane. On Moses' first visit in 1827, on his way to Jerusalem, he was forced to stay there over 3 months, waiting for a visa and a ship brave enough to take him to Jaffa. The day they left, Montefiore wrote in his diary "I more ardently desire to leave Egypt than ever our forefathers did. No one will ever recite the Passover service with more true devotion than I shall do, when it pleases Providence to restore me to my own country, and redeem me and my dear wife from this horrible land of misery and plague."
Yet 5 or 6 years later his memory of that misery and plague must have softened. As I stood, a month ago, in the synagogue he built, in 1833, on his estate in Ramsgate, I suddenly realised that the marble Ark surround and the Ark Doors were in the, then fashionable, Egyptian style. A style that swept Europe following the Napoleonic campaign in the Levant in 1799. Many secular buildings were erected in this mock Egyptian style....you can stay in the Landmark Trust Egyptian House in Penzance. By coincidence, just last week I read an article * pointing out the irony that newly emancipated Jewish communities in Europe and around the world, in the early 19th century chose to express their freedom and their Jewish identity by building synagogues in the Pharaonic style.
Evidently the first was in Karlsruhe in 1798. The one in Philadelphia of 1822 had Egyptian style columns with exotic papyrus-bud capitols and carvings of the winged sun disc of the god Ra over the front door. The earliest Great Synagogue in Sydney, built in this style, also had a Torah Ark with carved images of the Egyptian sun god. And this so obviously pagan symbol appeared in many of these synagogue designs. Two early Egyptianate synagogues in Tasmania were built by convicts; maybe they had their eventual liberation in mind. The Boston Egyptian synagogue had a rabbi’s chair that "looks like something Cecil B De Mille commissioned for Yul Bryner as Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments."
And back to Montefiore and his Egyptian Ark in Ramsgate, you can also go to nearby Canterbury and see the Egyptian synagogue with its foundation stone laid by Sir Moses Montefiore in June 1847. The building is modelled on the Temple of Dendur and round the back there is a small building housing, it is said, the only Egyptian-revival mikveh in the world. The synagogue building is intact and is now the Music School of Kings College, Canterbury. (By the way did you see that the newly installed Archbishop Welby of Canterbury has Jewish relatives, including a rabbi the family name changed from Weiler! Next we will find we have a Jewish Pope.)
The Jews are a strange and wonderful people. We celebrate oppression by building our synagogues after the style of our oppressors. We remember our history, yet when convenient forget it. We move on through history, in different lands in different times, and adapt the stories to our present condition. Maybe this is one explanation behind our longevity.
And I will end with the most famous Montefiore Egypt and Pesach story. One added to the Montefiore family Haggadah and repeated each year. The extract from Moses' diary recording the fact that on the journey home in 1828, between Egypt and Malta, the ship was all but overwhelmed by a terrible storm. In desperation, Moses threw overboard a piece of the Afikomen he had saved for just such an eventuality ...and the storm immediately abated and their lives were saved. Maybe I tell this too late this year, last night's Afikomen eaten or cleared away....but if a scrap remains, keep it safe: you never know when you might need it.
* Article by Diana Muir Appelbaum, www.jidaily.com/thejewishmoorishrevival
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