"Egypt is changing, with people becoming less tolerant of one another especially under the current regime," Ramses said. Many Egyptian viewers of his film, he said, identified with the loss of acceptance for Egypt's Jews as they reminisced about the country's multicultural past.
As for Egypt's current Jews, the future does not look promising. The elderly women who have stayed behind are mostly married to Muslim or Christian men and are spread across the city, under the radar of most Egyptians who are surprised to hear Jews still live here. Some of their children identify as Jewish, but many have taken their fathers' faith. Blending in may have allowed the remnants of the communities to remain so long.
Over the last two and a half years, I have frequently attended celebrations and services with the Cairene Jews. Most have taken place at Shaar Hashamayim, a colossal, gray building with Stars of David carved into its concrete on a busy road in the heart of Cairo. (One Egypt guidebook describes it as resembling a set from the movie Tomb Raider.) Apartment blocks tower above its concealed courtyard. On holidays, a legion of Egyptian policemen sits watch outside, their numbers much higher than the synagogue's usual gaggle of guards.
"The neighbors know this is Jewish and that the Jews come here for celebrations, but there are no problems at all," an Egyptian policeman who regularly oversees the synagogue's security told me as we stood in the courtyard after the Hannukah celebration. During last year's uprising, police withdrew from the streets and looters tried to gain entry to the synagogue, but local, non-Jewish building doormen fended them off. They only got away with a few bottles of wine, Weinstein said.
While security concerns tied to last year's uprising have rarely been a major issue for the Jews, the storming of the Israeli embassy in September 2011 made some in the group jittery, and Weinstein moved Rosh Hashanah services three weeks later to a smaller, 1930s-era synagogue in a leafy, upscale neighborhood far from the city center.
Only two synagogues in Cairo and one in Alexandria are regularly used for holidays, though a couple more have been restored and are also open to the public. Renovating synagogues with taxpayer money can be controversial here; a major government-sponsored restoration of one Cairo synagogue a few years back brought international praise but then quick domestic condemnation. Several other synagogues and cemeteries have fallen into disrepair, although Cairo's main Jewish cemetery has been cleaned up.
The Jewish community of Cairo relies on the steady support of overseas Jewish donors, as well as diplomats, students, and tourists in Egypt who bolster its numbers and, sometimes but not always, help them reach a minyan, the traditionally 10-man quorum needed for community prayer in Judaism. There haven't been permanent rabbis in the synagogues for decades but in recent years, a French cantor has sometimes flown in to help out, and foreign Jewish students or diplomats often step in to lead services.
From Rosh Hashanah to Purim, the ladies sit in the pews of Shaar Hashamayim's grand sanctuary, with its tall marble columns and gold stars and palm trees painted on its interior. Plaques with tributes to members long gone dot the walls of the building, which was completed in 1905.
Throughout the services I've attended, most of the local women have sat quietly in their seats, hardly mixed with their foreign visitors, and sometimes nodded off. The community is not particularly devout, and the Hebrew prayers fall largely on deaf ears. In a scene common in synagogues across the world, most of the women seem to look forward more to schmoozing with each other and indulging in the meal afterward -- as do some of the out-of-town guests.
Moments of religious fervor do emerge from time to time, though. Last fall, during a service marking Simchat Torah, a holiday in which the Torah scrolls are paraded around the synagogue for all to see, the ladies leapt to their feet to kiss the scrolls' outer coverings. In one case, a woman planted a big, bright-pink lipstick print on the parchment itself.