By Aaron Kiviat
Copied from our Chat Group email@example.com
I was looking through some of my correspondence with my family from the time I was in Egypt and thought that everyone might get a kick out of a letter I sent to my father. I call it "I Buried My Tallis At Bassatine." November 25, 1999
Ive got an incredibly surreal and bizarre story to tell you. I've just returned from a funeral at the Bassatine Cemetery, the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the world.
This morning I got a call from Carmen Weinstein, the president of the JCC here in Cairo.
She told me that an old Jewish man by the name of Jacques Mosseri had just passed away and she wanted me to come and pray while he was buried. I figured she needed another person for a minyun. I grabbed my siddur and kippa and tallis and went to meet her downtown. Her driver took us out to the cemetery which is located on the outskirts of Cairo in the city of the dead. The City of the dead is a huge graveyard which over the past fifty years has become the residence of over 2 million Cairenes. They just remove grave stones and move right into the tombs or build on top of them. Bassatine, however, is one of the only sections of the old cemetery which has been kept from squatters. This is due to the efforts of the JCC who built a wall surrounding over 50 acres of it in the 1980s. However the wall only encompasses less than half of the original cemetery.
Anyhow, after driving through the City of the Dead for over twenty minutes we arrived at Bassatine. Outside of the cemetery's high walls there is a ghetto of squatters and makeshift houses and piles of trash everywhere. The only clue that gives away the religion of the tens of thousands of people buried behind the wall is the two stars of David adorning the gate. When we got to the gate there were several Egyptians waiting, expecting us. We drove our car through the gate and parked in the middle of the cemetery. Once inside you get a feeling for the magnitude of the cemetery. Thousands and thousands of tombstones, in rows, as far as you can see, you can just make out the far wall in the distance. There are no trees, everything is the color of the desert. Its like someone just dropped thousands of tombstones in rows in the middle of a barren desert.
All the grave stones are like stone boxes above ground. They all used to be covered in elaborate marble with the names and dates carved onto the exterior. However, after Egypt's defeat in 67' a crowd of vengeful locals decided to get back at Israel by stealing all of the marbles off the graves. This has proved to be a disastrous loss since there is no known cemetery plan to tell us who was buried where. There are still perhaps several hundred or so graves that have their outer casing in tact and they are extremely beautiful and well made.
Anyhow, when we arrived, a car and three men could be seen far off in the corner of the cemetery to the South. Carmen and I walked over to the car and the men. There were two barefoot men with shovels and Carmen's lawyer Mr. Youssri present. The men had obviously just finished digging the pit that was in front of them. The car was a station wagon so I figured it was the hurse.
I was informed that the dead man was married and that we were waiting for his wife to show up. After an hour of waiting, while I wandered around the cemetery, I was informed that they were going to go ahead and bury the body without the wife present. Of course this was pretty disturbing, but I figured it wasn't my place to say anything. They pulled a coffin out of the car and laid it beside the grave. Then Carmen told me to pray. It turned out that I was in fact THE MINYUN.
Well, Dad, the last and only Jewish funeral I went to was with you. I must have been thirteen. It was Alfred's father's. So, needless to say I didn't have a clue as to how to proceed.
But, I wrapped myself in my tallis, put on my kippa and recited kaddish harabanan.
It was at this time when I noticed that in all the buildings surrounding the cemetery, on all the porches, were hundreds of Egyptian women and children watching in silence as I prayed over this dead Jewish man. They then pulled the body out of the coffin. He was wrapped in the white cloth and you could see his face pretty well because it was kind of see through. They laid him down in the bottom of the grave. They then began to place several large pieces of limestone a couple of inches above the body.
It was at this point that Carmen pointed out that he should be buried with a tallis, but that she had not brought one. I volunteered mine since there where no others. It was the one you gave me for my Bar-Mitzvah. They laid it over his head and finished with the slabs of limestone. I bet you never thought that tallis would have come to such a fate when you gave it to me. I couldn't think of a more important way for it to be used. They then covered the pit with dirt. Carmen and the gravediggers argued for ten or fifteen minutes over the price of a tombstone and how it should look and then we left.
I must say dad, it was a lonely way to die. But still, he was buried in the cemetery where his family had been buried for centuries. So I'm out of a tallis, but I really feel a connection now with Bassatine. If you ever make it here I'll have to take you to Mr. Mosseri's grave and show it to you.
Another strange day in this crazy country. Very little shocks me anymore. I must go now. Write me soon.