I saw him from across the road, his eyes darting towards the entrance of the museum. I could tell he was thinking about coming in for a visit even before he stubbed out the cigarette he was smoking and crossed the street.
From his unhurried gait he didn’t appear like a tourist, but neither did he look local. And when he greeted me it was in accented English. Australian, as it turned out. Posted here for a year, working for an international organisation. But I could tell his origins weren’t from there; as he confirmed, while I answered his questions about the history of the Jewish communities of Aden and Yemen, and he told me his family was from around that region.
‘From Yemen?’ I asked.
‘Nearby. My father is from Sudan and my mother from Egypt.’
He himself was born in Australia, where he grew up. One foot in the west, the other in the east, retaining something of the heritage and Islamic faith of his family, and speaking both English and Arabic. But he also surprised me with a few sentences in Hebrew which he’d learnt at university in Melbourne.
So, I took him around, telling him about the exhibits. And I pointed out a couple of pictures that I thought would be of particular interest.
‘That was the synagogue in Port Said, Egypt. There was once a large community there, many of whom came originally from Aden.’
‘What happened to them, did they eventually integrate into the rest of the population?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I whispered. ‘They were all forced to leave in 1956 – along with most of the Jews living in Egypt.’
The shock was evident on his face. And so he came to learn something of the history of the vanished communities all around the Middle East.
As we continued, he asked if he, as a Muslim, was allowed to visit a shul? In all his time in Israel, he hasn’t yet done so. I told him, of course, he could and took him up to visit ours. He donned a kipa, and he gazed around in wonder, admiring everything. I explained to him various features. For example, the person who leads the services faces the same direction as the community.
‘Just like in a mosque,’ he replied.
The reason why you won’t find any depictions of our prophets or pictures of Rabbis there.
‘Just like in a mosque,’ he said.
We talked about how the problem isn’t all the different religions, but those who come and turn it to their advantage – and as something to use against others. There was no dispute, just agreement.
I pointed out the Aron Kodesh and explained to him, ‘Every synagogue around the entire world faces in the direction of Jerusalem. Just like every mosque faces Mecca.’
‘I never knew that,’ he replied.
He gazed up at the stained glass windows and to my surprise, he then said a Hebrew phrase about God. Contemplating, we stood in silence for a few moments. Two people from different worlds, backgrounds, religions but who pray to the same God. We stood there, facing Jerusalem.