Fri., December 10, 2004 Kislev 27, 5765
For I will pass through (1) Revelations
By Benny Ziffer
The Church of the Holy Virgin in the Zeitoun neighborhood
CAIRO - I experienced a small miracle here in Cairo when, after exhausting searches in the poor northern neighborhood of Zeitoun, we found the church where on April 2, 1968, the Blessed Virgin Mary was revealed on the roof to a worker at a nearby garage, who ran to tell what he had seen and for two entire weeks afterward thousands gathered every day to watch her hover over the church robed in a glowing gown, surrounded by shining doves. The apparition was photographed in black and white and published in newspapers. The clippings describing this are affixed to a large bulletin board in the Zeitoun churchyard, to give it validity, because it is well known that what is written in the newspaper is a little like the religious model of the 20th century.
On the eve of the day when my small
miracle happened, more precisely - on Wednesday, December 1 - we met a woman
who had witnessed that apparition. During a late afternoon meal in the garden
of her home, which is adjacent to the synagogue of the Ma'adi
neighborhood, Carmen Weinstein, the president of the Jewish community of Cairo,
related that when the rumor circulated about the Blessed Virgin Mary who had
been revealed in Zeitoun, she joined the masses of
people who waited every night to see the glowing figure. And finally she saw
it, although in a black dress, and according to her the hovering figure
extended her arm and pointed to the home of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and all the populace understood from the
pointing finger that their president's days were numbered. And the portent
And again the figure in black extended her arm, and the roof of the ancient synagogue of
It was not from guidebooks for tourists that I learned of this pretty white church, a kind of poor man's
By this logic, then, it is possible to say that as a witness, though a completely passive one, to the Six-Day War (I was in ninth grade, and my entire contribution to the war effort was the filling of sandbags to defend the trenches that were dug in the pine grove that borders on the playground of the Alliance High School in Ramat Aviv), I have a small part in the apparition of the Blessed Virgin at Zeitoun. But last Thursday when I entered the gates of the church where the miracle occurred, and I saw the prayer alcoves where men and women worship before paintings of the luminous Virgin, their eyes often weeping and their lips murmuring prayers, I was jarred by the thought that during the years that have elapsed since 1968, I have continued to be a passive witness to a crude and cynical act of occupation, and therefore I have no right to a share or a portion in this splendor.
When I went to the souvenir shop in the churchyard and saw the plastic statuettes of the Virgin and the glass globes containing the scene of the flight into Egypt by Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, as described in the Gospels - and when you shake these globes, they fill up with silvery snowflakes - and the pictures of the miraculous revelation at Zeitoun made of glittery paper, my heart contracted at the thought that cynicism and crudeness of heart are not only our sin, but also the punishment we bear, never to find again the way to simplicity and innocence.
Outgrowths of outgrowths
I asked whether I was permitted to photograph inside the church, and when I was given permission, again and again I pressed the shutter of the camera and immortalized in the artificial light that flashed from it this woman who was pressed up against a column and was genuflecting time after time to the Virgin of the miracle, as she held a lit candle in her hand. A young man in a leather jacket, facing another alcove, who had come to visit the Virgin on his way to work, hid his face from me because his eyes were weeping. And a crippled old woman was brought by her son to the embroidered curtain at the front of the church and kissed the silky cloth, and she and her son raised their arms for a blessing.
The silence was tremendous there. The honking of the horns and the rumble of the heavy traffic on
About a 10-minute drive north of Zeitoun (how would I have found the way were it not for Hisham, the driver of the
The guide at the park is called Marcelle, and she rose from a red plastic chair where she had been sitting with her fellow guides waiting for the arrival of pilgrims, who would arrive later in the day. Marcelle told us that when baby Jesus dug in the sand around the tree, a fount of fresh water erupted from the ground, and with this water Mary laundered his diapers. When baby Jesus played with the tools of his father, Joseph the carpenter, the tools broke, Jesus stuck the pieces in the ground, and perfumed bushes grew from them. The name of the perfume is "balsam" inEnglish. Balsam is afarsimon in our Scriptures, which modern Hebrew has stolen to apply to the persimmon - one of those fruits in the supermarket that always look like they don't grow on trees, but rather are produced in laboratories. My eldest son, who is fluent in German, told me that in German the persimmon is called Kaki or Sharonfrucht. And the sycamore tree itself, which is bent to the ground from old age, is the selfsame tree that was written about by the French author Gustave Flaubert during his visit to Egypt in the middle of the 19th century, and it is a distant outgrowth of the tree that stood there in 1280 when the Christian traveler Burchard of Mount Zion bathed, according to his testimony, in the spring at its foot. Jacobus de Voragine, in his "Golden Legend," goes on to relate that the origin of the balsam in this garden is in Ein Gedi, and the exiles to
And today we, of the community of exiles who have been replanted in their land, are gazing at the outgrowth that emerged from the outgrowth of the original outgrowth, and it too is already quite ancient. I went to Zeitoun and to Matariyya, and I did not know that at that very time, seemingly important things were happening between
Cairo is such a wonderful city that in one of its neighborhoods, the Virgin might well walk on a roof in a gown of light watched by thousands of amazed eyes, while in another neighborhood the roof of a synagogue will fall, and a president will die in a bed, and a fount of fresh water will erupt before the eyes of a baby playing in the sand, and one problematic journalist will scribble in a notebook things about a certain very old sycamore tree and will not notice that real life, current life, is passing over his head in the whistle of a jet plane. But during the evening, at a garden party with the woman who is the president of the small Jewish community of Cairo, this journalist realizes that the truth never resides in the hoo-ha and the ta-ra-rum of the strong, but rather in the silent wind that blows through the branches and caresses the leaves that have sprouted on the dry offshoots.