I grew up in a town that was about 50% Jewish.
My best friend… was Muslim.
Granted, we were definitely not the most observant Jews and they were definitely not the most observant Muslims, but we were who we were. I knew some of their relatives in Iran didn’t approve of our friendship, but that always seemed to me like an Iranian problem and not an American one. It never even occurred to me that there was a Muslim/Jewish “conflict” in the minds of Americans until I was embarrassingly old.
I have extremely fond memories of my friend. She was my closest pal from when I was 2, and we remained friends into our college years. I can still breathe in and remember what her house smelled like when her mother was cooking. I can still feel the pinch of her father’s fingers on my cheeks. I can still remember the layout of their house, and knocking on her back door when we would pick her up to go somewhere. I can still recognize an Iranian accent as soon as I hear it. I grew up eating in their home, and I still find myself salivating at the sight of Tahdig whenever I am lucky enough to find myself in the same room as that unbelievably delicious and crunchy rice dish. The sights, sounds and aromas of their home were comforting to me when I was a little girl. It was a second home. No Muslim/Jewish conflict there, and for that reason, there is no conflict in me.
This weekend is the Muslim/Jewish Twinning. Many synagogues and mosques, Rabbis, Cantors and Imams are going to gather together, around the world, in friendship and unity. Some will chat together. Some will do volunteer work together. Some will pray together. Some will make music together. My Temple is always involved with this Twinning weekend, and I must say, I have had a few amazing experiences because of it. What’s strange is that in spite of those experiences, the Muslim/Jewish Twinning weekend usually leaves me feeling a little empty at the end. Yes, we will gather together and sing and pray and talk, and that is terrific. But if we don’t see each other until the next annual Twinning weekend, I’m not sure what we have accomplished. I always feel that we, in a way, are preaching to the choir. Everyone present wants to be there. Everyone there already has peace in mind. It’s the folks who choose NOT to attend that we need to talk to, and it is possible that this kind of forum will never be inviting to them.
Maybe, rather than only getting together on the premise of “dealing” with the “issues” and finding that mostly like-minded Jews and Muslims congregate, we also need to simply sit together, eat some Tahdig and rugelah, go to the movies, talk about our kids, which dentist we go to, which farmer’s market has the best stuff, watch our children play together, and begin the long journey toward intertwining our lives. We don’t have to talk about politics or religion. We could just become friends. Once there is friendship, how could we ever ignore one another again, much less support hurting one another? If our children grow up together, maybe the possibility of conflict will seem as alien to them as it was to me.
Take a look around your offices, your schools, your neighborhoods. Maybe there is someone out there (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, whatever!) that you could invite over for coffee and a chat, and do your small part to heal cultural conflicts simply by making a new friend who looks, sounds, cooks, and prays a little differently than you do. I’m going to try. Will you?
By the way, my friend’s parents and my parents are still close. It’s been 40 years.