PUBLISHED in TIFERET JOURNAL: Writing & Creative Spirit, Autumn 2016, paperback only
This article was in response to the prompt, "Do you think it is possible for people of different faiths to get along? And if so, how?
The short answer is yes, they can get along, and in one of two primary ways: to share their faiths or to disregard them for the interests they have in common.
I have become friends with a couple who are Black Muslims. The husband prefers not to discuss faith; the wife is much more willing to discuss her faith which is both spiritual and political. She thinks Louis Farakhan is the bomb, and believes that white supremacy may never die despite civil rights legislation, the influence of entertainers, and common sense. We gently entered into a conversation about Farakhan and anti-Semitism, (I brought it up) and quickly decided that we have differing points of views and chose not to convince each other about our own experiences.
One of the most ironic remarks she made in discussing the civil rights movement, in which she and her family were heavily engaged, is the admission that things didn't really get anywhere until the Jews got involved. The remark surprised her as much as it did me. We were walking to a restaurant for lunch and she stopped, a little taken about by what she had said, as if she had never, ever, connected those dots along the lines of history before.
On another occasion, she and her husband expressed concern that their son was dating a young Jewish woman and the discomfort, physically fidgeting, and verbally stammering, revealed a general unease about "Jews" although she vociferously denied this. Like all parents, they believe that daughters and sons-in-laws should have a lot in common with the family they're joining and it's not unreasonable to think that sharing a religion is important, we could agree. What they were struggling with, but unwilling to say, was that a Jewish daughter-in-law was more than they could handle. The fact she was also white seemed almost incidental.
We have discussed the virtues and challenges of kosher/halal resources and, of course, cooking. On this, there is more than interest, there is enthusiasm! Sharing recipes (he's the chef, not her) is like music, universal preoccupation that crosses cultural barriers throughout the world and we have enjoyed dining together in restaurants that reflect African cultures, particularly featuring the foods of Ethiopia and Ghana. I've asked her about the rituals of Ramadan (and the food, of course) and have learned to say the greetings for the beginning and ending of this month-long holiday. While we continue to share recipes and information for all things Muslim, they have never invited me to their home; we always dine out. This may be more of an LA thing that a cultural divide.
There remains an unspoken "agree to disagree" layer under all conversations, especially with the wife, whose education was segregated from kindergarten through college. It was a good education, taught by accomplished teachers, but insulated as is always the case with parochial teaching whether it's by religious leaders or leaders in black education. Both raised Christian, she and her husband became Black Muslims, embracing every aspect of it, during their university years. His family has been wholeheartedly accepting of his transition of faith, hers not so much, and that makes visits home less than ideal experiences. That does not stop her from caring for her elderly mother and stepfather, not protecting them from transgressions (perceived or real) by her many siblings. She is a warrior for them even if they still don't understand why she left the family faith.
She and I belong to a book club, and I asked her to join me in viewing the local library's newest exhibit produced by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, STATE OF DECEPTION, the Power of Nazi Propaganda. It's traveled around the country for almost a decade and incorporates a number of genuine artifacts like radios, gramophones, books, board games, knives, newspapers, and reproductions of many posters and other paper ephemera that show the tentative first steps, then the more emboled advances of isolating "the others" followed by pitting them against one another under the PR genius of Goebbels and Hitler's scheming. Interspersed are videos of Hitler campaigning, Hitler youth, camp survivors and more.
She moved at her own pace through the exhibit which is admittedly heavy on reading, and there is an astonishing amount to ingest. Very softly, and quietly, she said, "Thank you for showing me this. I did not know."
I have ceased to be distressed that people in my generation have not heard of or know little or nothing bout the Holocaust or even WWII. Instead, I have chosen not to waste energy bout the why of not knowing nd just introduce them, as appropriate, to resources like this carefully assembled exhibit. She was impressed enough to take classes about the exhibit and participate in programs offered in relation to it to further her understanding.
We went to another exhibit, this time on the wildly evolving centuring between 1863 and 1963 when American blacks moved, albeit slowly, from the shackles of slavery to the empowerment of civil rights legislation. Among the artifacts were actual shackles. I gasped. She cried. Touring the room she was distressed, angry, and disheartened that so little had changed, while what I saw seemed to fuel my optimism that changes were many and real. Obviously, much of what we saw in the photos and artifacts reflected her family's history and the life she had actually lived. I, white and Jewish, and philosophically liberal, had not marched nor campaigned. I had been primarily an observer, one to express myself in voting for propositions, and candidates who championed changes I believed and still believe in. I grew up in the north where schools were fully integrated, anyone could eat or shop anywhere if they had the money, yet whites and blacks lived in separate areas. (There were no Asians, Hispanics or other ethnic or racial categories in my home town then.)
Interestingly, both the husband and wife of this couple lived a staunchly middle class life. His father and mother were both accomplished teachers in Queens. Her mother was a canning, vegetable-raising, make-do homemaker and her dad was an illiterate who, nonetheless, was an engineering genius who built homes and business buildings in their wholly-segregated town in Missouri. My parents owned a retail shop in our small town in Pennsylvania. After many years of struggle and living with my dad's mother, my parents were finally able to buy their own home and furnish it top to bottom in one fell swoop. I went to public school, religious school, was confirmed/bat mitzvahed, and (of course!) went directly from high school to college.
As ordinary as this all sounds, I have come to believe that being a middle-aged white woman makes me both invisible and privileged in ways that men of all races and most women of color never experience. No one, certainly no policeman or any other person of authority, ever challenges me about anything, stops me for anything other than to ask directions, nor even comments on less-than-perfect me. I am not seen.
My friend's admiration or belief in the more fiery words of Farrakhan has not been altered by this friendship. She has come to understand there is so much more to learn about the history of Jews and their religion and that I, as a white Jewish woman, am actually interested in her faith, and the rituals of it, so she has, tentatively, begun to share more. To date, however, she has asked me no questions about Judaism, Jewish traditions or customs or my relationship to my faith.
Although she has expressed no interest in my faith, I enjoy the fact that I'm learning so much about the Black Muslim faith and do not ever wish to divorce her from it. I am fascinated and hopeful that these tentative steps, like her interest in the historical aspects of the Holocaust exhibit, have allowed a broadening of perspective, an allowance for "the other" that perhaps she had been too afraid or too unaware to consider before.
I cling to the hope that her feelings of us/them are softening and that someday it will be only us: human beings with more similarities than differences, sharing a friendship like so many people throughout the world over music, good food, challenging conversations and "getting along."