Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

Breaking bread and breaking down barriers: When Jewish and Muslim (and other!) moms meet

Tonight, I had the pleasure of hosting a dairy and pareve potluck dinner with 13 other women. Billed as a Jewish-Muslim event and part of a monthly series, it is actually open to other religions. All the women belong to a Facebook women’s group, one in which we actively embrace promoting equality and inclusivity. But I think we all also understand that as much as we are open-minded, we all have more to learn about one another. And in doing so, about ourselves. Thus, the impetus behind the series.

Time and again, I’ve seen dialog in these groups break down when it comes to racial and other issues. And that’s not because the aim has shifted from wanting everyone to be treated the same under the law and within society, but because it is not easy to overcome the human tendency to draw conclusions about other groups and to not see we each have more work to do. I think it is fair to say that on the whole, these women are wonderful: we recognize that we have a lot more to learn about each other and ourselves if we want to eradicate all vestiges of prior misconceptions.

And that’s why nights like these are oh so helpful. In today’s vitriolic atmosphere, I fear far too many not only don’t recognize the benefit in opening their hearts to learning about others, but have no desire to. And it’s a pity.

We enrich each other’s lives. We did tonight.

During the sweet dessert hour, a few of us began introducing ourselves, our stories, and I think it opened all our eyes as to how different and varied and influential our pasts have been.

Mine — lived in Israel from early 1990s until 2003 with my Israel ex-husband, who is of Mizrahi — Tunisian — descent before moving to Atlanta. As I noted in my first blog on hate and hurt, I was there when waves of Russians and then Ethiopians came to Israel, and so I saw how the government and society treated each group differently.

Two moms were originally from Bangladesh and they shared with us recollections, some very vivid and very heartbreaking, of their war for Independence which ended in 1971. Another grew up in different parts of Europe but her family too is from Bangladesh. Together they educated us about the strength of women historically in Islam, the knowledge of which has been lost over time. The article they referred to, in which Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi’s research was made prominent is an interesting read. One of Mohammed’s wives was a “A top Islamic scholar, an inspiration to champions of women’s rights, a military commander riding on camelback, and a fatwa-issuing jurist” and another — one who had actually proposed to him — was a “wealthy and successful trader, she was also a twice-widowed single mother, fifteen years Muhammad’s senior, and his boss.” His boss!

Today, we see the way women are treated in many Muslim countries and are appalled. But as the article points out — and as we know from countless examples from other cultures, including those closer to home, the problem with texts is not the texts but how people interpret them. To use religion to justify slavery or, more recently, pedophilia, for instance, is to make a mockery of the sources.

Other moms among us included Jewish transplants from other parts of the country, whose rich family histories informed their sensibilities. But it also included the rare but prized occurrence — a second generation Jewish Atlantan. And as I learned this past year from the Eighteen Artifacts Exhibit at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, even without the story of Leo Frank and the Temple Bombing, Jewish Atlanta’s history is far less smooth than one would’ve thought.

The point is not to compare our tsuris, but to drive home the point that everyone has a personal narrative. And not only is it never fair to assume you know who someone else is because of what you see as his or her category, but it is incumbent up on you to find out that person’s story in order to get to know the individual. In my blog “Us vs Them,” I make the point that ultimately, we all need to “get past the ‘different’ to find the ‘same,’ and then we will be ready to embrace what makes us different.”

Dinners like this one are a very good first step.

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture. Since returning to the U.S. in 2003; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta. An Ashkenazi mom to Mizrahi sons born in Israel and the US, MIL to a French Mizrahi DIL and an Israeli DIL whose parents are also an interesting mix, and a step mom to sons born in the South, she celebrates trying to see from multiple perspectives and hopes this comes out in her blogs. While working in Jewish and Zionist education and advocacy, Wendy's interests also have her digging deep into genealogy and bringing distant family together. All of this is to say, Wendy's life has brought her to the widened framework she uses for her blogs: there are many ways to see and understand.