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Interfaith dialogue

An interfaith encounter with a Turkish Muslim clergyman

I guessed by his first name that Yilmaz is Turkish. Slightly-built with bright eyes, he wore an open-necked shirt and slacks. He listed his occupation as “retired.”

“I just moved here from Syracuse, New York,” Yilmaz told me. “I wanted to be closer to my daughter.”

I noted that he gave his local family contact as Hava Kaplan.

“What did you do in Rochester?” I asked him.

“I was a Muslim clergyman,” he said.

This was getting interesting. “Forgive me,” I offered, taking a chance, “but your daughter’s name doesn’t sound Muslim.”

“Oh, but it is,” he said. “’Hava is a common Turkish name. It mean’s Eve, the wife of Adam.”

Yes, I supposed it does. “What about Kaplan?”

“Also a common Turkish name,” he said.

“No kidding,” I said. “What does Kaplan mean in Turkish?

“’Tiger,’” he said. “Aslan means ‘lion.’”

“My goodness,” I said. “If Aslan married Kaplan, you’d have a regular zoo.”

Yilmaz laughed. He figured out my own background easily enough.  “We had a lot of interfaith dialogue in Syracuse over the years,” he said.  “Christians, Jews, and Muslims.” He told me the name of the rabbi he’d been closest with. They were still in touch.

“Tell me,” I asked. “What are the duties of a Muslim clergyman?”

“In the old country, just to run Friday services,” said Yilmaz. “But in America, it is different. Here we do pastoral care, marriage counseling, life-cycle events. We visit the hospital, the jail. Everything.”

Now it was my turn to smile. “When my father led his congregation,” I told him, “he also did all those things, including visiting the jail. He told me that the inmates always said they had no idea why they’d been arrested.”

I’m sure that if Yilmaz and I sat down for a cup of coffee, we would have a lot to talk about. Clergymen and their families understand each other. The people they minister to have common problems and need similar kinds of help. Theology does not come up often.

I’m not sure what interfaith dialogue is supposed to accomplish. If clergy meet in a neutral and tolerant political climate, I suppose they can get to know each other a bit. If one of them should be impolite enough to bring up a non-negotiable theological point or clashing historical narrative, the others might smile and redirect the discussion.

There is a popular idea that if different kinds of people just get to know each other as individuals, arguments between groups would vanish. This idea is so attractive that it never goes away even though it obviously isn’t true. It should be true, so it must be. People from clashing communities can make friends, only to have polarizing forces show up and force them to take sides. Serbs and Croats married each other once upon a time. So did Hutus and Tutsis. When the political climate changed, those marriages no longer did so well.

Yilmaz and I had a nice chat, but we struck no blows for world peace. Still, it is nice to learn that you share unexpected things in common with people you’d never have guessed that about.

Someday I might run into a Hava Kaplan. She may be wearing a shaytel, long sleeves, and a skirt.

“That’s funny, Hava,” I will tell her. “You don’t look Turkish.”

About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliya with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem.
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