Mah Nishtanah? Reflecting on Jummah-Shabbat at NYU

Photo by Bridges Muslim Jewish Dialogue at NYU.
Photo by Bridges Muslim Jewish Dialogue at NYU.

“? מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות”

“Mah nishtanah halilah hazeh mehkol halilot?”

“What distinguishes tonight from all other nights?”

Jews around the world sing “Mah Nishtanah” every year as an integral part of our Passover Sedarim. In this song, traditionally sung by the youngest person present, we ask ourselves why tonight is different from all other nights. On Passover, the answer is not too exciting: matzah and bitter herbs grace our tables, and we do a bit of reclining while drinking our four obligatory cups of kedem. This friday night was thankfully matzah-less for me, but I found myself humming the familiar tune nonetheless.

This Friday marked the annual Jummah-Shabbat, a special event run by Bridges Muslim Jewish Dialogue at NYU which brings the Muslim and Jewish communities at New York University together to experience one another’s friday traditions. Earlier in the day I attended my first Jummah service, where an effervescent fellow sophomore taught me how to tie a hijab and Imam Khalid Latif delivered an inspiring message of unity and moving forward. One line of his speech particularly struck me and sent chills down my spine: If this be the last time our hearts come together in this world, may we be united and uplifted together in the world to come. The tragedy to me was in concluding that this would be the only time us 200-some souls would convene together… and that this conclusion might be not so crazy of a thought. As a friend and I were sitting to the side during the prayers, a baby girl with the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen crawled over to me. She stretched out her hand and put it on my friend’s knee, never breaking eye contact. I couldn’t help but think that in another country or generation, where there are greater barriers between the Muslim and Jewish communities, our eyes may never have had the chance to meet. How easy is it for us to take for granted that we live in a city and country where coming together takes no more effort than clicking “yes” to a Facebook event?

Despite the moving experience I had at Jummah, as the sun descended over NYC and my roommates and I were finalizing our plans for Shabbat evening, I remained unsure of whether or not I wanted to attend the highlight of Jummah Shabbat, the joint friday night dinner. Going to Jummah services was one thing: there, I could be an observer, participating only vicariously in the religious expression of my friends. But Shabbat dinner was my religious territory; was I comfortable sharing what to me is one of my most sacred religious experiences with those who I felt could never fully appreciate it?

Very quickly upon arriving to the dinner, my absurd presumptions vanished. I saw across the room a friendly face from my multifaith leadership class, and we somehow managed to snag a table in the crowded room that no one had yet claimed as their own. My friend is Muslim, and I am Jewish, sure, but I don’t see him as “my Muslim friend”; we both are interested in the business world, get grossed out by meat on the bone, worry about pleasing our parents, and find it difficult to stay motivated while studying for finals. In the midst of an event designed to foster Muslim-Jewish dialogue, our conversation did inevitably venture into the realm of religion, but somewhere between trying to explain the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and trying to understand the Muslim take on intermarriage, I realized that the conversations we were having were just a different shade of those that are wrangled with at virtually every interesting Shabbat table and in every introspective faith community around the world: How do we keep people interested in religion? Why do we follow the religious observances that we do? How do we know what’s divine and what’s mundane, what’s sacred and what is secular?

When the evening drew to a close and we reluctantly parted ways, I couldn’t help but think that there may be something deeper going on.

Every year at the Seder, when we read in the Haggadah to recline while drinking the four cups of wine and eating our matzah, it always feels forced to me. We’re told that we recline (to the left, if you please) because reclining symbolizes the luxury of freedom. In ancient times, the only people who could recline while eating or drinking were people who were free. Are we truly free though? How long after Shabbat or Yom Tov ends can we go without logging into Facebook or Twitter or Gmail? How often do we worry about wearing a kippah in public or being judged for a particular religious practice? Do we unquestioningly welcome all those who can join us to our proverbial Pesach Sedarim, or do we celebrate in isolation, rushing to close the door after “waiting for Elijah” in case someone undesirable stumbles inside?

If there were ever a time where reclining didn’t feel forced to me, it was Jummah Shabbat, where I truly experienced the freedom to simultaneously share with those whose religious beliefs and family background are vastly different from my own without ever feeling as if I was tainting or cheapening my own religious experience. If anything, sharing my beliefs and practices with my friends and explaining things I’d taken for granted (the idea of Havdalah, of distinguishing between sacred and secular times in a ritualized manner, was particularly fascinating to my Muslim friends) gave my own rituals heightened significance.

As I walked home in the cool and clear May night, I was filled with the warmth not of four cups of wine, but of a heightened sense of community and commitment to my own beliefs. Though I may never see eye-to-eye on everything sacred or secular with “the other,” on this night, I was able to catch a glimpse of a world where that doesn’t matter. While breaking bread together, we were able to recline our way into the future, together.

About the Author
Laura is finishing a degree in Economics and a minor in Hebrew Judaic Studies at New York University. She was a co-founding editor of Jewish Insider, and is the former national Deputy Communications Director of College Democrats of America.
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