Sharing Similarities and Celebrating Differences

Until just a few weeks ago, I had visited a mosque only once in my life. Now, I’ve doubled that number.

Let me tell you about my first time, which was at Amal Aly’s wedding. I met Amal about 30 years ago, when she became an associate at the law firm in which I was a partner. If this were a rom-com and we ended up having a romantic relationship (spoiler alert: that was never a part of our friendship), you could say we met cute.

Amal and I shared a secretary. On the day that we really met – Amal had been at the firm only a few weeks and our previous meetings had been quite brief – I wasn’t eating because it was a minor Jewish fast day. I guess my hunger made me testier than usual, and my secretary murmured, after an irritable (on my part) exchange, “Oh, just my luck to work for two fasting attorneys.” I was momentarily perplexed, though I quickly realized it was Ramadan and (duh) Amal, a Muslim, was the other person fasting.

I immediately went to her office, said I just realized we were both fasting (abashedly explaining how I found out), and asked if she’d like to break her fast with me later that day. Although her fast ended a bit earlier than mine, she graciously agreed to wait. And so, over a meal of Kosher Delight Southern fried chicken and fries, an Orthodox Jew and his Muslim colleague broke bread, and their fasts, together.

We became good friends as well as colleagues, and as we swapped personal stories it became clear that from a cultural/sociological standpoint we had much in common. In college, Amal had Modern Orthodox (MO) roommates, so she felt comfortable when we would use Jewish terms to describe her Muslim family and community. For example, she agreed that she was MO while her father – with whom, she told me, she had discussed her Orthodox colleague – was black hat. As such, when she returned home to Brooklyn after finishing law school, he was opposed to her later decision to move into her own Manhattan apartment. “What would my friends think if they knew my unmarried daughter moved out of her family home to live alone? What fine Muslim boy from a good family will marry her?”

That question was answered positively when, fast forwarding a few years, Amal became engaged to Leslie, a wonderful Muslim man from a very good family. And he was a doctor, no less. (Yes, her parents thought what many Jewish parents would think in that situation.) One thing, though; as a wine connoisseur Leslie didn’t follow the Muslim haram (prohibition) against drinking alcohol. (Amal referred to him, in Jewish terms, as Conservative.) So compromises were made: he agreed to keep their home liquor-free and enjoy wine only when they ate out, and to have his monthly wine magazine delivered to his medical office because, in Amal’s words, “How could we raise good Muslim children in a house with wine magazines strewn around the living room.” Sound familiar?

As engagement begat wedding, Sharon and I were invited to the ceremony, held Saturday afternoon at the Islamic Cultural Center on New York’s East Side. We eagerly accepted, spent Shabbat at my sister- and brother-in-law’s Upper West Side apartment, and after shul and lunch walked across Central Park to the mosque. As we approached, a man in a tuxedo exclaimed “Joseph!” and threw his arms around me in warm welcome. I responded with a joyous “mazal tov” as we hugged. Sharon, surprised, asked who the man was. When I said “Amal’s father,” she wondered how he recognized me since she knew we had never met. Tapping my kippah I smilingly answered “It really wasn’t too tough.”

And then came the ceremony, held in the main prayer room. The guests were mainly in suits (men) and semi-dressy attire (women), though some wore traditional Muslim garb. Amal was resplendent in her modest white wedding gown, perfectly appropriate for any Teaneck Jewish wedding. Men and women were seated separately, though before and after the ceremony they interacted comfortably with each other. And when the imam addressed the bride and groom in English, I remember thinking that with the change of only a very few words, those same remarks could have been spoken by most rabbis at a MO wedding.

(Law of (positive) unintended consequences: Researching and writing this column rekindled my friendship with Amal, which had declined as career changes and life intervened.)

Twenty-five years, later I visited a mosque for a second time.

For the last two years I’ve been a member of the Teaneck Advisory Board for Community Relations (TABCR). Recently, we decided to visit houses of worship of the many religious communities in Teaneck, introduce ourselves to those communities, and hopefully get to know each other better.

So earlier this month we made our first such visit, to the Nida-ul-Islam mosque.

We were warmly welcomed by Hafiz Omar Chaudhry, Mohammed Saleem, and Ayub Pathan, leaders of the mosque community, and given a tour of the building accompanied by explanations of how it’s used and many of the laws and customs of the Muslim community. We all learned a great deal, though it was just a start.

(courtesy)

But what particularly struck me and one of my fellow members of the TABCR, Ray Goldberg, a member of Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck’s Conservative synagogue, was how many of the customs of Muslim prayer and treatment of their house of worship were similar to ours. The not quite exact though familiar welcome of as-salaam-alaikum (think shalom aleichem), washing before prayer, the concept that such washing might need be repeated if there were a break between it and prayer (think of the “no talking” rule between washing your hands and making the blessing over challah), no eating in the prayer room (sanctuary), praying facing a particular direction (Mecca for Muslims, Jerusalem for Jews), and electronic boards (and apps) listing the times of the prayer services as they changed daily — those were just some of the similarities we noticed.

There were, of course, differences too, which we saw ourselves when, at our hosts’ kind invitation, we attended the evening prayer service, standing silently in the back. One such difference that jumped out was that prayerbooks are not used in mosques. ArtScroll and Koren would not do well in that community.

But other parts of the service, whether the use of a Semitic language for the liturgy, the call and response of certain prayers, a prayer leader in the front (here, Imam Mufti Abdul Muqtadir Sikander) directing the service, the mostly modest dress of the congregants, switching between standing, sitting, and bowing, all had a familiar feel. Indeed, as I mentioned to our hosts, another similarity I noticed was that in both mosques and synagogues there are always some who come late to services. Their knowing smiles told me that they agreed that some things are universal.

A truly eye-opening evening.

I understand, of course, that there are serious differences between large parts of both communities concerning the Middle East. And being neither foolish nor naïve, I don’t think that having Muslim-Jewish friendships or visiting each other’s places of worship will, even with singing Kumbaya (which, I admit, I did in the ’60s), solve those differences. There’s much hard work to do, most of it thankfully above my pay grade.

And yet, let me end with perhaps one more similarity. I strongly believe that the recognition of commonalities shared by those in different Jewish denominations – especially that of our love of Torah and its study – is, or should be, an important step in getting to know the other and realizing that perhaps otherness is too often emphasized while similarities are minimized. Could that not be extended to relationships beyond the Jewish community as well?

And if we could start that process over a delicious Kosher Delight dinner, all the better.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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