Sunset in West L.A. A swank little outdoor get-together, rosé and single malt at the bar, men in their Bonobos and Untuckits. The chat among a tribe of writers, managers and producers turns to that week’s plans.
“So, I’m going to this iftar,” one says. “At Wilshire Boulevard Temple.” An iftar is the traditional evening break-fast meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“Oh,” says a young TV exec. “I went to the NewGround iftar there last year. I’m going to one in Culver City.”
Suddenly, the game was on — that competition that happens when men gather in small circles and compare. And I wanted to play.
“I’m going to two,” I said. “One at the Israeli consul general’s house.”
“Oh!” one guy said. “Wow.”
I was feeling good. Winning.
“I was invited to that one,” the producer countered. “Couldn’t make it.”
We were five Jews, standing in a circle, one-upping one another over who was invited to the better Muslim break-fast. Could it be, I wondered, that in Los Angeles in 2017, iftars are the new Oscar party?
The first one I attended this year certainly felt exclusive. It was billed as the Jewish Muslim Leaders Summit. There were a couple dozen Muslims and Jews, half and half, in a function room at the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont Avenue. A lot of lawyers and accountants — and I’m talking about the Muslims.
“People ask me to describe the American Muslim community,” one lawyer told me. “I always say, ‘We’re boring.’ ” Muslims go to school, work, raise families, he shrugged. What’s to say?
Edina Lekovic, one of the Muslim conveners, said Ramadan is the perfect time to engage in what we Jews call tikkun olam.
“The absence of food and water can mean the presence of something else,” she said. Plus, she added, when you have to fast from dawn to past sunset, “It’s good to have something to keep you busy.”
We spoke of the current state of division in America, the sense of discrimination and how we can work together to create better polity and politics.
At 8:06 p.m., the fast was over. We each ate a date stuffed with a walnut, the traditional break-fast treat (note to Jews: excellent post-Yom Kippur idea). Across the hall, the imam chanted the call to prayer. We all were invited to pray, or to wait until the prayers finished. Then we ate — a banquet of hummus, salads, kebab, falafel and pita with za’atar.
It was Lebanese food, someone pointed out.
Two days later, I was at the home of Sam Grundwerg, Israel’s new consul general in Los Angeles. Grundwerg, his wife, Julia, and their children had just moved into their new home in Los Angeles and were hosting their first event, an iftar.
“Thank you for helping us open up our home for the first time,” Grundwerg said. “I think it’s really making a statement.”
That was an understatement. For 69 years, Israel has worked toward more equality, more integration of its 20 percent Muslim population, with many ups and downs. But the message of this evening was one of welcome and acceptance. At a time when Muslims are feared and singled out in America, including by our president, the consul general of Israel made them the first guests in his new home.
Getting Muslims to come the first time, Grundwerg recognized, would be a challenge. He lit on the idea of inviting someone with a high enough profile to lead the way, like, say, the greatest basketball player who ever lived.
“I thought it would be difficult to get him,” Grundwerg said of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former Lakers and UCLA legend. “But he loved the idea right away.”
About 50 guests sat in white folding chairs in Grundwerg’s living room. Abdul-Jabbar, stately, serious, towering over the second-tallest guest (me) by a foot at 7 feet 2 inches, led a panel discussion on tolerance and Muslim-Jewish relations with music impresario Russell Simmons; Mohammed Khan, director of interfaith outreach at King Fahad Mosque in Culver City; and New York Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
“As a Muslim and as someone who loves my country,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “I’m really concerned about what’s happening in our country. People are at each other’s throats. This is avoidable if we can talk to each other and learn to respect each other.”
Abdul-Jabbar, author of several books on history, spoke of the Golden Age of Spain, when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together and flourished.
“The beginning of the Renaissance came out of Spain and North Africa,” he said, “because Muslims, Jews and Christians cooperated and shared knowledge and shared solutions. That’s what I want to get back to, and that’s why I’m here this evening.”
Simmons, who identifies himself as a yogi, said he and Schneier have been doing Muslim-Jewish dialogue for 10 years, in 40 countries, but recently the need for it has become more urgent.
“Today it’s gotten so bad, it’s impossible to avoid a public discussion,” he said. “This idea of the children of Abraham being so separate is so disturbing. We need to give others what we want for ourselves.”
When the clock struck 8:06 p.m., marking the end of the fast, the consul ended the discussion. As the guests broke the fast with dates, consular officials and Julia Grundwerg hurriedly cleared the chairs and laid down a large rug. An imam issued the call to prayer, his voice echoing through the room. About a dozen of the Muslim guests then held a prayer service in the consul’s living room.
“Allahu Akbar (God is great),” called out Khan, who led the prayer. “Allahu Akbar,” they repeated.
There was a kosher buffet meal in the backyard: hummus, salads, kebab, braised lamb, stuffed grape leaves and pita with za’atar.
“Israeli food,” someone said.
The night wound down. Abdul-Jabbar took selfies and signed autographs. The Persian actor Navid Negahban, who played the Jew-murdering arch-terrorist Abu Nazir on the TV series “Homeland,” gave a moving, funny speech about empathy.
As I walked to the parking valet, it occurred to me that the surest path to empathy is experience — sharing one another’s lives, rituals and holidays, in person. Sure, we can imagine ourselves walking in someone else’s shoes, but it always will be more powerful to spend a few hours walking beside the person. May the competition for the best iftar invitations in L.A. only grow, I thought.
And as if I needed a sign that I was right, it was there on the booth where I picked up my car. The sign said, “Abraham’s Valet Parking.”
Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at email@example.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism