February 19, 2020

When Souls Touch


Last Yom Kippur, soon after my then 9-year-old son Alexander and I got home from services, we heard a gentle knock on the door.

“Hi, I’m Waseif from Yemen,” said a beautiful woman with long black hair holding a plate of cookies. “We moved in next door. In my culture, it is the custom to offer food to new friends.”

Before I had a chance to say, “Oh, we have that in our culture, too, though today is Yom Kippur, but don’t worry, we’re not fasting,” in walks Waseif, followed by 14-year-old Reese, 7-year-old Anaya and two poodles. Our apartment, whose spirit had been dampened by a difficult transition, suddenly came to life.

Waseif — Saya — and I could not be more different. Saya was born in Yemen and forced to marry her cousin at 14. After running away from a second arranged marriage at 24, Saya feels as distant from Islam as her family feels from her. I grew up in a fairly sheltered home near the Main Line in Philadelphia.

And yet we felt an instant bond. Was it because we are Semitic “cousins”? Because our parents didn’t teach us to hate?

Later that afternoon, I remembered a tile engraved with Arabic calligraphy that we had found behind the stove. “Please,” I asked Saya, “what does this mean?” She looked at the word and her eyes began to tear up. “It means blessing,” she said. 

I wrote about this last year (“Blessed by Movement”) and am happy to share that the past year has indeed been a blessing, one that I couldn’t have created if I tried. I’ve lived in New York City most of my adult life; you get to know your neighbors — but not like this. We have been there for each other at some of the most difficult times — and joyously celebrated each of the Jewish holidays together.

Saya and I have supported each other, emboldened each other, made each other feel like anything is possible.

Reese likes to put on Alexander’s kippah when we return from synagogue. One day, when Reese was FaceTiming his dad, I realized he was still wearing Alexander’s kippah. I slowly pulled it off his head, smiling at the humor of the moment, sad that it was necessary.

A couple of months later, Saya knocked on the door, crying. The principal at Reese’s middle school had just called; Reese had drawn a swastika on his hand. Without hesitation, I told Saya: Reese didn’t know what he was drawing.

It turned out Reese was just copying what a boy from Denmark had drawn on his hand. Reese and I had a long talk about the Holocaust that evening, which ended with Israeli chocolates.

The first time I gave Reese Israeli chocolates, I said, “One day, I need to teach you the politics of these chocolates.” He said sure, whatever. I soon realized that Reese would help me with basically anything if Israeli chocolates were involved.

My bond with Saya grew as my relationships with some of my closest friends disintegrated. Jewish friends who saw my public defense of Israel as a deal breaker: Our friendship could affect their status in leftist circles. The great irony is that secular Muslims like Saya typically despise the illiberal left — the term regressive left was actually coined by counter-extremist Maajid Nawaz — most especially the inherent bigotry of low expectations and worship of Islamists. 

Saya told me that in U.S. mosques she was taught to boycott all Jewish businesses, not just Israeli ones. “They’re lying to you,” she said.

Saya and I have supported each other, emboldened each other, made each other feel like anything is possible. I’m now in the process of starting my own magazine; Saya will edit a section called Muslim Feminism. 

She has already created a film about her early life called “After the Veil,” as well as a nonprofit dedicated to providing a safe haven for child brides. I’ve told her that she can be the spokeswoman that Muslim women need, that her intelligence and bravery can change the world. “No one ever encouraged me before,” she told me.

Meanwhile, our kids have learned to find blessings in unexpected places. That when souls touch, religion, ethnicity and, most especially, politics matter not at all. It is now our blessing to bring this lesson to the world.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.