February 17, 2019

Small steps on NewGround for Muslims and Jews

On Saturday night, I joined 250 or so of my fellow Muslim and Jewish Angelinos at a storytelling event hosted by Mack Sennett Studios and sponsored by NewGround, an organization working to “replace the current atmosphere of mutual suspicion among Jews and Muslims” with a feeling of trust, partnership, and cooperation. At first, I thought the evening presented a missed opportunity. The performers were sincere and articulate, but most of them did not tell stories about “Standing Up for the Other,” as the title of the program promised. Rather, they told stories about friends or family members who were supportive of them in some way. Nice, but not the direct confrontation of conflict I was expecting. I was hoping we’d all be asked to wrestle with our assumptions, discuss politics, pave a grassroots way toward world peace.

I was nervous when I walked in the door, but largely because I’m anxious around large groups of strangers, even if they are all smiling at me. I relaxed when I realized we weren’t there to size each other up for “mutual suspicion,” and I also realized: we are the choir. Most folks willing to show up to an interfaith exchange don’t need preaching about the value of diversity and dialogue. It was all quite pleasant, but still, seemed purposeless. If we weren’t going to tackle anything serious, what was the point?

But then something shifted for me during a conversation with a young documentary filmmaker named Mustafa. We immediately connected as artists, and I asked him to teach me something in Arabic. He thought for a second and said, “iftah elbaab” which means “open the door.” I smiled. He’s got it, I thought. That’s exactly what we are doing here. But still, I wondered if it was enough.

We started talking about the theme of the evening, “otherness,” and we agreed that acknowledging subtle forms of resistance to the unfamiliar can have a transformative effect, so I decided to take a risk and admit something uncomfortable, thinking it might open the door to the kind of substantive engagement I was seeking. I told him about the immediate, visceral reaction I had to my German-speaking roommate when I moved into the dorms as a college freshman many years ago. I was a Jewish student with mostly Jewish friends, and it was agitating to hear my new friend speak what I considered to be the language of the enemy. I never even realized I equated “German” with “Nazi” until living with her forced me to interrogate my views.

“Oh, so did you avoid the showers when you knew she’d be there?” asked a girl who had joined my conversation with Mustafa. She saw the look on my face and said, “just a little Holocaust humor.” I do not have a sense of humor about the genocide of any group, least of all my own people. Whatever I expected about the evening, it certainly wasn’t that I’d be offended by a fellow, female Jew and feel such easy fellowship with a Muslim man. Mustafa seemed to share my discomfort with her joke, but he didn’t react to it as I did, so in some way, his presence made it easier for the three of us to acknowledge that humor is one of those means of testing a sociopolitical pulse. It can cross boundaries and open doors, at least to conversations as some form of evolution.

The friendly, relaxed environment made it easy to approach strangers and easy to ask questions. I was surprised that people were so willing to discuss former notions of prejudice. As I walked around the room listening to many of the Muslims greet each other with “As-Salaam Alaikum,” I recognized a subtle feeling inside of otherness, reinforced by my growing awareness that I was wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt around several women who were covered in fabric from head to toe. My Jewish friend suggested that I put on my sweater so as not to offend. While I’d certainly observe custom and protocol at a religious service or while visiting a Muslim community, at this event, I opted for my own comfort. I wondered how the Muslim women dressed like me regarded the women in traditional garb. Do their different choices signal different values? I hesitated to ask, but next time I will.

While we didn’t really learn to “Stand Up for the Other,” it’s worth acknowledging small steps on NewGround. We had snacks and conversations, took some photos, joked about snapchat, heard some good stories. And it felt really good. I connected with many people I’d like to see again. I didn’t hold back and wait to be invited into discussions; I extended my hand and was warmly received every time. That in itself expands my sense of home here in Los Angeles, and makes me more likely to reach out to others, less likely to judge, more likely to ask questions, less likely to make assumptions, and more likely to feel connected, receptive, and optimistic.

Casual, social interactions can seem less significant than intense political debate, but they have a powerful, cumulative effect. They can replace rigid attitudes with curiosity and increasing comfort. The organizers deliberately avoided force-fed agendas and opted instead to help us approach each other as people first rather than as representatives of difference. NewGround has been named by our Governor as 2013’s “Faith-based Organization of the Year,” and since this year’s turnout was twice last year’s, I’m confident that 2014 will open the door for many more of us to enter the conversation.