Damn. I’m so busy lately, I feel like I’m tripping over my feet just trying to keep up with it all. No complaints though. This is the good kind of stress, the kind that keeps me on my toes. No slacking for the rest of the semestre!
I’m just taking a break tonight to write about my chat with the Mormon missionaries that I met on the bus the other day. I posted about that a few days back. You can read it here.
I met up with ”The Sisters” (that’s what was written on their card; they never gave me their first names) at the library the other evening, rented a study room, and so began our discussion. They asked me a few questions about my religious background, my beliefs about creationism, praying, my family, etc. The whole experience was a little awkward, but not so bad. I was comfortable, they were polite, we were all respectful of each other’s beliefs. I agreed to meet with them because I was curious. (I do a lot of odd things solely out of curiosity, but that’s another topic for another time.) They seemed genuinely happy and I was eager to learn what their religion offered them. The Sisters met my curiosity with enthusiasm and affirmed my belief that, for many people, religion offers a sense of comfort and purpose. For some people, religious beliefs are the motivation for community service, education, charity, social justice, and more.
As a non-religious person, it would have been easy to write these two girls off as annoying, empty, ignorant, or any of those other words that fly around when discussing religion. But I didn’t, and I don’t regret the time I spent talking with them. Personally, religion doesn’t appeal to me, but I do enjoy learning about what it provides for so many others. I told The Sisters that I appreciated their meeting with me, but that I had no intention of converting. They invited me to church and gave me my very own Book of Mormon, which I intend to read, even if only a bit.
Let’s chalk another one up for “Interesting Life Experiences.”
I was sitting on the bus yesterday when two girls got on and sat next to me. They both smiled and said hi so I returned the gesture. After a minute or so, the one sitting closest to me started up a conversation with me, which I didn’t mind because I’ve taken a liking to talking to strangers in public. The smiling persisted. Fervently. My first two impressions were that
1. She’s going to follow me to my apartment and kill me or
2. She’s going to ask me on a date.
I was wrong. They were Mormon missionaries. I ended up agreeing to meet with them this evening for a chat. I don’t have any interest in converting, but I really don’t know anything about Mormonism and I think it might be interesting to ask some questions and get some first-hand insider points of view. Just out of curiosity. Provided they don’t take this as an open invitation to point out the “flaws” in my life, I think this has the potential to be an interesting experience.
Let me take some time to write about a really awesome experience I got to have last night.
This is a picture of me with Tahseen. Tahseen is, by far, one of the most interesting people in my life as well as my best friend. We were talking the other day about me coming over for dinner some time during Ramadan when she asked if I’d be interested in going to the local mosque with her and her family and of course I said, “Yes!” (Just a note, “local” is kind of a stretch, because it takes almost 40 minutes to reach the closest mosque from where we live. I don’t want to hear people near me complain that their church is too far away when you’ve got to take a small road trip to get to the mosque.) I’m not Muslim and I’ve never been to a mosque, so even though I was thrilled that she invited me to go with her, I was nervous. I was worried that I was going to stick out badly or that her family was going to feel like I was intruding by joining them, but that wasn’t the case at all. Tahseen lent me a salwar kameez to wear, draped an urna over my hair, and off to the mosque we went.
I was a little uncomfortable at first. I’ve been to Bengali functions with Tahseen before and it’s always painfully obvious that I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t speak the language, I don’t look like anyone else there, and I follow Tahseen around like a puppy. Being at the mosque was different though, because it’s not a solely cultural experience. There are Muslims of all different races and nationalities. I think that’s something that would surprise a lot of non-Muslims. I could think of some people that wouldn’t believe me if I told them that yes, there are in fact white Muslims. And black Muslims. And East Asian and Middle Eastern and Hispanic and so on and so on. Listening to everybody chat over iftar, I could hear Bengali and Urdu and Turkish and Arabic being spoken. Different cultures, different languages, different foods, different clothing styles. So to debunk a common myth, there is actually a lot of diversity amongst Muslims. Like, a lot a lot. Not everybody is Middle Eastern and not everyone speaks Arabic and not all women are hijabis. Islam is a world religion, meaning it is worldwide, meaning you can’t just generalize that all Muslims do this, that, or the other. So that being said, I didn’t stick out too badly.
Another thing I noticed (something I really, really liked) was that nobody was pointing me out as an outsider and waving papers in my face for me to join the community or convert or list my entire religious history on an index card or anything like that. At the risk of maybe sounding a little bitter towards Christianity, something I appreciate about Islam and the Muslim friends I’ve made is that there is little, if any, pressure to convert. Nobody harassed me about not being Muslim. Nobody was forcing me to jump out of my comfort zone. I do not have enough hands to count on my fingers the number of times that I have been invited to churches by friends and then felt incredibly uncomfortable because somebody was waving their papers and advertisements for salvation in my face. Nobody showed up at my house today asking me to pray and give up my “ways” and convert to their religion. I respected that about being at the mosque. If you’re interested and you want to learn, you can, but nobody’s shoving flyers down your throat making you feel like a bad person for not already being part of their community.
To bring this to a conclusion, I’m really thankful that I have a friend who would offer to share this experience with me. Someone said to me the other day that “you might not owe Christianity your faith, but you owe it more than ignorance.” I would say the same about Islam. I’m not very religious, and I don’t know that I would convert to Islam (I’m not saying I would never, because who knows what I will or won’t do in the future?) but I think it’s something worth at least learning about. I’ve heard plenty of people speak out against Islam that, most likely, have never even seen a mosque or a Quran or spoken to a Muslim person.
So, I guess I’ll end this text post by saying that before you look at something with disdain or make generalizations about it, take the time to learn about it and make an effort to understand and respect it.
I am not anti-religion by any means. Some people are religious and some people aren’t and that’s all fine by me. I don’t mind listening to what people have to say about their beliefs, either. I like hearing different views and opinions. That’s cool. I can respect that.
It doesn’t bother me until listening to someone’s beliefs turns into being patronized. To suggest that my lack of familiarity with your religion somehow negates my intelligence is nothing short of offensive. Do not treat me as your inferior if you want me to hear you out and respect your opinions. Imply that my life is unfulfilled, that I’m lacking in depth, or that my education is worthless simply because I am not religious or because my beliefs are different than yours, and I will stop listening.
If I’m being polite and open-minded enough to listen to what you have to say, don’t insult me by suggesting that I’m living my life all wrong. I am a human being, not a sheep. You don’t need to guide me back to the flock.
Near the corner of Westchester Avenue and Pugsley Street in Parkchester, just off the elevated tracks of the No. 6 train, Yaakov Wayne Baumann stood outside a graffiti-covered storefront on a chilly Saturday morning. Suited up in a black overcoat with a matching wide-brimmed black fedora, the thickly bearded 42-year-old chatted with elderly congregants as they entered the building for Shabbat service.
The only unusual detail: This synagogue is a mosque.
Or rather, it’s housed inside a mosque. That’s right: Members of the Chabad of East Bronx, an ultra-Orthodox synagogue, worship in the Islamic Cultural Center of North America, which is home to the Al-Iman mosque.
“People have a misconception that Muslims hate Jews,” said Baumann. “But here is an example of them working with us.”
Indeed, though conventionally viewed as adversaries both here and abroad, the Jews and Muslims of the Bronx have been propelled into an unlikely bond by a demographic shift. The borough was once home to an estimated 630,000 Jews, but by 2002 that number had dropped to 45,100, according to a study by the Jewish Community Relations Council. At the same time, the Muslim population has been increasing. In Parkchester alone, there are currently five mosques, including Masjid Al-Iman.
“Nowhere in the world would Jews and Muslims be meeting under the same roof,” said Patricia Tomasulo, the Catholic Democratic precinct captain and Parkchester community organizer, who first introduced the leaders of the synagogue and mosque to each other. “It’s so unique.”
The relationship started years ago, when the Young Israel Congregation, then located on Virginia Avenue in Parkchester, was running clothing drives for needy families, according to Leon Bleckman, now 78, who was at the time the treasurer of the congregation. One of the recipients was Sheikh Moussa Drammeh, the founder of the Al-Iman Mosque, who was collecting donations for his congregants—many of whom are immigrants from Africa. The 49-year-old imam is an immigrant from Gambia in West Africa who came to the United States in 1986. After a year in Harlem, he moved to Parkchester, where he eventually founded the Muslim center and later established an Islamic grade school. Through that initial meeting, a rapport developed between the two houses of worship, and the synagogue continued to donate to the Islamic center, among other organizations.
But in 2003, after years of declining membership, Young Israel was forced to sell its building at 1375 Virginia Ave., according to a database maintained by Yeshiva University, which keeps historical records of synagogues. Before the closing, non-religious items were given away; in fact, among the beneficiaries was none other than Drammeh, who took some chairs and tables for his center.
Meanwhile, Bleckman and the remaining members moved to a nearby storefront location, renting it for $2,000 a month including utilities. With mostly elderly congregants, Young Israel struggled to survive financially and, at the end of 2007, was forced to close for good. The remaining congregants were left without a place to pray. During the synagogue’s farewell service, four young men from the Chabad Lubavitch world headquarters in Crown Heights showed up. Three months earlier, Bleckman, then chairman of the synagogue’s emergency fund, had appealed for help from the Chabad.
“The boys from the Chabad said they came to save us,” said Bleckman. “We were crying.”
At this point, Chabad took over the congregational reins from Young Israel, with members officially adopting the new name Chabad of East Bronx. Still, for the next six to seven weeks, Bleckman said they could not even hold a service because they had nowhere to hold it.
When Drammeh learned of their plight, he immediately volunteered to accommodate them at the Muslim center at 2006 Westchester Ave.—for free.
“They don’t pay anything, because these are old folks whose income are very limited now,” said Drammeh, adding that he felt it was his turn to help the people who had once helped him and his community. “Not every Muslim likes us, because not every Muslim believes that Muslims and Jews should be like this,” Drammeh said, referring to the shared space. But “there’s no reason why we should hate each other, why we cannot be families.” Drammeh in particular admires the dedication of the Chabad rabbis, who walked 15 miles from Brooklyn every Saturday to run prayer services for the small Parkchester community.
For the first six months, congregants held Friday night Sabbath services inside Drammeh’s cramped office. As more people began joining the congregation, Drammeh offered them a bigger room where they could set up a makeshift shul. (When it’s not in use, students from the Islamic school use it as their classroom.) Inside the synagogue, a worn, beige cotton curtain separates the men and women who attend the service. A solitary chandelier hangs just above the black wooden arc that holds the borrowed Torah, which is brought weekly from the Chabad headquarters. A large table covered with prayer books stands in the center, and a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is displayed prominently on a nearby wall. During Shabbat, when Jewish congregants are strictly prohibited from working, they have to rely on the Muslim workers at the center or on Drammeh to do simple chores such as turning on the light and switching on the heater.
At first, it did not make sense, said Hana Kabakow, wife of Rabbi Meir Kabakow. “I was surprised,” said the 26-year-old congregant who was born and raised in Israel. “But when I came here I understood.” The Kabakows have been coming to the service from Brooklyn for the last two years.
Harriet Miller, another congregant, said she appreciated the center’s accommodating the synagogue. “They are very sweet people,” said the 79-year-old Bronx native and long-time resident of Parkchester, who added that she welcomes the new Muslim immigrants in her neighborhood: “We were not brought up to hate.”
Drammeh also understands the importance of teaching tolerance more broadly, and for turning the school—which was itself founded at the nearby St. Helena Catholic Church on, of all days, Sept. 11, 2001—into a model of sorts for religious tolerance in New York.
“We’re not as divided as the media portrays us to be,” Drammeh said. “Almost 90 percent of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian teachings are the same.”
His latest project involves introducing fifth-grade Jewish and Islamic school students to each other’s religious traditions. Other participants of the program, now in its sixth year, include the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, the Al Ihsan Academy of Queens, and the Kinneret Day School of Riverdale. At the end of the program, students organize an exhibit that shows family artifacts of their respective cultures and religion. The principal of the Islamic school, who is also Sheik Drammeh’s wife, said that even after the program ended, the participants became “fast friends” and would visit each other’s homes.
“They would have birthday parties together,” Shireena Drammeh said. “When someone invites you to their house, I mean, that says it all right there and then.”
While the Jewish congregants are thankful for their new home, they hope that one day they can rebuild their own synagogue. That day may be far off: Even now that they have space to worship, they still struggle to operate. They don’t have proper heating inside, and the portable working heater could not reach the separate area where the elderly women are seated, forcing them to wear their jackets during the entire service. Congregants are appealing for financial support from the Jewish community and other congregations.
But Leon Bleckman and others say they now also have loftier goals, including reviving the Jewish presence in the neighborhood and reaffirming the positive relationship with their Muslim friends. “We are able to co-exist together side by side in the same building,” said Assistant Rabbi Avi Friedman, 42. “That’s sort of like a taste of the future world to come—the messianic future where all people live in peace.”
I don’t really identify with any particular religion, but sometimes I like to read hadiths or Bible verses. I think most religions have a lot of good foundations. People like to take good things and run in all different directions with them, though. It seems like there are a lot of misinterpretations in religion.
Halloween is coming up.
BRING ON THE ADDAMS FAMILY MARATHONS AND PUMPKIN FLAVORED EVERYTHING!
I love Halloween, but I kind of dread all of the horrible costumes. There are a lot of really cool, clever ones, and then there’s the awful “Sexy Native American Tribal Princess” (just kill me now) or the scantily clad “Anna Rexia” girl. What in the fuck I do not even.
So I’ve been contemplating this year’s costume, and I was thinking about a Dia de los Muertos sugar skull. I know next to nothing about traditional Mexican cultures, but I’m almost positive that this holiday has its roots in the mixing of Native and Catholic religions during the period of colonization.
I’m curious, is it offensive or distasteful to use Dia de los Muertos as a costume idea for Halloween? A lot of people are surprisingly unaware of how offensive Native American costumes are. They rarely do any research on the culture which they
brutally misinterpret try to portray.
I’d really love some opinions and background info on this. As far as cultural appropriation goes, I’m pretty uneducated outside of the realm North American Indians, so….
EDUCATE ME PLEASE~