Saturday, 18 July 2015

Holy Juxtaposition! Muslims and Jews Making Meaning - Andrea Hodos

This post, written by Andrea Hodos, is a continuation of the Interfaith Ramadan 2015 series.

I am a performance artist living in Los Angeles. I am trained in dance, but I love words too much not to use them. In my work, I blend writing and choreography. If it’s a good day in the studio, the movement communicates all by itself. My words can often stand meaningfully on their own, too. Something bigger happens though, if I put my words and my movement together. More meaning. More space for the audience to interpret, imagine, connect. And then . . . if I put my movement & words next to your movement & words? Even more meaning!

This year, as a fellow with NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership forChange, I had the opportunity to experience what happens when you put Jews and Muslims next to one another – intentionally, in conversation, and in prayer – in the City of Angels. It did not disappoint in the “making more meaning” department.

Under the care of gifted facilitators, we spent nine months developing conflict resolution skills and learning about one another and our traditions; we learned about our communities’ sources of fear and frustration as well as points of pride. Interfaith work by its nature, though, is always an opportunity to explore and understand one’s self, one’s own tradition and community with greater depth. I understood this theory going into the experience, but the discoveries were revolutionary for me in ways I could not have imagined. The biggest surprise was how my world expanded when we put our prayers next to one another’s. Why hadn’t I assumed that my m.o. – “juxtaposition creates more meaning” – would work in this arena as beautifully as it does elsewhere.

Perhaps I didn’t think my axiom would pertain because I believe very strongly in the integrity of particular faith systems. I don’t like watering things down. I believe God is Big. Bigger than anything humans might be able to imagine – and I believe there are many ways in. But I have always been cautious of compromising the integrity of my tradition – or anyone else’s. I believe the reason that these systems help us connect with the Divine is that they have been tested (and refined . . . and reformed) over time. I want to be very careful about how I mess with that.

Putting Our Prayers Next to Others Prayers

Many of us in my NewGround cohort came, cautiously and respectfully, to pray together. In short, on our first retreat one of the Jews asked the Muslim fellows arranging prayer rugs if those of us reciting Shabbat afternoon prayers might share the space. Our Muslim cohort members welcomed us generously. We Jews had learned enough about Salat during the retreat that as we prayed, we could hear the words we were coming to know bounce off against our own silent prayers (we did not have a minyan/quorum to be able to pray out loud); many of us were surprised by how the sound and motion of the Muslim prayers amplified our own connection to God. Although the Muslims in the room couldn’t hear our prayers, they could sense the energy created by our movement during prayer, and they also felt our presence intensifying their intention.

Enough of us were excited by these discoveries that we decided to develop a practice of sharing prayer space. We created a project called Two Faiths One Prayer: we would spend an entire day travelling to different locations in Los Angeles for five different prayer services. We worked to align the length and intention of our prayers in a call and response with one another. The prayer leaders for each service worked together to make sure that the integrity of the traditional prayers were not compromised for those of us participating, but that there would be space for the prayers to be recited in relation to one another as well. 

Several of us were filmmakers and produced a film of our day of prayer in the hopes that we might be able to get this idea out into the world – Jews and Muslims could come together to recognize God as One – could praise and submit to God side by side in one of the more vulnerable acts humans can perform – even while in other quarters our peoples seem bent on provoking and killing one another.

Indeed, each of these prayer moments described above did not occur in isolation from the outside world: the retreat I mention above took place three days after several men had used machetes to attack a congregation in prayer inside a synagogue in Jerusalem – after several weeks of particularly loud calls by religious leaders and politicians for Jewish access to the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif. Ironically, the day of our public shared prayer experience, May 3rd, was also the scheduled opening for Pamela Geller’s provocation – an anti-Muslim art exhibit in Garland TX. Omar and I would be the leaders for Maghreb/Ma’ariv at the big City Hall event. 

Omar grew up in Garland and his family still resides there. In the film, you can see the two of us on the train between our afternoon and evening prayers – we are finalizing plans for the coordination of our prayer. We are talking about the finer points of timing the Adhan and the Iqama in relation to the Barchu and the Sh’ma – calls to prayer, calls to one another and calls out the One. Just moments after this scene, Omar began getting texts from his friends and family in Garland. There had been a shooting at the exhibit – housed in the same building where Omar’s high school graduation had been held. He went (and we went with him) into prayer not knowing exactly what had taken place, but knowing that no matter what had happened, his friends and family in Garland were feeling extremely exposed and endangered. This juxtaposition gave our prayers more meaning than we ever wanted them to have.

Credit: Marta Evry

How does putting our prayers together amplify meaning?

Every time we share prayer space, it changes the way I understand my relationship to the world and my relationship with God. One way it does this is by allowing me to reinterpret parts of my tradition which are difficult for me. The end of Psalm 23 speaks of feasting even in the presence of enemies:

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

This is a very significant Psalm in our tradition (and for me personally) for reasons which I won’t go into here, but the part about rejoicing in the presence of enemies is always difficult for me. We recited Psalm 23 as part of our day of prayer. Jews pray only three times a day, so for our project, we decided that as one of the five prayer sessions, the Jews would recite Psalms. Cindy, leading this service, selected Psalm 23 to close our recitation. We had just eaten lunch. We had spread out blankets on the ground and had shared some lovely vegetarian salads and sandwiches. When prayer time came, we shook out the blankets, they became prayer rugs and the Jews moved next to them to recite Psalms while the Muslims prayed Dhuhr. As we came to the words written above, the meaning transformed for me completely. In our context, we had prepared the table for ourselves – together with our purported “enemies” – whom we dearly loved. My world expanded for that moment to a include a glimpse of what Jews refer to as “The World to Come.” Perhaps this is one of the paths that will eventually allow us to “come to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Putting our prayers next to one another’s also reveals facets of meaning for me in the parts of prayer which are already my home base. During Ma’ariv, my intention is always focused when I recite the words, “U’fros aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha” (“Spread over us Your Canopy of Peace”). If I am leading Ma’ariv and I add out loud “Guard us in our comings and our goings for Life and for Peace” while I hear my Muslim friends whispering “As-Salaam Alaikum” over their shoulders, the meaning of the prayers expand for me in ways I had only hoped could be possible. And again, while there is real work to do together outside of prayer, I can’t help but wonder if our service, side by side, doesn’t have some sort of impact on the real world. Even if it simply catches people off guard and sparks their imaginations – allowing them to see possibilities where they hadn’t before.

A Final Juxtaposition

I was intending to write about the Iftars which I was honored to attend this Ramadan, all of which included shared prayer space – from large (our NewGround graduation of 300 people from across Southern CA) to intimate (our TFOP Iftar in my house at the conclusion of Jewish fast day) – but it is mid-day on Eid in California; the deadline looms. And as much as I like words – and images, and meaning – the piece is long. It is Eid, and Shabbat is coming soon. Today is Rosh Hodesh (New Moon/New Month) for the Jewish month of Av.

Which brings me to a final meaningful juxtaposition. Today, Muslims celebrate arriving at the end of a month in which – individually and collectively – they focused on cultivating patience and compassion, taming their anger, and other important traits. This year, Eid comes in as Jews are entering the darkest time of our calendar – the nine days leading to Tisha B’av – the commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE and 70 CE, respectively. Our tradition teaches us that the Temple was destroyed due to “sinat chinam” or “baseless hatred” and it is now time for us to reflect on that. May this be the meaning we draw from the juxtaposition of these two moments in our calendars: as humans connected to particular traditions, each of which constantly inspire us to do better, our One God has given us the capacity – and the obligation – to DO better. Let’s do it, side by side.

Andrea Hodos is the creator of Moving Torah ( – workshops which use writing, movement and theater to engage Jewish text and story. Now that the NewGround fellowship is completed, Andrea is looking forward to diving into her latest project “Sinai and Sunna: Women Covering, Uncovering and Recovering” – a performance-based inter- and intra-faith exploration. She is also the Jewish facilitator for NewGround’s high school council, MAJIC: Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change.

Two Faiths One Prayer is now an alumni project of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. ( You can read more about the project and watch the film by visiting our website ( If you live in Southern California please stay tuned for upcoming shared prayer experiences. If you are interested in adapting this project for your own community, or otherwise want to connect, please be in touch via the website or Facebook!

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