I speak with anecdotes. I write with anecdotes. I think with anecdotes. I’m Jewish and have identified as everything from secular to reform to conservative to orthodox at some point in my life, and finally decided to forego labels and just call myself Jewish. I live in a Christian-dominant country and have dozens of friends, even best friends, of other religions. So without further ado, here is a pair of interfaith anecdotes. - Betsy Markman
“She’s Just Using You!”
I’ve always been more curious than prejudiced, interested in learning about other languages, cultures and religions. I am a bilingual and ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher by trade and a maker of friends by personality. Several years ago I was sitting on a chaise lounge at my apartment pool, my wheelchair nearby, a month before the life-changing surgery that had forced me to leave a teaching job with only 8 weeks left in the school year. A young man, clearly an English Language Learner, sat nearby working through an ESL workbook and offered to help when my water bottle fell under the chair between us. I commented on the book, asked him where he was from, and told him I was an ESL teacher. He left for a moment and came back with his wife, a woman wearing a hijab. They were both on a 3-5 year educational program from Saudi Arabia that began with a year of intensive English.
Farah and I quickly became friends, much to the shock of our respective friends and families. “A Saudi woman? Are you crazy?” my friends said. “Her husband is probably a terrorist. She is probably a terrorist!” Her friends were convinced that I was a Zionist devil who would steal all her money. (She had very little money. I had very little money. It’s not that kind of apartment complex.) Everyone was certain that we were using each other, and, in a way, we were. I was using her to learn about a new culture and country. And friendship. She was using me for English practice and eventually driving lessons. And friendship. I was Farah’s first Jewish or American friend and she was my second friend who was a practicing Muslim (the first was a colleague). We talked about religion, the role of women, languages, language learning, family, how to override the air conditioner when it turned itself off, the differences between kosher food and halal food, parenting, the men in my life, arranged marriage, whether her husband would seek a second wife when they returned to Saudi Arabia, and a million other things. We became close friends very quickly.
Our families became friendly, though not friends. She gave permission and encouragement for her husband to walk me home from her house or from the bus stop since no one except me thought I was safe to take the bus in the wheelchair and get myself up the big hill from the bus stop to the apartment. Her husband gave permission for my 16-year-old son to walk her home from my apartment to hers after dark.
Then came the surgery. Farah and her husband were both involved with the preparation, and both came to the hospital as soon as their classes finished. Her concern for me was the topic of her oral presentation in class that day while I was under the knife for five hours.
The surgery was much more involved than the doctor had anticipated, and the recovery plan was extended from 6 weeks to 6 months before I even left the hospital. My insurance didn’t cover home health care or extended recovery at the hospital or a nursing home, so I had to scramble. Bandages had to be changed, and I was living with a 16 year old boy, so the first plan was for me to move in with friends and my son to stay at his dad’s house. That lasted for about 4 days, but then it was time to go home. Did I mention that Farah had midwife training in Saudi Arabia? She offered to come by after school every day and cook for me, then come back in the evening to help me shower, change bandages, and fluff-up the pillows. I had to explain to her that the synagogue 6th and 7th grade families were providing meals, and my son now had his driver’s license, but that I would definitely welcome her help at night. (She never did understand why I couldn’t eat the meat from her kitchen, even if she skipped the shrimp.) Once again, my friends (who were not lining up to change bandages or clip toenails) were convinced that she was robbing me while I showered, and hers were convinced that I was using her when I could clearly afford to pay for a nurse. (I couldn’t even afford to be off work and found out in the middle of all this that the district declined to renew my contract.)
And eventually our friends met. A girls’ night party at her house. A crafting night at a restaurant with my friends. (“Really? You say NIT? No K? Why the K? What color is this? Tell? No, Chartoose not a real word. You are making a joke.”) Me teaching her and two of her friends to drive in the same parking lot where I taught my son. Her bringing her newly-arrived children to play at the park with same-age children of one of my other friends.
Farah cheered me on as I learned to walk again after a dozen years and wanted to know what the doctor and physical therapist were saying. I helped her arrange for childcare and learn to buckle in a car seat when she found out her children would be able to join her. She told me more about the school where she studied and helped me get a very part-time job teaching English to adults for the year that I was recovering from surgery. She told her friends what a good tutor I was and I ended up with private tutoring work in our neighborhood. She helped a new mother friend of mine whose baby stopped nursing when she was a week old.
She moved to a different Texas city to start college about a year after we met, and my son started college there the following semester. When he forgot to bring a pillow to summer orientation, she sent her husband to his dorm with three pillows since she had seen my bed post-op and assumed all Americans slept with many pillows. I stayed at her house when I visited him, and her children called me Aunt. However, as is often the case when friends move, start new jobs, and add responsibilities, we became less close on a daily basis, and kept in touch only through Skype and occasional visits. She is now back in Saudi Arabia and we haven’t spoken in a long time.
So, how is this an interfaith story? Or an anecdote for that matter? The point is that learning respectfully about another religion is a way of enhancing our own, and that friendship is of value regardless of those differences.
"The Time We Had Mormons Over For Shabbat Dinner”
As I mentioned above, I am in the habit of befriending neighbors. Right now there’s a little girl in the apartment upstairs whose entire knowledge of English consists of nursery rhymes and songs she learned on youtube. We serenade each other almost daily with “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and “Twinkle, Twinkle.” That and the words “Hi!” and “Bye!” are our only communication.
Many years ago, in the first year of my divorce, my son and I lived next door to Mormon newlyweds named Heidi and Todd. We learned a lot about their religion, and they learned about ours. Neither family had ever met anyone of the other religion, and once we got past their desire to convert us, all went well. They even introduced us to their friends on condition that the friends not proselytize.
One day, they came to me with an interesting dilemma. They were scheduled to host missionaries for dinner that Friday and had only just discovered that one of the women was vegetarian. My friend had no idea how to cook a vegetarian dinner. We have a kosher home, and were already starting to cook fewer and fewer meat meals, and so I did what came absolutely naturally to me. I invited them all for a vegetarian Shabbat dinner! We set up some ground rules, mostly about proselytizing. We put the extra leaf in our table, asked Todd to put on a kipa, and began with the Hebrew blessings, plus English translations. When we finished, my neighbor offered his own beautiful blessing that I would gladly have replied “Amen” too if he hadn’t ended it with “In Jesus’ name”. My son looked at me to see how I would respond. I thanked him greatly for his kind sentiment and then we ate and talked about travel, education, vegetarianism, and anything we possibly could that didn’t include much religion.
The evening definitely ranks up there as one of the most interesting Shabbat dinners I’ve ever hosted. It was the first time Todd was asked to wear a kipa and the first time motzi was followed by a blessing aloud “In Jesus’s name.”
Previous Post: Santa Made Me An Interfaith Activist - Bassel Riche