off to the mosque

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I spent the weekend in Birmingham, the second largest city in England. On Friday we went to a mosque; on Saturday, a synagogue; and on Sunday, a church. (Since we’re a large group, we split up, and there were choices for each.) The rest of the visit was punctuated by talks and presentations by various people doing interfaith or faith-based work in Birmingham. The city is a majority-minority area, with Muslims, mostly from Southeast Asia, the fastest growing demographic. In stark contrast, there are less than 2,000 Jews in a total population of over a million.

Our first stop was Christ Church Centre in the neighborhood of Sparkbrook, a working class area whose population is 75% non-white. We first met Rev. Ray Gaston, an Anglican priest involved in the area’s interfaith work (he would be with us the rest of the weekend) and then heard from Mohammed Ali (yes), a local muralist doing art in an interfaith context in Sparkbrook and around the world. Later that afternoon, we were able to see some of his work in the neighborhood.

mohammed ali's "a leap of faith" mural"; photo by salem pearce

mohammed ali’s “a leap of faith” mural”; photo by salem pearce

After the largest lunch you can imagine (the table couldn’t hold the platters of kebabs, pasta, pecoras, dal, salad, and bread that just kept coming) at a restaurant called La Favorita, next up was a mosque visit: I chose Mehfil e Abbas, a Shia mosque, just because it’s a smaller sect of Islam. The women and men split up immediately (hooray for gender binaries! /sarcasm) to go in via separate entrances to separate rooms. The women’s section included, of course, the kitchen and children’s rooms, but also, conveniently, the bathrooms. We took off our shoes at the door. The prayer space was just a simple carpeted room, divided by a curtain from the men’s room adjacent to it and with a TV screen that aired the sermon that was given after prayers.

To be frank, the experience was hard for me: There’s a reason I don’t pray in minyans with separate seating, and it didn’t feel any better when it wasn’t my religion and I wasn’t praying. Similar to what happens in the women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue, there were old women chatting throughout the whole service, a few kids running around, and a couple of teenagers on cell phones. (Okay, maybe that last is different from shul.) My suspicion is that the separation is cultural/traditional and not scriptural, as it is in Judaism, and I find that these kinds of arrangements, which privilege men’s prayer over women’s, to be quite painful. And at first I became even angrier because I wasn’t getting to see a mosque, but instead a rec room — but when the service was over, and the curtain was opened, I saw that the main room was also pretty much a rec room with a few ritual objects. And I had to laugh at myself at how quickly my anger on that point dissipated in light of the modest setting of the men’s prayer room. I pretty much did see the mosque even in the ladies’ section.

That evening, my fellow Jews and I held a Kabbalat Shabbat service at our hotel for the rest of group, which people seemed to enjoy. Afterwards, another rabbinical student and I answered questions from the non-Jews while the others quickly davenned Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service.

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i'm not covering my head because i'm a jerk like that)

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i’m not covering my head because i’m a jerk like that)

The problem with even two Jews answering questions about Jewish prayer and about G-d (and really, about anything in Judaism) is that we’re not likely to agree. The old saying is: Two Jews, three opinions. At some point, one of the men from Oman asked whether there were prayers in our liturgy that called for the destruction of other people or religions. While I answered, “Absolutely not,” my co-religionist said, “Wait. What about Aleinu?” By this time the others had rejoined the conversation, and another rabbinical student jumped in with his understanding of the prayer, which is that it expresses the Jewish people’s unique relationship with G-d. I was sort of horrified that anyone would answer other than the way I did — especially since I perceived the question as coming from a place of fear and perhaps prejudice — but my classmate felt a real duty to nuance, which I am afraid gets lost in non-native language.

This is a bigger issue than can be covered here, but we Jews are indeed uncomfortable with parts of our liturgy: Modern prayer books do omit a sentence from the original Aleinu prayer, referring to non-Jews, “They worship vanity and emptiness, and they pray to a god that doesn’t save.” This moment again illustrates the issue that I talked about briefly in my last post about this program: namely, that we Jews don’t agree on what it means to be Jewish in a way that seems different from at least the Muslims on this trip.

Shabbat dinner was a bit of a letdown, as I sat largely with Omanis playing on their electronic devices. One could probably write a dissertation on cultural norms around cell phones, but in my Shabbat community, people don’t use their phones on Friday night (at least not during services and dinner). There is a real sense of being present with each other, of enjoying what Heschel has called a “sanctuary in time.” I understand that I can’t expect that outside of my community, but it did make the evening less Shabbat-like for me, which was hard. We are still trying to get to know each other, though, and so we did have some conversation. Unfortunately, part of that conversation involved one of the Omani men asking one of the Jewish men, who is married to another man and as such wears a wedding ring, where his wife was. He quickly mumbled, “In America,” before changing the subject.

I don’t know the views of many of the individuals in this program about homosexuality, but there are at least three gay men in the group, and each has chosen not to disclose his sexuality to the Muslims (and to disclose only to two of the Christians). Oman does criminalize same-sex behavior (as do 75 other countries in the world); all of the contingent work for the government. And after earlier in the week we were bombarded with stories from a speaker who does mediation work with Muslim parents who have threatened to kill their gay children, I think caution is not unwise in this situation. A part of me is hoping that this topic will come up, because it makes me sad for members of the group not to be able to bring their whole selves to our conversations about religion; at the same time, I want my friends to be safe.

To end on an up note, I made kiddush on Friday night for the first time. (Yes, I’d been avoiding it for most of my Jewish life.) But I’ve been practicing this summer with a recording that a classmate made for me (my issue is the singing), and I think I did alright. Either way, the vast majority of the people in the room didn’t know the difference!

Next up . . . we go to shul!

the art forger

the art forgerI heard about The Art Forger through Quail Ridge Books, the independent bookstore in Raleigh, N.C., where I used to live. I still get the store’s weekly emails, which have great book recommendations from the owner and its staff, as well as from other independent booksellers. I go back and spend too much money whenever I’m in Raleigh (which is sadly not too much these days, since my aunt and uncle moved away).

The book was published by Algonquin, a local company whose books Quail Ridge often highlights. The review caught my eye because the story, while fictional, is based around the Gardner heist.

In 1990, two men dressed as police officers bound and gagged security guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and made off with 13 works of art that are now worth more than $500 million. More than 20 years later, none has been recovered, and the investigation had pretty much hit a dead end. In the last six months, however, the FBI has announced that it knows the thieves’ identities and has renewed its publicity about the case in an attempt to get leads on the artwork.

I visited the Gardner during my first trip to Boston with my mom more than 10 years ago, and I was absolutely captivated by it. The eponymous owner was an art collector in the late 19th and early 20th century, and she built the museum, meant to emulate a 15th-century Venetian palace, in order to house her collection. Her will stipulated that the art was to remain as she had arranged it (which was not at all as a professional curator would today); after the theft, the rule was interpreted to stand, so empty frames hang in their places as a constant reminder of the crime.

the concert by Johannes vermeer, one of the works of art stolen from the gardner museum

the concert by Johannes vermeer, one of the works of art stolen from the gardner museum

The poignancy of the loss, combined with the eccentricity of the space and its founder, made me a little obsessed with the museum, and after my visit I read three or four books about the heist. Naturally I had to read this one, too.

It took me less than 24 hours (of course, it was Shabbat, so I didn’t have my usual phone/computer/Netflix distractions): It’s quite the page-turner — if a little hard-boiled and at times downright cheesy.

Because of a mistake in her past involving a former lover and fellow artist, Claire Roth is persona non grata in the Boston art world when she is approached by a local gallery owner to forge a painting — a Degas, and one of the masterpieces stolen from the Gardner Museum. Eager for her reputation’s rehabilitation, Claire reluctantly agrees in exchange for her own show at the gallery and the promise that the original painting will be returned to the museum where it belongs (the forgery will be sold as the original to an unscrupulous collector). In the process, though, she begins to suspect that the original Degas may itself be a forgery . . . and so the fun begins.

Part of the fun for me was that the story takes place in Boston, so I actually knew where most of the (fictionalized) action takes place. Plus, Claire volunteers teaching art at a juvenile facility — so my favorite topic of criminal justice policy gets a little shout-out — but this is less character development than plot device.

But even non-Bostonians and those who aren’t fascinated by the heist or by crime/criminal justice will likely enjoy this quick read. Check it out from your local public library!

becoming van gogh

van gogh’s basket with six oranges

At the end of October, my husband attended a nerd conference in Denver, so I tagged along for a bit of a vacation and to see my family that lives in the area. While there I went to see the awesome Van Gogh exhibit at the Denver Art Museum.

“Becoming Van Gogh” is really well done. The special exhibit, featuring more than 70 pieces from 60 different public and private collections, traces Van Gogh’s evolution as an artist during his 10-year career. I didn’t realize quite how brief of a time Van Gogh was active: He only decided to become an artist at age 27, after an unsatisfying start as a pastor and missionary to a working class mining community in rural Belgium. At 37, he died under mysterious circumstances, returning from painting in a wheat field with a gunshot wound. Though the internets claim that it’s “widely accepted” that he killed himself (despite the fact that a gun was never found), the exhibit suggested only that it might have been murder.

The exhibit included many of Van Gogh’s famous works — but alas not Starry Night. Since it’s probably Van Gogh’s iconic work and almost everyone recognizes it, I at first wasn’t that disappointed not to see it. However, I realized (and perhaps this should have been obvious) that there is nothing like seeing a painting in real life, especially Van Gogh’s. The picture of the painting above, for example, barely does justice to the overwhelming brightness of the whites, blues, and oranges in the painting itself. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.

landscape under a stormy sky

van gogh’s landscape under a stormy sky

And now I know that what’s odd about this is that Van Gogh, early in his apprenticeship, did not employ color much at all; his early works can only be described as drab — the palette related to his choice of subject, everyday working folk, whom he desired both to realistically portray and to ennoble as sufferers of the human condition. The Potato Eaters, which was included in the exhibit, is a good example of this early work. It was only after he studied color theory and became obsessed with Japanese woodcuts that his paintings began to evidence the bright hues that would later become his signature. One of my favorites from the exhibit (besides Basket with Six Oranges above) was Landscape Under a Stormy Sky.

I started this post almost two months ago and only just have been able to finish it — and now the exhibit closes in less than a month, and it’s apparently not traveling (not that very many people would/would be able to travel just to see an art exhibit). However, if you can, it’s certainly worth the trip. (And buy your tickets ahead of time! I wasn’t sure what my schedule would be, so I didn’t do so, and visits were sold out through my stay: I had to wheedle my way in, and I was only barely able.)

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