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!

reading texts together

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 am spending the next three weeks in England as part of a university’s interfaith program, the basis of which is study of scripture — essentially, reading texts together with people of different religious traditions. (The program also includes lectures and group discussions.)

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram)

I am already exhausted. Besides jet lag, I am faced with a schedule of near constant activities, with people I don’t know and with whom I might have little in common. And of course part of the point of the program is to form relationships with classmates, so we eat and socialize together in addition to learning together.

In some ways, it’s not unlike the past week I spent at the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. Though we were (almost) all Jews, as unaffiliated Jews we were from quite different backgrounds and in some cases had quite different ideas about what it means to be Jewish. In other words, being with other Jews in a pluralistic setting can sometimes feel like an interfaith endeavor. And that event also took place in a rural, retreat-like university setting.

And although I am not expected to “represent Judaism” while I am here, it is a bit intimidating to be asked to offer opinions and interpretations as a Jew when I might be one of the few Jews that some of my co-participants might meet. I want to be clear that I can offer a Jewish perspective on the texts at hand and also convey that that perspective might only be one of many.

sunset at Madingley Hall; photo by salem pearce (via instagram

sunset at the castle that serves as our conference center; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the program, there are four other Jewish participants (three rabbinical students and a Judaic Studies graduate student). There are five Christians (from the U.S., China, Nigeria, Singapore, and Egypt), and the rest of the students are Muslim, most of whom are from Oman. What has been striking so far is the experience of being in a primarily Muslim space. Though the setting is thoroughly British, the majority of people in the program — including the staff and interns — are Arabic-speaking Muslims, so the accommodations are geared towards them. There is someone who can serve as an Arabic translator in every group; during meals, all of the meat is halal; and the breaks coincide with times for prayer. It is a new experience for me: While I am used to being in a minority religious group, I only know how to do that within a Christian majority.

Tonight all of the Jews met after dinner to plan the Kabbalat Shabbat service that we’ll lead for the group on Friday night. We also planned morning davenning and benching after meals. It was nice to have some exclusively Jewish time: We all agreed it’s been hard to be constantly earnest and decorous in the group, so as to give a good impression of Judaism. But as one person wailed, “I’m dying to be sarcastic!”

Despite these challenges, much of the program is comfortable: Defying stereotypes, the food is quite good (I’ve been eating vegetarian and fish dishes as my kosher option, though I could have chosen specifically catered hechshered kosher food). I have a single room with my own bathroom (the castle doubles as a bed-and-breakfast, which means that my room is cleaned and the towels changed each day), and there are plenty of large, comfortable salons in which to relax.

And I get to drink all the tea I can manage. Cheers!

things i ate in texas that i loved

migas

migas from Goode Company Taqueria; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

When I go back to Texas, which I am usually able to do about three times a year, I have two priorities: seeing my family (parents; brother, sister-in-law, and nephew; cousin and her husband; aunt and uncle; and grandmother) and eating Tex-Mex — which is often just called “Mexican food” by locals. Inspired by Mexican food, Tex-Mex is actually not Mexican food proper but its own type of cuisine.

I haven’t lived in Texas in more than 10 years, and there is no good Tex-Mex anywhere on the East Coast — and anyone who says differently is (a) wrong or (b) selling something. Even the restaurants that look promising aren’t: When my husband and I first arrived in Boston, we found a Tex-Mex joint run by a man from Houston: It was awful.

butter crunch blue bell ice cream; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

butter crunch blue bell ice cream; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

So when I’m in Texas, I make my family eat Tex-Mex at just about every meal. During my most successful trip, I managed to eat at Pappasito’s, Chuy’s, Ninfa’s, Lupe’s, Berryhill, and Goode Company Taqueria (my favorites). My New Jersey-native husband usually cries uncle after about two days, and of course my own family doesn’t normally eat that much. (They often refrain for a few weeks before I arrive to prepare themselves.) I’m like a Tex-Mex chipmunk: I have to store it all away until my next visit.

frozen

frozen margarita with salt from Pappasito’s; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

My favorite breakfast is migas (without chorizo) from Goode Company Taqueria (above), which come with refried beans, rice, and flour tortillas. I ate them three times last week. The breakfast menu is extensive, and I’m told other items on the menu are also great. On our last day my husband got huevos con napolitos (eggs with cactus), a favorite of my brother’s. This trip my mom did manage to convince me one morning to try breakfast tacos from Maria’s Tacos near their house in the Heights: They were indeed excellent.

shipley's chocolate iced nut and cinnamon sugar donuts; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

shipley’s chocolate iced nut and cinnamon sugar do-nuts; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

For dinners, we did Chuy’s and Ninfa’s on Navigation, at the latter of which we saw a family whose daughters went to school with me and my brother. The oldest daughter also lives in Boston with her husband and two daughters and during her visit was also doing the Tex-Mex tour of Houston. (See, I’m not the only one!) And I had Pappasito’s at Hobby airport on the way out of town.

This trip I also managed to work in a few non-Tex-Mex local Texas food. One afternoon we got stuck in some traffic on what should have been a quick detour to get a doughnut at Shipley; my husband griped that it had better be worth it — and he later confirmed that it was. I ate Blue Bell (new-to-me flavor Butter Crunch) in Brenham, Texas, the home of the Texas-made ice cream. My parents and brother and sister-in-law and I drove there one day to meet my aunt, uncle, and grandmother, since the town is about halfway between Houston and Austin, where the latter live. We ate lunch at the Brenham institution Must Be Heaven, known for its homemade pies (I had a slice of the peach praline).

Now we’re back in Boston, and my husband has declared that he needs to fast for the next five days to make up for the excess of Texas. I, on the other hand, could eat more Tex-Mex.

riddle, wrapped in a mystery

Trigger warning: One of the books reviewed here contains a brief episode of sexual assault, which I allude to in my review.

I had originally planned to pair the first book in this post, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, with another book that I read at about the same time, before I left D.C. in May. However, I just finished Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: My Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, and I think it’s a better fit with the former.

Both are memoirs (my favorite genre) written by women who struggle in becoming who they are, Hamilton’s journey less purposeful than Feldman’s. Both women suffered by my curious googling after finishing their stories.

At the end of April, while in New York for a conference, I met my friend Megan (and another friend of hers) for dinner. They had chosen Prune, Hamilton’s small East Village eatery. Both had read her memoir. After the fantastic (although not so vegetarian- or kosher-friendly) food, I decided to check it out. I don’t eat most of the food that Hamilton loves or prepares or writes about, and my mouth still watered. She has a simple aesthetic as a cook: To use simple, real ingredients to make delicious food. Even a non-foodie like me knows how rare that is. I remember and still think about some of the dishes she describes, and I wonder if they are really as good as she says — and if I’ve wasted years being a vegetarian and then observing kashrut.

Two quick asides about the cover: First of all, I had no clue that the art was an upside-down chicken head. Seeing the digital image in this post now makes that mistake seem ridiculous (it took my husband to disabuse me of the notion that it was an odd kind of shellfish mentioned in one of her recipes), but I think it was hard to get the distance necessary to discern the image correctly at a book’s usual distance from one’s face. The second thing is the endorsement by Anthony Bourdain. He proclaims, “Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.” This never failed to make me giggle each time I resumed the book: How many chef memoirs are out there? (Yes, yes: probably more than I know.) But more to the point, Anthony Bourdain wrote his own memoir about his professional life as a chef. I am not running to check it out from the library, because it is clearly at most the second best memoir by a chef.

Hamilton came by her style — and her success — the hard way. The book takes the reader from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania, where her cooking education began in her mother’s kitchen, to her teenage years in New York as a coked-out waitress, to college and graduate school, and back to New York, where she worked terrible catering jobs until she started Prune. The story finally ends in Italy, the mecca of good food, where her husband’s family lives (more about that later).

Hamilton is a great writer. Her graduate work was in creative writing, and she tells wonderful stories. She also has the distance from most of the events of the book to be able to make them coherent and shape them into a larger narrative (perspective which Feldman lacks, but more on that below). What was missing from Hamilton was explanation and motivation, particularly for some of her more unorthodox (see what I did there?) choices. After a lot of turmoil in her childhood (her parents’ divorce, financial troubles), Hamilton struggles to make it to and to stay in college. And then she dispatches her four years there in mere sentences — and is then suddenly off to graduate school, with nary an explanation for her choice of post-undergraduate education. She is also by then in a relationship with a woman, who follows her to Michigan and returns with her to New York.

Her foray into restaurant ownership is just as, if not more, mysterious. As Hamilton tells it, a neighbor happens to drop by to ask if she wants to see some real estate he owns. Her catering jobs leading to no foreseeable career, Hamilton essentially decides to buy the space, once home to a failed restaurant, on the spot – but with no indication that she has ever before considered this step. Just as suddenly, the restaurant is not only up and running – again, without explanation of how she started the business, which by her own admission she knows nothing about – but hugely successful, with lines, stretching down the street, of customers waiting for Saturday and Sunday brunch.

And! Hamilton is by this time pregnant with her second child. The father of both is an Italian doctor whom she started seeing while still living with her girlfriend, each without knowledge of the other. The reader is again offered almost nothing to understand this choice. Please note: I generally believe that folks do not owe others explanations of their sexuality, but as this is a memoir, and the choice, unusual, a fuller exploration seems warranted, especially in light of her clear ambiguity about the relationship with her children’s father.

Hamilton never lives with him, though they co-parent. This decision, however, seems less by design and more by inertia – like the pregnancies. She falls for the doctor after he cooks her a delicious, authentic Italian meal from scratch; indeed, the attractions of his extended Italian family in Rome, his mother’s cooking, and their rural villa in Puglia seem more compelling than he himself.

Later in their relationship, he attempts to cook the wooing meal for her again but forgets a key step in the process, rendering the homemade pasta disappointingly edible. Hamilton feels similarly about his family as their charms began to wane, the Roman apartment becoming cramped and hot, the food becoming predictable and uninventive, and the villa becoming provincial and isolating. The book ends with the impending dissolution of her relationship.

Curious about so many unanswered questions, I googled Hamilton for more information. The (perhaps unsubstantiated) gossip indicates that her divorce was less about her growing disaffection for the Italian side of her chosen family than the fact that she was having an affair with her sister’s husband. A potential second affair – and I use that word carefully, since there is no evidence that the parties involved either time had open relationships – combined with the bafflement about her life’s trajectory – ultimately made the story end for me on a sour note. I don’t know know what to believe about her experience, and that seems odd in a memoir.

Since I started by judging Hamilton’s book by its cover, I begin by judging Feldman’s by its name. As my husband pointed out as soon as he saw me reading it: “I’m sure it’s a great read, but that title is terrible. Did the editors have a contest to see who could come up with the most clichéd name in the shortest amount of time?”

Unorthodox was featured in Lilith magazine along with several other books about women’s experiences with Orthodox Judaism. Feldman grew up a Satmar Hasid in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn speaking only Yiddish; was given the minimal high school education – complete with the daily hour of “English” that allowed the religious school to maintain state accreditation – as befits a girl in that community; was married to a man chosen by her family at age 17; and became a mother at age 19. She left her husband a few years after her son was born.

Feldman’s telling makes it clear from the outset that she simply doesn’t belong in the world of her family of origin. She wants to read books in English – and sneaks into the public library to get them, hiding them in her room – and instinctively feels that the Hasidic approach to mental illness (from which bother her uncle and her father suffer) and to sexual assault (of which she is a victim), of not seeking professional help from the outside world, is troubling. She is fated to leave the community, as her mother did years before. She feels it instinctively and deeply, and from her position on the other side, that feeling certainly seems to have been validated.

The book begins with Feldman sitting down to a meal with her estranged mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years. Writing a book about her experience requires brutal honestly, she figures, and she wants to start with answers from her mother. But this beginning seems only to serve to burnish her credentials as a writer – she’s telling us she set out to be honest, so what follows must therefore be so! – because we’re aren’t actually privy to what her mother says. It’s only later in the story that we discover, along with Feldman when she watches the documentary Trembling Before G-d, about queer folks in Orthodox Jewish communities, that her mother is gay.

The memoir is a quick read, and I zoomed through it, especially when I realized that tales of her married sexual life were forthcoming. (Yes, I am that prurient.) That part of the story did not disappoint: Her marriage begins with a year of physically and emotionally painful attempts to actually have sex, a problem made worse by the fact that everyone in the small community knows about and weighs in on the saga as it occurs. Whatever the root cause of the difficulty, it is also exacerbated by the profound lack of sexual education in the community: Feldman recounts the story of her neighbor, whose husband’s haste, force, and ignorance on their wedding night caused her colon to rupture when they inadvertently had anal instead of vaginal intercourse. Feldman and her husband are similarly clueless. It’s lurid details like this, along with many others, about religious doctrine and anti-Israel rallies, about arranged marriages and purity laws, and that make this a fascinating glimpse into a notoriously insular community.

As the narrative winds down with her decision to leave her husband and Hasidism, she describes the difficulties that this will entail, particularly in gaining at least joint custody of her son. But, in a bizarre omission, nothing of her preparations or the legal battle are recounted. The book ends with her and her son in a new apartment, but we have no idea how they got there.

And so I googled Feldman. Unsurprisingly, the book has come under vitriolic attack by the Satmar Hasidim she describes. And unfortunately, at least some of their objections seem to be warranted: One of the more gruesome accounts in the book (which I do not need to recount here; it will be immediately obvious) was revealed after the book’s publication to be dubious as best. She also omitted the existence of a little sister, and the timeline of her mother’s abandonment has been called into question. Custody of her son was won only after she hid with him at various friends’ houses for several months and survived protracted legal action by her husband’s family.

Unlike Hamilton, Feldman ultimately comes across as young a naïve – she’s writing mere months after her departure, and she is scathing in her indictment of almost everyone in her family. As I finished the book, I wondered whether time would allow her to take a more charitable – or at least more balanced – view of their actions, and if she might end up regretting some of her words.

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