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The Naomi Narrative: A realist in a sea of dreamers

Published: October 24, 2008
Section: Opinions


A few weeks ago I went to an iftar dinner thrown by Hillel . Sponsored in the name of inter-religious relations, it provided a forum for the Muslim students on campus to share the Ramadan experience with their Abrahamic brothers. I arrived late-missing the liturgy part but making it for the food part- and found myself in conversation with two Muslim students and one Jewish student. Somehow or another we determined that Eid-ul-Fitr, the celebratory day that ends Ramadan, coincides with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

“How wonderful!” I exclaimed, truly excited. “Since Brandeis gives the day off anyway, you can celebrate the culmination of Ramadan in style, with no time pressures!” Smiles appeared, and we beamed at each other. It was as if the stars were aligning for us liberals at Brandeis, who value nothing more than “safe spaces” and diversity training. How symbolic! Eid celebrates the end of a period of fasting and prayer, and Rosh Hashana ushers in Yom Kippur, a period of fasting and prayer! Period of reflections, atonement, abstaining from food-even prescribed sweets in the forms of honey for Jews and dates for Muslims. So much similarity, so much common ground! Can you really tell where one religion ended and the other one began? Here we were, celebrating Ramadan in the Hillel lounge, with a rabbi in attendance and eating kosher food, the President of MSA (Muslim Student Association) and key figures on Hillel board chatting amicably.

Co-existence is possible, we say. Dialogue and open-mindedness. Communication.

The key word, diversity. A catch-all phrase which offends no one. Erasing the lines that define us until there’s hardly any delineation at all. So you’re Muslim and I’m Jewish? Great! Daily prayers? Three to five times a day, it’s a wonder we get anything else done. Dietary practices? Miss Piggy isn’t showing up on either of our plates anytime soon. Contentious gender roles? Oh please, lets not even go there.

So we’re the same then, right? I may call him Hashem and you call him Allah, but we’re talking about the same dude upstairs. Shalom and Salaam, come on, its so obviously the same word. We can totally break pita and hummus together. See the movie Zohan for a more complete list of stereotypical commonalities.

I sound cynical. What happened to that liberal muscle I so often flex here at Brandeis? The identity retreats, speakers at the WSRC, the 3 a.m. chats with friends of different races and hues? Did that all go to pot?

Maybe. After leaving the warm glow of the inter-faith iftar, I went to my parent’s home in NY for Rosh Hashana. Waking up slow being one of life‘s small pleasures, I read the newspaper over a cup of chai. Indulging as the hour grew late and services went on without me, I curled up with the New York Times.

And what do I see on the front page? An article about how tense things were in Jerusalem this holiday season. Thousands of devout visitors headed for selichot or iftar pack the narrow streets of the Old City, creating what the author aptly called a “monotheistic traffic jam.” Women in hijabs passed women in wigs with no eye contact or signs of recognition. The yeshiva boy is en route to the Western Wall below, while the Muslim youth is on his way to the Dome of the Rock, located just above. Geographically so close, yet in reality light years away.

They each claim the night as their own and refuse to share it. They pass each other silently, resentfully. In an ideal world, the “other” would not be there. There would be a Holy Temple here, replete with animal sacrifices and ritual. No Muslims in sight. There would be the Dome of the Rock there, with free access to all Muslims. No Israeli soldiers limiting admission at checkpoints. No Jews in sight.

This is just the fundamentalist view you might say. You’re head is cricked to the right Naomi, with not even a glance to the center or the left. Dogmatic-ville is not a very nice place to visit, let alone live.

Maybe I’m just sick and tired of the gray. Gray doesn’t get us anywhere either. Gray is thinking that a dialogue group in Waltham, Massachusetts with 10 students in attendance can change the world. That Carter’s pilot trip to Palestinian territories not only trickled down past the handful of people who went, but enacted any form of change.

You might be able to change individuals on this campus, so far from the action. But can you change those on the ideological front lines in Israel and Palestinian territories? Those living this battle every day?

There’s too much emotion, too much at stake. Talk is theoretical. Talk can’t change belief systems, can’t change history. Talk can’t change the fact that my cousin is a soldier who killed your brother and your grandfather killed mine in ‘73. There’s no hugging that one out, bitch.

So I’m left living in the ersatz world of Brandeis. Refusing to put my weight behind the fantasy of peace love and harmony, the castle on the cloud where Ibrahim and Abraham are the best of friends. I’m a skeptic in a sea of idealists, a realist in a sea of dreamers.