Our closing ritual will involve both blessings and bread, and the organizers have decided that we should have challah, so they task one of my fellow retreatants with the job of making some. Somehow she intuits that I am the kind of person who bakes bread. (Is it the Birkenstocks? Something in my demeanor? Or is it my pregnant belly -- do I just look the part of earth mother these days? One way or another, she correctly identifies me as a bread baker.) So the two of us, and a South Asian Muslim man, go downstairs into the retreat kitchen and deck ourselves with matching white aprons so we can begin a batch of challah.
Our Muslim friend looks uncertain at first. In his household, he tells me, he just washes dishes; his wife makes the naan. The kitchen has a big fancy mixer, but we're making a small batch (the standard two loaves) so I decide to do everything by hand. I teach him how to lift and press down the dough, and turn it, and lift and press again. The flour is bright against his hands and the dough makes familiar sounds as it slaps against the stainless steel countertop. It smells like yeast, like Shabbat, like home.
On our last day, after the closing ceremony is over, we three congratulate each other on the beautiful thing we have made.
That's an outtake from an essay I wrote about the first Retreat for Emerging Jewish and Muslim Leaders, which was organized by the Department of Multifaith Studies & Initiatives at RRC. (I made one blog post while at the retreat: What we know, what we don't know.) My editor at Zeek felt that the challah scene, while pretty, didn't need to be in the essay. She was probably right, but I didn't want to lose the memory, so I'm sharing it here.
The essay I wrote about that retreat experience has just been published. It's called Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul, and I hope that if you have any interest in Jewish-Muslim relations you'll go and read it and then let me know (either there or here) what you think. Here's how it begins:
It is a sticky August evening in Garrison, New York. I'm sitting on a park bench at a retreat center with a woman I've only just met. I'm wearing capris, a tank top, and my rainbow kippah. She's wearing a turtleneck and long dress with her hair tucked under a scarf. Our assignment is to teach each other a favorite text from our own holy scriptures. She is a Muslim and I am a Jew.
I'm proud of the essay; I feel like I did a good job of capturing some of what the retreat felt like for me. (If you were there, I'd especially love to hear whether my remembrances resonate for you!) You can read the whole thing here. (Edited in 2011 to say: that original piece has lost its formatting and is hard to read, so I've reprinted the essay on my own blog: Allah is the Light: Prayer in Ramadan and Elul.)
If you enjoy the essay, you might also enjoy A Jew and a Muslim Go Upstate, by my fellow retreatant Mona Eltahawy, which tells one of the same stories that I tell in my piece!
As Elul and Ramadan draw toward their natural closing, I remain incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to attend this retreat. God willing and inshallah there will be a second retreat next year; this was an amazing experience which I hope more members of both of our communities will be able to experience. For now: go and read, and enjoy.
As an added note: I want to thank the Henry Luce Foundation, who funded the retreat, for making it possible for me and others to attend the retreat free of charge. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity.