It’s Summertime, and the Addictions Flow Easy

“My name is Shelley and I am a Words With Friends-aholic.”

Like most addicts, I was unaware that I was one. “Playing” was simply something I enjoyed. All the time. With up to ten people. Simultaneously. I checked the site first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and often in between. I kept my phone plugged in by my pillow, within easy reach in case insomnia struck.

My new best friend was a grammar school classmate who had tracked me down on facebook. Buddy and I would sometimes have five games going at once. We were constantly in cyber-contact. As soon as I played a word, he was right back. Thrust and parry. Not a moment in between until I would look at the clock, and cringe at how long I had been glued to the screen, lost in time and space.

I was a moth and this was my flame.

I started cursing others, out loud, when they racked up a high point word. I began bearing them ill will. These were no longer my friends. They were my adversaries. I checked the leaderboard after every play. Number two was not an option.

It was on a week internet-less vacation in Maine when my spousal equivalent first voiced his unhappiness with my behavior. As soon as we were within WiFi access, I whipped out my phone and checked out. Deprivation at the cabin resulted in unbridled binging. I was entitled. I ignored bucolic scenery. I preferred interactions with my fellow WWF-aholics to interacting with local lobstermen. He said I was rude, obsessed and unsociable. I said he was petty, selfish and needy. He said I spent more time with Buddy than I did with him. I said he was ridiculous and jealous.

Still, I didn’t stop. Instead, I began sneaking.

I stayed in the car at gas stations, lingered in the grocery store and “rested” at rest stops. I thought about WiFi. All the time. And stewed with resentment.

On that tense ride home, I realized I had better at least pretend to see the light. I admitted that I needed to stop, or at least to moderate my consumption. I acknowledged that my hobby was becoming an “issue” in our relationship. I would be more sensitive and less obsessed. I could do this. I would do this.

Not so easy, I discovered. Especially when my buddy Buddy-the-enabler was not on the same page. I finally conceded I couldn’t beat this alone.

Fate was on my side. WWF Anonymous had just started weekly meetings at my local Unitarian church. I saw the ads in the paper and began circling them, first in pencil and then in red pen. At last, one day I went.

The group was small and sat in a circle. I recognized a few faces and tried not to register surprise or relief. I took a seat and listened.

“Welcome to Words With Friends Anonymous.”

To be continued.

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One Handful of Mud at a Time

Pictured above: Professor Mohammed Khallouk

When is the last time you read the same two articles in a Jewish newspaper and an Islamic e-magazine?

This is a story about a Muslim professor and e-magazine publisher and a Jewish writer and editor who saw in each other’s writing an opportunity to broaden the horizons of their readerships. It is a story about hope and possibility. It does not dwell on the challenges that politics, culture and religion pose. Instead, it focuses on common human ground and the way each of us can build a better future, one relationship at a time.

As editor of the bi-weekly Jewish Journal, I received scores of unsolicited articles and opinion pieces. A small percentage of the ones I actually read were appropriate for our publication and of those, I only had room for a handful in every issue.

Every now and then, however, an article would reach out and grab me in a way that I knew I had to publish it. Professor Mohammed Khallouk’s “Can Sworn Enemies Ever Become Friends?” was one.

This is how it began:

“In my youth in Morocco I was taught to hate Jews, and especially Israelis. I was convinced that Jews and Muslims could never become friends and that the relationship between Israelis and Arabs was based on hostility. The reality of cultural and religious pluralism in my new home country of Germany and an examination of Moroccan history, which shows that Jews and Muslims have lived in harmony for centuries, have convinced me that differences in religion cannot be the true reason for the animosity between them in the Middle East today.

I recently traveled to Jerusalem and wrote a travelogue about the experience. My meeting with one Jewish shopkeeper in the Western part of Jerusalem was especially unforgettable. My experience with this friendly and open-minded man named Abraham motivated me to write him a letter, which I included at the end of my book. This letter is a mirror of my experiences in the Holy City on the whole and my experiences meeting Abraham in particular.”

In his letter to Abraham, Professor Khallouk’s describes his revelations while in Israel, the gist of which are reprinted here:

“Even more than at the Holy Sites, I experienced this sense of brotherhood in Jerusalem’s everyday life. There were Jews like you who approached me as a fellow human with neither awkwardness nor fear. Appearance, origin and religious belief were unimportant. You saw me as a person who needed your assistance, and you spontaneously offered your help.

This human interaction has shaped my view of Jerusalem ever since. Jews are henceforth in my consciousness no longer my sworn enemies. I was able to experience them as my friends, soul-mates and spiritual brothers. While I continue to disagree in many key points with the State of Israel’s political stand on the Middle East conflict, Jews in West Jerusalem now matter to me as much as do Arabs and Muslims in the east of the Holy City. You have shown that you understand the importance of humanity essential to both Islam and Judaism.

The experience of seeing people of different cultures and religions coexisting so closely makes me long to return one day to the Holy City. The warmth with which we dealt with each other makes me hopeful that it might also inspire the political and social leaders. This is how political conflict can be overcome. Brotherhood and solidarity need to be the dominant image that Jews and Muslims have of each other.

I recognize your human kindness as a model for the rest of the world as well. This applies not least to German society, in which despite its cultural and political pluralism sometimes indifference and self-centeredness prevail. In Jerusalem I met a Judaism that reaches out to others. The guiding principle can be expressed thus: Only in dealing with the You, can the I find its identity.”

I emailed Professor Khallouk, telling him how much his message moved me and that, while I would have to edit it due to print space constraints, I wanted to publish it. I wanted our Jewish readers to hear a reasoned and reasonable Muslim voice, one that advocated human kindness and empathy, one that, these days and especially recently in the Journal’s pages, is too often ignored.

We exchanged several increasingly friendly emails. His article appeared at the top of the Jewish Journal May 28 Opinion page. Mine appeared at the bottom, an article entitled “Baccalaureate: Not Your Average Graduation Ceremony” that praised the interfaith Tufts University Baccalaureate ceremony for being a powerful reminder that we are members of a common community that embraces, rather than fears, the differences of our separate identities.

When I sent Professor Khallouk the pdf of the Opinion page, he replied with this email:

Dear Shelley,

Thank you very much for the publishing of my  article. It was a great pleasure for me to find it on the same page with your nice literary report about diversity and the baccalaureate service.

If you do not mind I would like to translate  your piece into German and publish the translation on the website of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany

I also wish you a beautiful day and would be happy for another opportunity to work together with you.

Mohammed

The article appeared recently at http://islam.de/26575.php.

The point of the story is quite simple. We can recognize and seize opportunities to shape the future with a foundation of coexistence and compromise, or we can construct it from a place of separation, hostility and stereotyping. Either is possible and both require the same action: human hands, building together, one handful of mud at a time.

Prof. Mohammed Khallouk is a political and Islamic scientist with German and Moroccan roots. He is an expert in Islamic Thought and Politics, Political Islam and is skilled in intercultural dialogue between the West and the Islamic World.

Prof. Khallouk received his Ph.D. in 2007 in Political Science at the Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany. His doctoral thesis dealt with Political Islam in his country of origin, Morocco. His M.A. degree in Political Science at Marburg University in 2003, based on his thesis about the possibility of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, was honored with the German Academic Exchange Prize. He also received a M.A. degree in Arab and Islamic Thought at Mohammed V – University of Rabat, Morocco, in 1997.

Khallouk served as a lecturer in Political Science from 2008 to 2012 at Philipps-University of Marburg and from 2010 to 2012 at the University of German Federal Armed Forces Munich. Since 2014 he has served as Professor for Islamic Studies at Qatar University, Doha.

To read Professor Khallouk’s complete article, go to  http://boston.forward.com/articles/187449/can-sworn-enemies-ever-become-friends/#ixzz3fGMBw3Yy

Baccalaureate: Not Your Average Graduation Ceremony

My youngest recently graduated from Tufts University, marking a rite de passage and the turning of a page for both us. The day before Commencement, we attended his Baccalaureate Service. In the sea of caps and gowns, he was nearly indistinguishable from his 1,250 colleagues. In the audience, among the dewy-eyed adults, so was I. It was hard work to catch each other’s eye as the processional sped past. This was not a personal, private setting to mark a journey from one stage of life to the next. This was the Gantcher Family Sports and Convocation Center, and it was overflowing at its seams.

Yet, unlike the Commencement ceremony the next day, the Baccalaureate Service somehow spun a magic web that connected every individual in the building to each other. Despite the cavernous, detached environment, the substance of the service touched me in a way that was unexpectedly intimate, spiritual and bonding. This was no small feat for an arcane Christian tradition from medieval times.

The original purpose of the Baccalaureate was literally to honor graduates with “laurels of oration” as they cross the threshold into their lives beyond their college years. The ceremony, a religious graduation custom that originated in 1432 at the University of Oxford, was a religious service of worship in celebration of, and thanksgiving for, lives dedicated to learning and wisdom.

At Tufts, the Baccalaureate was coordinated by the University Chaplaincy and the Interfaith Student Council. It marked the last time for the senior class to be alone together as a class. As a parent focused on trying to figure out where 21 years went, it was a helpful reminder that this day was bittersweet for my son too.

It was also a multi-faith celebration that spotlighted the students’ (and their parents’) shared heritage of diversity and common values of learning, service and teamwork. The program emphasized prayer, meditation and contemplation. And live music: jazz, a traditional Gaelic song and a traditional African American spiritual.

Even the brochure felt more like a global prayer book than a graduation agenda. Instead of pages listing individual winners of competitive awards and prizes, the program was chockfull of readings and blessings. The title page pictured the 15 religious and philosophical symbols of the traditions practiced by the Tufts community.

Five “Lessons of Inspiration” illustrated the different ways students from 37 nations and 47 states acknowledged what is sacred to them. The selections came from Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Humanist sacred texts. Reading the English translations, it was impossible not to admit and admire their similarities.

Hearing the Upanishad (Sanskrit), the Bible (Hebrew) and the Qu’an (Arabic) in their original tongues was even richer. The languages “felt” holy, both melodious and hymnal. Each prayer spoke of peace, the beauty of life and the dignity of endurance. It was a powerful reminder that, while we are a diverse people that honor and take fierce pride in our separate identities, we are also members of a common community that embraces, rather than fears, those differences.

Anthropologists define rite de passage as marking the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage to another over time. What a persuasive and nurturing capstone the Baccalaureate was for these fledgling adults. And for their parents, too.

Finding the OM in ShalOM: Trekking Through India

View from the Agra Fort with the Taj Mahal barely visible through the smog.

When I went to India, I was braced for the traffic, the garbage, and the almost unbearable density of humanity. I accepted that cows had a divine right of way over everyone everywhere, including Mack trucks on highways. I knew I would brush my teeth with bottled water and forgo my dietary staple, lettuce, for three weeks.

I thought I had done my homework.

Preparation for encountering Stars of David on Muslim mosques was not even remotely on my radar screen.

While I easily coped with the unrelenting assault on all my senses that is the joy and intensity of traveling in India, I was much less graceful at weathering the perceived assault on the icon of my Jewish identity.

On my first day in Delhi, at the first site we visited, I spotted the familiar six-pointed star in an unfamiliar place: at the Muslim Tomb of Humayun, burial spot of the second Mughal emperor. Jewish stars inexplicably adorned entryways, ironwork windows, inlaid floors, and painted ceilings. Was this some kind of a jet-lag joke?

At right: Entrance to Humayun’s Tomb in Old Delhi.

Our guide told us that Humayun’s Tomb was the first Mughal (a Muslim dynasty) tomb. Built in 1565 by the Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiya, it became the template for all future tombs, including the Taj Mahal. Had Ghiya deliberately blasphemed our sacred Hebraic symbol by splashing it all over his Mughal garden and tomb? Given our millenia of dogged persecution, this was hardly a far-fetched possibility. But here, in India, the cradle of yoga, compassion and meditation?

I vowed to get to the bottom of this.

What India lacks in traffic etiquette and control, it more than makes up for in Wi-Fi access, and I was no sooner through the hotel front door than my Google search yielded fruit. There were many explanations for why hexagrams adorn Humayun’s Tomb; not one pointed to bearing the Jews ill will.

Long before 1565, the hexagram was recognized as a potent symbol of planetary alignment in India. It signified perfection, good fortune, stability, calm and harmony. Akbar, Humayun’s son, wanted to pay homage to his father’s infatuation with astrology, and instructed Ghiya to incorporate the symbol in the tomb design.

At left: Palace of the Winds in Jaipur.

Akbar may have had additional, more practical and political, reasons. The Muslim Mughals ruled over vast areas of Hindu-majority India. Ancient Hindus revered the hexagram as divine representation of perfect union. Akbar may have cleverly bought his Muslim dynasty some popularity and legitimacy among the Hindus he ruled by prominently including their religious symbol on his first public work.

Whether or not I bought any of these explanations, there was no way to conclude that the Muslim hexagram was intended to insult us Jews or steal what was rightfully ours.

But was it really rightfully “ours?” Who had prior use claim over this six-pointed star?

As with all questions grounded in anything Judaic, there were scores of explanations. All agreed on one fact: that the symbol’s identification with the Jewish community dated no earlier than to the 17th century in Vienna, when the Jewish quarter was formally distinguished from the rest of the city. Akbar’s 1565 public use would seem to trump.

However, that had suddenly become less the point, and therein lay the real lesson. I had been searching for evidence that, once again, we Jews had been dissed and ripped off. Instead, I uncovered proof of my own knee-jerk pride and prejudice. India had given me the opportunity to appreciate the possibility of amicable common ground unrooted in anything negative, and I had nearly missed it. I was so focused on what I was looking for that I almost didn’t see what I had found.

I had booked a tour of India because I wanted to experience the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes the glossy brochure promised. The softening of a hard edge and recalibration of an inner lens was an add-on bonus.

I’d say I got way more than I paid for.

All photos by Shelley A. Sackett