Coming together in America

Coming together in America

Jewish and Muslim co-authors of ‘We Refuse To Be Enemies’ to speak for Parsippany shul

Sabeeha Rehman, and Walter Ruby
Sabeeha Rehman, and Walter Ruby

Sabeeha Rehman didn’t know a lot of Jews growing up.

Just kidding. She didn’t know any.

Which isn’t much of a surprise.

She grew up in Pakistan. Her father was an army general, and his career took him and his family to several different cities during Sabeeha’s childhood. But that mobility wasn’t enough to put her in contact with Pakistan’s miniscule Jewish community of fewer than a thousand people. By contrast, Pakistan, the fifth most populous country in the world, had 69 million people in 1971, when Ms. Rehman left home; now it has 220 million.

In America, though, things were different. Particularly in Queens, where Ms. Rehman moved in 1971 following her traditional arranged marriage to a Pakistani medical student in residence in a New York hospital.

There were lots of Jews there.

Forty years later, she has co-authored a book with a Jewish former resident of Queens. (She now lives in Manhattan after many years in Staten Island.) On Saturday night, she and her co-author, Walter Ruby, will speak for Congregation Or HaLev in Parsippany about their book. (See box.)

Their book, “We Refuse to Be Enemies: How Muslims and Jews Can Make Peace, One Friendship at a Time,” is coming out next month. It is, in a way, a sequel to Ms. Rehman’s first book, “Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim,” because her friendship with Walter Ruby, like all of her acquaintances with Jews, is truly a made-in-America experience.

Her 1971 marriage to Khalid Rehman, then a medical resident, though, was distinctly made in Pakistan.

“Our parents arranged the marriage,” Ms. Rehman said. “He flew over to Pakistan and we were quickly married. Within a week I was in the United States, living in Queens.” (Initially in Hollis, then later in Glen Oaks while he did his residency at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.)

The transition was a shock.

First, there was the New York winter. Average January lows in Rawalpindi, the city where she had been living, are 37 degrees. Snow in Pakistan is reserved for mountains.

Because it was wintertime, “there was no opportunity to hang out with the neighbors,” she said. “It was very lonely, because I had no family here.”

Then there was the Jewish question.

“I had never met a Jew. I had viewed the Jews through the Israeli-Palestine conflict. My husband took me to a Christmas party at his hospital, and half the residents were Pakistani and half were Jews. I couldn’t reconcile that they were bad guys as I had been taught and them being so nice to me.”

The Jews weren’t just at Christmas parties. They were everywhere in her new New York City world.

“My neighbor, an older woman who took me under wings and showed me the ropes, was Jewish,” she said. “My husband’s boss, who was very good to me, was Jewish. My obstetrician was Jewish. My pediatrician was Jewish.

“Then I ended up buying a house in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.”

That worked out well.

“Being a minority in a minority actually made it so much easier for our children,” she said. “I no longer had to tell my children why they couldn’t have a Christmas tree in the house and why have to eat halal food.” (The Rehmans have two sons; one lives in Morristown, the other in Brooklyn. They also have several grandchildren.)

A third piece of culture shock: There was no Muslim community around her. “In 1971, there were no mosques. There was one center in Manhattan; it was in an office space and whenever we had congregational prayers on Eid twice a year, we would rent space in an American hotel.

“In the first years, I ventured away from faith. The whole environment that comes from being part of a Muslim community was missing. Only when our children started growing up did we start doing something to bring Islam back into our life. We started building a Muslim kindergarten and Sunday school.”

Building a Muslim community in America turns out to be not all that different than building a Jewish one.

By this point, the Rehmans had moved to Staten Island. There, they went through the phone book looking for Muslim names, calling up strangers and inviting them to join their new Sunday school. “We had to be the teachers, and we were really ignorant,” she said. “We had to quickly educate ourselves. In a few years we were able to build a mosque.” It was one of a wave of mosques that began opening in New York in the 1980s and 90s.

One difference between opening mosques and synagogues: At first, most mosques were opened in storefronts, because the organizers wouldn’t take out a mortgage to buy a building. “We are not allowed to charge interest or take interest,” Ms. Rehman said. “Even though we have mortgages on our homes, a mosque is sacred.”

(The magnificent mosque on East 96th Street in Manhattan is the exception that proves the rule. It was financed by donations from Muslim states. More recently, America’s growing Muslim population led to the creation of Islamic mortgages that conformed with requirements of Islamic law, similar to the heter iska used by some Orthodox Jews.)

Even without new construction, setting up a mosque in America involves dealing with zoning and other regulatory issues. And that involves seeking approval from the neighbors.

That’s how Ms. Rehman got involved in interfaith dialogue. Building a Muslim community in Staten Island meant “building a relationship with the local community to get support for practicing our freedom of religion and having a house of worship,” she said.

In “Threading My Prayer Rug,” she described how her community building led her to construct a new Muslim American identity — “one which is wholly American and wholly Islamic.”

For those of us familiar with how a new Jewish identity was crafted in America, her story is recognizable — though with obvious, evocative differences.

“Some things haven’t changed,” she said. “Islamic values. The five pillars of faith. What has changed is how Muslims express themselves, whether through dress or music or language.”

Some Muslim cultural practices are very different here than in the world Ms. Rehman came from.

Take weddings.

“In the old country, the religious ceremony was done in private, with the celebration held in a wedding hall. Here, the wedding ceremony is done in the Grand Hyatt. It’s very public.

“Women are no longer changing their maiden names after they are married. We are now studying Islam the way we did not there, and we find out by reading scriptures that women are called by their father’s names,” she said. That’s Quran 33:5 — “call the child by the father’s name.”

“I gave up my maiden name not because it was the Islamic way but because it was the British way,” she said.

Another difference: “Here the youth is very well education in Islam. They study the scripture in English. I studied the scripture in Arabic and didn’t understand a word of it, and my religious education was considered complete.

“The role of the imam is very Americanized. When we started, we invited an imam from the old country who didn’t speak the language, and our children could not relate to him. Now we have seminaries that train American-born men and women to become spiritual leaders.”

Women as imams?

“They are being educated and trained to be spiritual leaders, but whether a woman can lead a mixed prayer with men and women remains controversial. A few accept the concept, most don’t, but the trend is slowing moving in the direction of acceptance. Very slowly.”

But even without serving as imams, “Women’s role in the mosque is different. In the old country, women never went to the mosque. Here we are on the board, doing fundraising, setting the curriculum. It’s a huge difference, and it’s very Islamic,” she said.

Mr. Ruby first discovered contemporary Islam — and Muslim-Jewish dialogue — as a journalist. A reporter who had worked for the Jerusalem Post and the Forward, he went to Seville, Spain, in 2006 to cover the second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace.

“It was a transformative experience for me,” Mr. Ruby said. “I was thrown into this hotel with several hundred rabbis and imams, including from Israel and Gaza. The openness, the communication on a religious level, finding out about the commonalities of the two faiths — the intellectual excitement was very powerful.

“As a secular Jew, I was always saying that the religious guys are the problems in both faiths, they’re the extremists. We need to overcome that stuff.”

He learned otherwise in Seville.

“They can be part of the solution. They’re able to communicate on this direct faith level that is so different from what we see on this tortuous peace negotiations we see on both sides. I thought, this could be a kind of alternative path for peace and reconciliation.”

He soon was hired by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. The group wanted to expand its work, which had focused on Black-Jewish relations, to include Muslim-Jewish relations. As director of the foundation’s Muslim-Jewish programs, he organized twinnings — get togethers between Muslim and Jewish congregations across America.

Which is how he met Ms. Rehman. She was working at the American Society for Muslim Advancement when he called to set up a twinning. 

“From there, Walter and I found ourselves in the same interfaith space,” she said.

Then Mr. Ruby saw an advance copy of Ms. Rehman’s memoir. He was impressed. “Why don’t we write a book together on Muslim-Jewish relations?” he suggested.

And so they did.

“The message we want to drive home is that it is critical that Muslims and Jews come together in America to make it a better places,” Ms. Rehman said. “Both of us are a minority. We cannot afford to let the politics of the Middle East divide us here at home. We are Americans first and must stick together.

“It’s one thing to do it on an institutional level in a public forum. It would be nice if we could start getting together one on one, in living rooms. Invite me to your home. Let’s sit around the kitchen table and chat.” (Once it’s safe to do so, of course.)

It has been 40 years since Ms. Rehman first met a Jew. She’s hasn’t been shy about sharing her good impressions of Jews with her family back home — who are no more likely to have met a Jew in person than she was when she lived there.

“When my family comes to visit me, I take them to a Sabbath service at B’nai Jeshurun near me in Manhattan. They see people dancing and reading from the Torah, and they realize it’s like reading from the Quran. They hear “Sholom aleichem” and say “isn’t that like saying saalam aleikum? Now the family is writing home and saying we just went to a Jewish Sabbath service and people were so nice to us. It’s magic.

“When somebody puts up a positive comment in support of Muslims, my husband will beam it on Facebook to his extended Pakistani family. ‘See how these people are standing up for us!’”

What: Sabeeha Rehman and Walter Ruby, a Muslim woman and a Jewish man, discuss their soon-to-be-released book, “We Refuse to be Enemies.”

When: Saturday, March 13, 7:30 p.m.

Where: On Zoom, via Congregation Or HaLev in Parsippany. Email for the link.

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