Seeking out 'the other'

We don’t always have to agree, but we should at least talk to each other.

cartoon soldier deborah danan (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
cartoon soldier deborah danan
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
I’ve been to many places that my mother would balk at. I can’t help it. Perhaps it’s the adventure- seeker in me. But recently, it’s had more to do with the journalist in me – I simply want to know everything about “the other.”
To me, shopping in the Old City’s Arab shuk is far more fascinating than shopping in Mahaneh Yehuda – as colorful as an experience that always is.
And shopping in Ramallah’s shuk holds even more appeal to me. I love that the cafés sell delicious smoothies with real fruit pieces for about NIS 10. I love that there are no pubs or bars but, instead, there are nargila lounges that resemble the opium dens of yesteryear. But above all, I love getting to know the people. Talking to the locals, garnering an education about their culture and lifestyle, feeling them out, trying to find out what makes them happy or sad or angry.
On one such occasion I was with a Palestinian friend when news broke of an air raid over Gaza. With an expression that was a mixture of pleading and confusion, my friend asked, “Why is your army doing this to those poor trapped people?” I sighed heavily, then looked her right in the eye and asked her to translate the news item. As expected, there was no mention of the rockets raining down onto Israel’s southern cities from Gaza, which by this time were averaging 40 a day. I told her as much, and she looked mortified. Of course, she had no idea. I reassured her by telling her that if the BBC and other media outlets did not deem it necessary to connect the dots between the rocket attacks and the air raids, how could one expect the Palestinian media to do so? Two days before Nakba Day, I found myself in Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, a West Bank town not far from Jerusalem. Needless to say, the contrast between life there and life in Tel Aviv is rather drastic. On the campus billboard there are no posters advertising apartments or some Student Union disco.
Instead, there are posters of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike. And as Tel Aviv gears itself up for the new ban on smoking in public places, at Al-Quds University an elderly professor lights up a cigarette in the classroom.
An undergraduate student named Ahmed gave me a tour of the university, showing me around the new Shari’a studies building and the Kuwaitifunded Museum of Palestinian Prisoners. I can’t say that the tour passed without the occasional shiver running down my spine, but Ahmed himself was very amenable and patiently answered all my questions.
He told me that as part of his philosophy course, he was studying Maimonides. And when I told him that my family are direct descendants of the 12th-century rabbi, he was positively elated and practically prostrated himself before me.
To return to Jerusalem, I traveled on the local Palestinian bus and disembarked with the other passengers to pass through the checkpoint on foot.
One soldier inspected the bus, while another examined our IDs one by one. Another time, I drove out of Ramallah with an Israeli-Arab friend, and I donned a hijab to avoid suspicion (since it’s forbidden for Israelis to travel there without a permit). We sat in traffic for close to two hours in front of the checkpoint, and the entire process gave me a tiny inkling of the everyday stresses that “the others” endure.
I thought to myself, “How can we possibly ever come to a reconciliation or even relate to one another on an elemental, human level if we have no access to one another?” But let’s put aside the Palestinian Arabs for a moment. What about my neighbors in Jaffa? We share the same municipality, and we both carry Israeli ID cards, yet I know precious little about the way they live. So recently, I visited a friend who had moved to Jaffa from Tel Aviv seeking cheaper rent.
While kids in my affluent neighborhood in north Tel Aviv are busy playing with electric scooters and X-boxes, the local kids in Jaffa are escorting small horses around the streets, while chickens and hens waddle around them pecking the ground.
I thought, “How can I make sense of what’s going on in the West Bank when even in a place like Jaffa, which is so close to home, things are still so alien to me?” Back in the familiar environs of Tel Aviv, another experience drove this point home even further – only this time, it didn’t involve people who belonged to a different religion. I was walking down Ben-Gurion Boulevard when I encountered a scene that was starkly incongruous to the standard depiction of Tel Aviv as a party city.
With music blaring and people dancing, it was a party scene of sorts, but of a very different kind. Perhaps this is what actress Claire Danes was referencing when she recently commented that Tel Aviv was the most “intense party town” she had ever been to.
This particular party was a Lag Ba’omer celebration hosted by the local community of Vasloier hassidim. A group of shtreimel-bedecked men were dancing in a circle, while their wives walked around handing out rogelach and cakes to passersby. I stood watching with other secular locals, their faces cast with eerie shadows from the bonfire flames that seemed to be leaping into the air to the beat of the hassidic music. As we watched mesmerized, some of the secular men were dragged into the circle to join the dance. I smiled and wondered what they thought of the whole spectacle. Being that I’m from Jerusalem and being that I used to food shop regularly in the haredi neighborhoods of Geula and Mea She’arim, I am probably more acquainted with haredi communities than some of my fellow observers. But still, how much do I really know about this type of “other” who celebrates the same festivals as I do? I believe Israel is starting to wise up to the notion that we can’t hope to understand our Palestinian neighbors next door until we start trying to understand the different faces of our own society.
TV programs like Channel 10’s Haredim, which explores “the other” within the Jewish nation, seem to indicate that a wave of change is on the horizon.
Another indication is the plethora of Jewish centers that have opened in recent years in Tel Aviv. They provide a forum in which secular and religious people can intermingle and learn about their religion in an atmosphere that is free from bias or proselytizing.
During the course of writing about this phenomenon for these pages, I interviewed Rabbi Uri Sherkey, who holds a weekly Torah class in Tel Aviv for a mixed audience of religious and secular Jews. Rabbi Sherkey postulates that both sides of the fence have much to learn from each other; a religious person can glean many lessons from his secular brethren, including issues such as caring for the environment, which are not a strong point among many religious communities. Or, on a more basic level, they can learn to emulate the “secular” trait of open-mindedness.
On the other side of the coin, religious people can educate secular people about the rituals and practices of the faith that they were born into.
It was in this vein that a friend and I decided to begin hosting Shabbat meals that are open to all types of people.
This week, we hosted 120 secular and religious Tel Avivians for a Friday night meal in a local synagogue, and on Saturday 200 or more turned up for a picnic in the park.
It was important for me to keep these events as “agenda-free” as possible. It isn’t about lofty goals such as matching up singles. Nor is it about making secular people religious. It is simply about providing a forum where one can meet others that are not necessarily of their own ilk. It’s about providing access to “the other.”
With any luck, once we start accepting our own “other,” we can begin to accept those in this land that do not belong to the same religion.
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