The Power of Friendship

The power of friendship is something that we underestimate. We form friendships throughout our lives. My 2½ year old granddaughter takes great pride in telling us that her friends in nursery are Neha, Gracie, Frankie and Finley. Friends come and go, because we move away from an area, our circumstances change or we simply grow apart. But there will always be something about all our friendships, that, wherever we go, there will still be a part of that friendship that remains.

The two names I recall from my early childhood friendships are Gail and Rosemary. I was heartbroken when Gail told me she wouldn’t be returning to school after the summer holidays because her family were emigrating to Australia. We must have been 10 at the time. Rosemary and I went our separate ways when after primary school we went to different middle schools. Grace and Tasneem are probably two of my oldest friends that I’m still in contact with. Grace and I met at high school over 30 years ago and she now lives in Scotland. We manage to stay in touch thanks to social media. Tasneem and I grew up within the Muslim community in Leeds. Our mums were friends and our sisters were friends. We exchange the occasional text message, most often when one of my sisters tells me she bumped into Tasneem as a wedding or funeral of a mutual acquaintance.

Many people become friends and touch our hearts in the course of our lives. People of many different cultures and faiths, if we are lucky! But despite growing up in a very Jewish part of Leeds, I didn’t have any Jewish friends. I knew of Jewish people. Our local chemist was owned by Mr Booth, our family GP was Dr Levy and my father would only ever buy fresh bread and cheesecake from Chaultz bakery when it opened on a Sunday morning after Shabbat.

I met my first Jewish friends when I moved to Staffordshire in the early 1990’s and became involved in the local interfaith organisation. They were part of a very small Hebrew congregation based up in Stoke and were in the process of de-consecrating the large synagogue that had now outgrown the diminishing community. The thing I welcomed most about our friendship was the capacity to have difficult conversations, but still remain honest and maintain respect for the views of ‘the other’, and of course, Sydney’s never-ending supply of Jewish jokes!

One conversation in particular I recall was with Sydney and a Christian chaplain. We were discussing the Israel – Palestine issue. Sydney understandably had his loyalty to Israel, but totally accepted that as a Muslim I would feel affinity to the plight of the Palestinians. As our conversation came to a close, Sydney looked at me and said “honestly Hifsa if this is what it takes for the Messiah to come, I wish he’d just stay where he was”. Some might call this blasphemy, I call it one mans’ desire to see peace in the region.

Through my friendships with Sydney, Paul, Martin and many others I was able to discover so much more about Judaism. My father used to say to me – our name is Haroon {Arabic for Aaron} don’t you know he was the brother of Moses & that makes Muslims and Jews brothers & sisters? I became a regular at the synagogue and attended many Sedar meals there. Sadly, I was also able to go and pay my final respects to Sydney when he passed away.

Over the last century, Muslims have suffered terrible conflicts in the Middle East, Bosnia, Africa and South Asia. But this is nothing when compared to the centuries of persecution faced by Jews; the Russian pogroms that saw the large scale targeted and repeated mob-attacks on Jews; and the Holocaust that witnessed the genocide of 6 million Jews, for example. But for the last 70 years our two great religions have been portrayed as being at war over the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indeed, it has been difficult to speak of Muslims and Jews without seeing things through the prism of the Middle East conflict. It needs to be acknowledged however that as a Muslim, it is natural for me to feel the pain of the terrible injustices and suffering faced by the Palestinians, whilst recognising that my Jewish friends will hold a deep connection to Israel and desire for a homeland which is safe and secure. Furthermore, just as I do not have to justify or be held to account for the actions of some Muslims, my Jewish friends do not have to account for the actions of the Israeli government.

Friendship is not about agreeing with everything the ‘friend’ has to say. Friendship is about the ability to listen to views and opinions that may differ from our own. Friendship is about trying to understand a different viewpoint and respectfully presenting your own. Friendship is about accepting that we don’t all have to be clones, it is ok to thing, believe and behave differently. True friendship is based on many factors but ultimately it is about recognising that despite all the things that we may disagree and differ on, our love for humanity is the one commonality that binds us.

Our faiths are different but the same. As Europe heads into uncertain times, the far-right and the far-left increasing in their vehemence towards the Muslim and the Jew, perhaps now is the time for us to rekindle old relationships. Friendship must always be used as our baseline. This is the foundation on which we build our communities and ensure they are interlinked & bound together, whatever our differences, in a way that will not allow minor tremors to bring down the structures we work so hard to raise.

{This blog post was first published on the website of Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network at http://www.nisanashim.org/the-power-of-friendship/ }

Our annual conference will be taking place in London on Sunday 7th April and will be about Faith and Friendship Shaping the Future Together Please do join us and purchase your tickets here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/nisa-nashim-annual-conference-2019-faith-and-friendship-tickets-53727142329

 

Salaam Shalom The Feast of Pesach

Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?  
How is this night different from all other nights?

Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin chametz umatzah, halailah hazeh, kuloh matzah.
On all other nights, we eat chameitz and matzah. Why on this night, only matzah?

Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin sh’ar y’rakot, halailah hazeh, maror.
On all other nights, we eat all vegetables. Why, on this night, maror?

Sheb’chol haleilot ein anu matbilin afilu pa’am echat; halailah hazeh, sh’tei f’amim.
On all other nights, we don’t dip even once. Why on this night do we dip twice?

Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin bein yoshvin uvein m’subin; halailah hazeh, kulanu m’subin.
On all other nights, we eat either sitting upright or reclining. Why on this night do we all recline?”

 

So I spent yesterday evening in the company of eleven amazing women – five Muslim and six Jewish, to celebrate the arrival of Pesach and take part in my fifth Seder. But this one was different from any of the other Seder meals I’d had. This was in the home of my dear friend Laura Marks and it was an all woman gathering. Laura Marks is the Jewish co-chair of Nisa-Nisham, a Jewish Muslim Women’s network that aims to bring our communities together and promote ways in which Jewish and Muslim women can understand that our similarities are far greater than our differences. It does this by bringing the Jewish and Muslim communities in Britain closer together by setting up groups of women who build personal friendships, grow as leaders and benefit wider society through a variety of programmes and initiatives. All of us around the table were in some way linked to Nisa-Nisham either as trustees, co-chairs, or just friends and family of Laura’s.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Jewish faith and celebrations, Pesach (or Passover) celebrates the Exodus, when the Children of Israel were finally freed by Pharaoh in Egypt, following the 10 plagues (more about that later). Ultimately it’s a story about persecution, bondage and finally freedom. So whilst it may appear to be a time of celebration, there is an element of sadness and reflection. 

As with any major festival, there has to be a festive meal and the Passover is no different. During the celebrations that last 8 days, a ‘Seder’ or often two, will be held at which the story of the Exodus will be told in prose, songs and prayers. The book that is followed is the Haggadah and follows a set pattern. There are many different versions but all follow the same basic format and prayers. The version that was used this evening was from the Movement for Reform Judaism with interpretations and perspectives that encourage us to think about the modern world. The service includes a number of symbolic foods being eaten and wine (or for the Muslims grape juice) being drunk (whilst leaning to the left to symbolise freedom from slavery) interspersed with readings and prayers.

The Seder plate includes a variety of key items. Bitter herbs, to remind Jews of the bitterness of slavery and the tears that were shed in slavery are symbolised by the addition of salt water on the table. Jews are reminded of how they built the pyramids and the mortar is symbolised by the sweet charoset made from nuts and fruits. A hard boiled eggs reminds them of the beginning of a new life and a green vegetable such as parsley or lettuce symbolises hope and redemption. The humble matzah or unleavened bread is a central part of the seder and for all Passover meals, anything that has yeast and risen is not permitted. A lamb shank is also placed in the Seder plate and remembers the sacrificial lamb whose blood was used to mark out the homes of Israelites, so that when the Angel of Death came to claim the souls of the first born, they would “pass over” the homes of the Jews. There was one addition to this Seder plate I had not come across at previous Seders. A glass of water, or more accurately Miriam’s  Cup. Miriam was the sister of Moses and tradition suggests she carried with her a well that was the main source of water for the Israelites in the desert. Miriam’s Cup is also a reminder that women played a vital role in the Exodus and must not be overlooked, though this is a relatively new innovation and not adopted by everyone. 

No Seder would be complete without recalling the ten plagues and spotting the plate with red wine / grape juice; blood, frogs, lice, child beasts, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and slaying of the first born. And I suspect most young children love this bit of the service! But this year, our seder plates had ten additional spots as we included ten modern day plagues; inequality, poverty, bloodshed,  torture, persecution, abuse,  violence, hunger, prejudice and indifference. I wanted to add an eleventh – Donald Trump. But then realised I should also then add Bashar Al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung-On, Aung San Suu Kyi – the list would be endless. Because sadly whilst the Israelites may have been freed by Moses 3000 years ago, there are still many examples of modern day slavery, dictatorship, oppression and sheer brutality across the world. This last week alone we have seen almost 100 killed and over 500 still suffering the effects of a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in Syria. We have seen the devastation caused by a lone individual who drove his truck into innocent bystanders in Stockholm. The Westminster attacker claimed his fifth victim last friday. Suicide bombers attacked two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, killing at least 40 worshipers and police officers. Twenty people were tortured and murdered at a Sufi shrine in Sarghoda, Pakistan. And in the first 3 months of 2017 there have been 3,664 gun deaths, 77 mass shootings and 900 children/ teenagers shot or killed in America. 

There is still much wrong with the world that needs to be fixed. But there are plenty of good people still around with the will to do something and work towards making the only world we have, a better place. Twelve women sat around a dinner table this evening. Jewish and Muslim. Enemies according to some, sisters as far as we were concerned. We shared food, compared the Judaic and Islamic versions of the Exodus, shared recipes and at times I wanted to shed a tear remembering those who were not quite so fortunate as the Israelites and are still very much prisoners to the system. And we talked, as only Jewish and Muslim women can.  Whilst today is the beginning of Pesach, yesterday was Palm Sunday marking the beginning of Holy Week; the day when according to Christian tradition Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, an animal symbolic of peace. Perhaps this week, whatever our faiths, whatever our traditions, we must focus on the things that are important, the things that unite us, the things that can make a difference and ultimately free everyone from slavery and oppression in whatever form it comes. 

Chag Pesach Sameach

 

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