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Christian, Muslim, Jew
“I never had an Oreo cookie until I was a rebellious teen,” a dark-haired woman in her late forties told the dozen women sitting with her around a conference table. Nodding toward a plate of nonkosher sweets at the table’s center, she explained that she had grown up in an Orthodox Jewish household; cookies containing lard had been off-limits.
The women, variously Muslim, Jewish, and Christian, have been coming together more or less monthly since last spring to exchange their thoughts on and experiences of religion. The tiny room where they sat in Bapst Library, brightened by gothic-arched stained-glass windows, suddenly was alive with questions:
“You never snuck a bite?” asked a young woman in a hooded BC sweatshirt.
“What happened if you ate one by accident?” asked another.
“The first bite is an accident, the second a sin,” the woman said, smiling. Soon the group was trading spirited stories of forbidden foods: the struggle to give up sweets for Lent; the letdown of kosher imitation cookies; the longing, in a strict Muslim household, for Pop Tarts.
They call their group Daughters of Abraham, and the women—BC students, faculty, and staff and several from outside the University—range in age from 18 to nearly 80. The launchpad for conversation is always a novel, poetry collection, essay, or film that engages in some way the three Abrahamic religions. Emily Neumeier ’08 started the group as a sophomore. The art history major (with a Middle Eastern and Islamic studies minor) had read in the Christian Science Monitor about an all-women’s interfaith meeting by that name in nearby Cambridge. Neumeier, who is Episcopalian, contacted one of the members, an Episcopal minister. The original group, she learned, was assembled in 2002 by Edie Howe, a member of the United Church of Christ, who was inspired by an interfaith service she attended on the evening of September 11, 2001. Four additional groups have since formed in the Boston area; the only university-based gathering is at Boston College.
The events of September 11 also bring many of the women to the table at Boston College. “Knowing how little most Americans understand about our culture, I thought it was dangerous for me not to do my part,” says Newton’s Nazik Kazimi, a parent of two BC graduates, Yasmeen ’99 and Omar ’02. Kazimi, a Massachusetts-born first-generation Lebanese-American, has spoken at local schools about Muslim beliefs and practices. “Many children and adults—BC members included—are missing basic facts,” she says. For instance, most non-Muslims are surprised to learn that Islam venerates the Virgin Mary, says Kazimi: “We believe in all of the Old Testament prophets; to us, Jesus is a prophet like Mohammed.”
The atmosphere at meetings is intimate and casual. “We talk about things openly and comfortably, from books to politics to marriage and sex,” says Nasreen Hosein ’10, a Massachusetts native raised in an observant Muslim household who has extended Catholic family. Citing the group’s all-female composition, she says, “Men would certainly add to our discussions, but it would change the dynamic.”
“We come together because we want to learn on an emotional level . . . as daughters, mothers, and grandmothers interested in each other’s lives,” says Adeane Bregman, a Bapst librarian who was raised in the Jewish faith. “We’d have come before 2001 if we’d thought of it.”
In fact, there was a forerunner on campus, 11 years ago. Associate Theology Professor Ruth Langer, who is a rabbi, began Trialogue, an interfaith discussion group that met quarterly over dinner in McGuinn Hall to hear speakers from the Abrahamic faiths. Initially made up of theology graduate students and faculty, the group eventually broadened to include others from the Boston College community and area universities They met from 1996 until the spring of 2001, when Langer went on sabbatical. With its academic impulse, Trialogue was coed. However, Langer notes, for traditional Muslims and Jews, whose “public realms are gender-separate,” a single-sex environment may be essential for open conversation.
Langer, who is associate director of the University’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, sees some drawbacks to a trialogue. “The discussions that develop between any two traditions,” she says, “take a direction defined by the nature of those two.” Add a third, and talk will become “more superficial,” because the commonalities are fewer. Even so, she notes, “there is value” in multifaith discussion groups “if our goal is to serve [American] society.” And it may be, she says, that the “commonalities of experience in a group of all women (or all men) . . . provide a basis of similarity from which one can more readily compare real difference.”
On a brisk november afternoon, the meeting in Bapst Library drew seven undergraduates, three faculty and staff, and two women from Cambridge and Newton. The reading this month was light fare, The Ritual Bath (1986) by Faye Kellerman—a whodunit in which an Orthodox Jewish woman and a gentile male detective solve a crime committed in a mikveh, a traditional bathhouse for Jewish women. “It’s not Dostoevsky,” said Neumeier, “but it is definitely a page-turner.” The book was a marked departure from their previous choice, What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America (2005), an examination of shared beliefs by Feisal Abdul Rauf, a New York City imam and founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. As always, the women had chosen the work by consensus.
To help guide discussion, Neumeier had invited Rona Fischman of the original Cambridge group, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household. Although several of the BC members are Jewish, few in the group were familiar with Orthodox practices, and the meeting began as a Q&A session. Fischman translated Yiddish words and explained traditions mentioned in the book, including the importance of a sheitel, or Orthodox woman’s wig, and the mikveh, where observant married Jewish women undergo ritual cleansings after menses before they can engage in sexual relations with their husbands.
“For me, it was heartening to see all the similarities between Orthodox Judaism and Islam,” said Farhat Husain, a Pakistani-born staff assistant in the office of the University President. Dressed in a knee-length embroidered qamees over simple sharwal trousers, with an orange woolen scarf draped about her neck, she was one of four Muslims present. Modesty and ritual are important in the Muslim faith, she said, and Muslim women also follow rules for monthly cleansing, though there is no ritual bath. The book’s details of Orthodox home life resonated with her own. “For years I packed special lunches for my children when they went on school field trips—just like the Jewish woman in the book,” Husain said.
According to Hilda Carey, RSCJ, an adjunct English professor and the group’s only nun, “This is a place where people can speak directly and intimately and ask questions about religion that they might not ask elsewhere.” There are but two ground rules, she says: Listen respectfully; and speak only from personal experience, not as the representative of a faith. For many of the younger members, the meetings are an occasion to examine their relationship to faith in general. “Because in my family we never had this focus on the practice or doctrine of religion,” says Svetlana Turova ’09, who is half Jewish, half Russian, “it’s been interesting to talk with people who are stronger in their religious identity. I ask others questions, and learn more about myself.”
After two hours, the discussion began to wind down, and conversation turned to selecting the group’s next subject.
“We’ve read about Muslim and Jewish traditions,” said Neumeier. “Any suggestions for a Christian book?”
The group batted around some proposals and narrowed the field to a PBS documentary, Three Faiths, One God: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (2005) on DVD, and The Faith Club (2006), a book by three women, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, who, like the Daughters of Abraham, found each other after September 11.
“Next month, we can meet at my house to watch the PBS documentary,” Husain offered, enticing the group with the promise of “a few traditional dishes.” The women pulled out their date books, and began to make their plans.
Read more by Cara Feinberg