On Pesach Eve: The Muslim and Her Inner Jew

In past weeks, all things I touch lead to Jerusalem. I pick up a random book and find within a map of the Holy City. I drift off to sleep in a guest room of a loving home, the last image before I lose consciousness is of a child's Torah. A reader pulls me aside from a throng, unclasping her gold bracelet bought in Bethlehem to reveal the Shema, in Arabic. Signing a book, my gaze falls upon a complex Russian ring fashioned as King David's Gate. Its cap opens, revealing his Lapis Lazuli shield.

It's no good. I must relent to this growing fascination. Strong currents of Judaism swirl around me, impossible to resist. With the approaching Pesach and Spring in the air, I sense the Universe is shaking me from a slumber.

Unsurprising therefore that these riptides of an ancient religion should reach me even when I am barricaded one recent afternoon in the humdrum security of my office.

I enter the examination room to meet my two o'clock. I had seen him in the waiting room, busy completing the various forms I use to assess my patients. His graying, yarmulked head was focused intently in concentration, studious. I suddenly remembered it was Friday, unusually conscious of the pending Sabbath.

"Is it too early to say Shabbat Shalom?" I ask my patient, playfully, as we shake hands. A little taken aback, he graciously responded, pleased I had acknowledged the coming of his holy day.

We begin our interview. The patient is a fifty-something year old immigration lawyer - my favorite kind. I smile fondly, thinking of my own Immigration lawyer who had opened the gates to America for me - dear, brilliant Stephen Jeffries http://www.jeffries-law.com/.

We struck up a rapport at once. Friendly and engaging, the patient peppered animated commentary about the international diversity of his clients and the political asylum which he secured for many of them, noting wryly that he himself had never left his native American shores. We both laughed at the irony. I smiled, and as I listened to him, began thinking of my own friend who is also a Jewish lawyer somewhere else in this city. Perhaps at this same moment, I wondered, on the other side of town, Richard too was hurrying to finish his work and begin his own Sabbath observations.

Soon we begin the examination. After a time, I ask the patient if I could listen to his breathing. He begins unbuttoning his shirt as I wait, warming the stethoscope in my hand. After a few moments, his collar loosens. At once, I spy an article of clothing I fail to recognize. Made of linen, it wraps around his throat, falling in front of his chest, ending in a delicate fringe of knotted strings. As I follow the course of the garment, I realize these are the threads which had peaked out of the pinstriped suit the patient was wearing that day. I had noticed them when he first walked in.

"Tell me what this is," I asked my patient, surprised to see something new after twenty years practicing medicine.

"This, Dr. Ahmed," he replied, "is a Tsitsis."

"How do you spell that?" I interrupted, too curious to be polite. For a while, the patient provided me with several phonetic spellings, because he wasn't sure either. Carefully, I wrote each of them down.

As he showed me the fabric, turning it this way and that, he explained the meanings it contained. Eventually, he came to tell me the sum of the various fringes and knots and individual features amounted to a special number: 613.

"Oh, the precise number of Jewish commandments!" I interrupted (once again), this time excited to have guessed at something correctly.

"Yes," the patient responded, askance, a bit stunned I should know this. He peered at my last name (my father's) emblazoned on my white-coat, clearly a Muslim one.

Emboldened by my interest, he leaned slightly forward, allowing the garment to fall away from his torso.

"The Tsitsis represents four-cornered garments, which ancient Jews wore" he explained, "in contrast to pagans who did not," My patient quickly added the Titsis was not considered mandatory to wear but rather a Mitzvoh and part of an affectionate tradition which many Jews like to honor. The patient was clear and precise in his knowledge and instruction. Eventually, seeing that my curiosity was satisfied, we returned to the task at hand. I finished the exam and began addressing some of his symptoms.

Our conversation was largely about the patient's sleep (since I am a sleep physician, and he, a sleepy patient). As we gathered the remainder of the history, the patient suddenly interrupted to tell me about Maimonides and his teachings on sleep. I resisted the urge to look at my watch. Medicine was endlessly fascinating, if only one wasn't on a schedule. I couldn't resist this interesting patient, however, and readied for more conversation, reassuring myself that the next patient wasn't due for a while. Today, we had the rare luxury of time.

"RAMBAM, as we call him, Dr. Ahmed, based on his Hebrew initials," I looked at him blankly, (unaware that Maimonides' name in Hebrew was Rabbi Moshe Bin Maimon, until I searched for this later that evening).

"Well RAMBAM had a lot of specific teachings, including concerning sleep. He emphasized the importance of waking up gradually and not suddenly leaping out of bed," I was intrigued. We now know that certain spinal cord motor generating centers are not fully alert in the morning and so a degree of impaired balance and un-coordination can be measurable in the normal person after immediate awakening. I often warn my patients to take their time waking up. Maimonides had dispensed the same advice centuries earlier.

The patient and I focused now on his sleep deprivation, which was, as for many patients, an additional burden to his primary sleep disorder. A lawyer with several offices in New York and a committed family man, he described a very harried schedule, with very little opportunity to sleep.

"But I do catch up on the Sabbath, Dr. Ahmed. I mean there is the Sabbath nap," he offered, absently.

"A Sabbath nap?' I asked, a little sharply. Again, I put down my pen to listen and learn.

"Oh yes, we have a big lunch on Sabbath, and after that, there is a custom for everyone to take a long nap..."

"So, the Sabbath is not just a spiritual, metaphoric rest, but a literal one too?" I asked him.

"Indeed doctor, that is exactly what it is."

How excellent, I thought. I have hundreds of patients who need to do this too. If only they were all observant Jews! I must start ordering Sabbath naps on all my overworked patients.

Soon, we said goodbye. I had enjoyed our visit. I returned to my office to make some notes. Later, thinking about this warm and friendly patient, I was returned to my first experience of sharing in the Sabbath, something I was fortunate enough to with very special Jews - the Bergmans.

Some years ago, the year was hinging between seasons, a late October. At the time, I was living in Charleston, South Carolina. My dear friend, the recently retired Rabbi Bergman, was leading Friday services at a Temple while the permanent Rabbi was away. His wife, Rebbetzin Linda Bergman, had invited me to attend this service a week or so earlier over dinner but I had decided I wouldn't be likely to be free. Initially, I declined. Somehow, as the time approached, my schedule eased. I made a quick call to make sure I could still go. I had just one concern.

"Are you sure I can still come, Linda?" I asked shyly, clumsily explaining that I was menstruating. (In Islam, women are excused from prayer during this time, though are still welcome inside a mosque). Maybe Jewish women also cannot worship at this time I thought, and perhaps I shouldn't be present alongside other worshipers? Touched, she confirmed I could still join Jews in worship. Finding myself relieved, I began readying for the service.

It was a balmy evening. A moist Atlantic breeze suffused the night air. Wrapped in velvet darkness, only my glittering shoes illuminated the cobblestones underfoot, slick with evening dew. I scurried through the Historic District, trying to find a marker for the way to Temple. Eventually, I came upon a series of white columns rising out of the wet darkness. I found myself on Wentworth Street, now foreign when denuded of the daytime veneer of tourists. Certain snatched glimpses of Charleston at night remind me very much of Rome. As I walked through a stone courtyard, I was catapulted back to a virgin glimpse of the Pantheon, its dignity and drama soaring out of a Roman night. Near identical pillars transported me back to that distant Italian July. I would learn Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim was one of the most perfect examples of Greek Revival Architecture in Charleston. I had found the Temple.

KKBE "the holy congregation of the House of God" is the 1824 birth place of American Reform Judaism. Jews have been worshiping there ever since. Through French windows, I spied a forum of joy. I pulled open the doors, and burst in, absorbing the joviality immediately.

"Is this KKBE?" I asked, with ill-concealed urgency. It was minutes until the service would begin. I didn't want to miss a thing.

"Yes, welcome. Your first time? This way!"

I followed others into the main room. I took my seat in what appeared to be a pew. I was in a room which looked almost identical to a church: a high domed ceiling spanned overhead; a central aisle divided the congregation, and, to each side, beautiful stained-glass windows punctuated the walls. As I looked around some more, there was an intangible difference. Finally, I noticed: where an agonizing crucifixion might be, there was, in its place, a Living Book.

In front lay open a spectacular wooden enclave. I knew this to be the ark. The ark contained several (perhaps four) giant, silver-topped cylinders made of exotic woods. I remembered my young friend Eric, as a child, proudly showing me the closed ark at Temple Judea in Manhasset, where he explained their Torah was stored. This looked exactly the same.

As I waited, I wondered where the only two faces familiar to me - those of Rabbi and Rebbetzin - could be. I couldn't see them anywhere in the congregation. But I noticed, while I was alone, and without my familiar friends, I didn't feel lonely.

Soon, the room filled. I was glad I had a seat near the front - I had a great view. From my handbag, I retrieved Google print-outs: "My first visit to a synagogue;" "Judaism 101;" "The nature of Shabbat Service" and so forth. I scrambled to review them in these last minutes, if only I was better prepared. Of course, all I accomplished was to drop everything in a noisy flurry. As I hurried to snatch the documents from the floor, I sensed the congregation was now standing. I rushed to my feet, only to realize I was now the only one standing and all else had seated. Somewhere in my confusion, Rabbi and Rebbetzin had already entered. Shabbat service had begun and I had stumbled, headlong, right into it.

Until that moment, I had only seen Linda and Rabbi as lay people. Now they looked different. The bimah seemed to shrink, as the Rabbi stood. I hadn't noticed he was so tall. Wearing striking robes, he captured the room in his gaze. Even so, his holy vestments were made friendly by the unassuming polka-dot necktie which peeped from beneath. It seemed to say: "I may be a Holy Man, but I am no different than you!" I was abruptly reminded of the benign authority of my headmaster from my British childhood.

Rebbetzin entered dressed in purple, her favorite color. An amethyst necklace swooped down to her waist, scattering sparkles like drops of holy water over the congregation. I locked gaze with her kind eyes, which had spied me immediately, waving their balletic greeting.

I was connected.

Rabbi asked all visitors to rise and announce their names. I smoothed my clothes, glad to have worn a well-cut suit now that everyone would see it. I knew, Jewish gatherings, like Muslim ones, were well-dressed affairs. Foolishly, I was absolutely sure I would be the only visitor at service that night. To my surprise, there were many others who, like me, wanted to greet the Shabbat bride.

The Rabbi began to speak. Yet the microphone did not work. One congregant called out, almost reproachfully,

'We can't hear you, Rabbi' and, as we waited for sound check adjustments, Rabbi promptly began moving his lips silently as though in fierce prayer. The holy man had metamorphosized into Peter Sellers! The congregation erupted in laughter. I could feel all of us relax. This was going to be joyous.

After a few words of welcome, a special song began, which I knew was the welcome to the Shabbat. Everyone seemed to know the words and, followed Rebbetzin's lead, her voice reached all of us. As the song continued, Rabbi lighted first one candle and then another. He reached with a trembling flame. Was his grip infirm? Or was his hand blazing with some current of its own? I couldn't be sure, but this force, this field was palpable and I was ensconced within it.

Rabbi glowed. His topaz eyes blazed. His face was already incandescent with what I could only describe as Noor. Noor literally means light or illumination in Arabic, but often is used to refer the aura of those who possess special knowledge gained through favored intimacy with God. Whatever it was, something within Rabbi shimmered and glinted, and, like a Catherine wheel, he shed flints of the Divine spark in every direction.

Intensely at work, Rabbi became a lighthouse dispersing various darknesses troubling each of us. For a time, all our shadows disappeared and for the next hour or so, we were to bask in this radiance and through it, HIS radiance.

I turned to look at others in the Temple - there must have been over a hundred at least - I noticed how very excited the congregation already appeared. Like me, they were caught in Rabbi's magic. To my right, I discerned the left, upper-most curve of a 60 year-old smile. I checked the man's face periodically - he never stopped smiling. Occasionally, the curve would become deeper, or even emit a private peal of laughter, finally settling into a tranquil bow of joy. As I watched him, I noticed my own mouth too, resting in a comfortable smile. I wondered what would happen next.

In the shelf in front of me, I found a book containing all the words of the service with translation and even phonetic pronunciation. I began to follow with the others, though much of it I wasn't sure quite how to say. I listened and watched and sometimes spoke the English words aloud. In the middle of the service, as I mumbled away, I noticed a couple in the row in front of me lean forward during what must have been a special verse. I was astounded. I looked at them again, confirming what my eyes showed me. Indeed, they bent at the hip, making a small bow, in almost exactly the same way I lean forward during a movement half way during Islamic prayer! I stared, thunderstruck. What was this?

I had long read that Muslim prayer is an amalgam of other religions that preceded Islam, in addition to new habits. In watching the worshiping Jews in front of me, this had become suddenly, undeniably tangible. I nearly jumped out of my seat. So that movement, that movement I make whenever, I pray, wherever I pray, could be Judaic in origin? I wonder what else that I do, when I pray, that is also inspired from Judaism? Why had no one ever told me any of this? Someone, please let me into the secret!

I returned to the service.

Much was said about Israel and its Children, which I of course knew referred to the Israelite tribe, known as Bani Israeel in the Qur'an. At one point, a fellow congregant next to me turned, and looking rather worried, said, in her small grave voice,

"You do know this does not mean Israel as in the country," she waited nervously for my response, perched, attentive.

I laughed out loud.

"In the Qu'ran we call them Bani Israeel, Helen," I know this was the name given to the Tribe beloved to God and assigned to the protection and guidance of the Prophet Moses. We shared a private moment of comedy. I assured her, I knew these were not 'Friday prayers for Israeli political policy'!

Then came what for me was the centerpiece of the service, even though it was the final activity from the bimah. A shining challah loaf appeared. Rebbetzin now carried an enormous silver chalice, much bigger than even the one which her husband the Rabbi carried. (I like this religion, I thought, where the woman gets to lead prayers with her voice and hold the biggest cup). The Rabbi called for the youngest people to come to the bimah, mentioning some families were in town for a Parents' Day at the Citadel. Young cadets came forward, white caps in hand, and stood next to Rabbi and Rebbetzin. A young woman in a pretty dress completed the ensemble of youth around the shepherd. I looked at the silver-haired Rabbi and these youngsters on the cusp of adulthood. They were the future of this faith.

The Rabbi shared wine from the chalice, pouring it into smaller goblets. He invited them to take small sips. Gingerly, the shy future supped. As the praying continued, the Rabbi definitively grasped the challah, much in the way I grab my favorite, very wiggly cat, almost as if it would escape if not restrained.

To prevent this (I assumed) he invited the Citadel freshman to keep the bread in place with him. Bashful, the skinny cadet steadied the bread with the tip of his finger. Self-conscious, the cadet looked excited but uncomfortable. Rabbi allowed his own grip to brush against the cadet's, lending him a current of his strength. It was a minuscule gesture, but unmistakable. The young Jew was infused with confidence. He was growing during prayer.

Finally, the glossy challah was broken. With a now clearly trembling hand, Rabbi tore the bread and gave a generous piece to the skinny cadet (who looked as if God would want him to eat the whole loaf immediately). Rabbi hurried to share the bread with others around him, anxious that no one go without.

I was moved. Rabbi, only visiting with this flock while the permanent Rabbi was away, though evidently trembling with his own frailties, was still strong enough to gather all of us into a pocket of his strength. Rabbi's fragility steadied our course. His actions captured a central message for me: one can be holy AND human; weak AND strong; and, most of all, deeply nurtured by faith.

Finally, Rabbi instructed us to say "Shabbat Shalom Shabbat" to each other, which we all did. The Jews who worshiped like Muslims reached over to greet me. Warm tears rose to my eyes but came only to the brim, leaving in a cloud of joy. Service over, we flocked down the central aisle into an immediate bottle-neck. I found myself encircled by friendly congregants.

"Where do you live?"
"And which Synagogue do you attend?'
"Are you a member at Beth Elohim?"

I had fit in more than I thought.

I smiled and explained I was a Muslim invited by 'my friend the Rabbi'. I explained our unusual connection. Rabbi Bergman was the Rabbi for almost 25 years to my mentor Dr. Michael Niederman and his wife Ronna. I regard them as my academic parents. In a way, I explained, I was the grandchild of this Rabbi. They listened, as I told them of Rabbi's work at Temple Judea, in Manhasset where he and Linda had assembled the most significant Holocaust museum in any American Temple.

I craned my neck wondering what the delay could possibly be. Of course, the bottleneck was due to none other than the Man and Woman of God themselves. Everyone wanted to touch them, greet them, examine them, thank them. A long line had formed. At last my turn came. Rabbi and Rebbetzin engulfed me in a warm hug.

"I LOVED your question," Rabbi boomed, and suddenly shy, even at 39, I blushed, feeling childlike and innocent. Linda had evidently told him of my last minute worry.

Too soon, the room emptied but my appetite for Judaism had not. Later, I realized that very evening happened to fall on the 27th day of Ramadan, Laylat-al-Qadr, the Holiest day of the holiest month in Islam - the night that the Qu'ran was first revealed to Prophet Mohamed. I wondered why I was brought to my first Shabbath service at this special time with these special Jews. I still wonder about that today.

Later, I shared a couple of glimpses of the evening with Ronna. All of a sudden, she asked if I was thinking of converting to Judaism. I thought for a moment.

"No, Ronna," I replied, "I love my religion, Islam but I am realizing why I feel so close to those who are Jewish - if I follow the path of Islam, I am behaving just as a good Jew." We smiled at the beauty we shared in each other.

As many of you gather in the coming week celebrate Pesach, perhaps you too know a Muslim or a Christian or another believer who may want to learn more about Judaism through you, your friends and families. Don't underestimate the profound impact such sharing of the warm Judaic tradition can have on an individual; the impact, in turn, of such sharing on one's self and, ultimately, the domino effect this will have on every other person who experiences glimpses of Judaism in this way. Like Rabbi's glinting sparks, your generosity scatters jewels of Judaism over non-Jews which can't help but fall like fragrant dewdrops as they go about their lives.

Tonight my thoughts return to my patient. It took me long years to know I could only understand the beauty in the friendly lawyer because of all the pretty Jewish stardust which has fallen on my shoulders in the time before we met. At this fragmented time in our world, private, playful insights which we make among ourselves form hardy seeds of hope. In bleak times, now more than ever, we must be more childlike, Children of Abraham. And, like children, we must look at each other with renewed innocence.

This is the prize which each of my Jewish loves - my Jewish teachers, my Rabbi and my Rebbetzin, my Jewish friends, my special Jewish Navigator and every Jewish patient has ultimately taught me: inside every Muslim is an inner Jew.

Within my core, thrives a Jew, too. And so, in answer to Ronna's profound question, I find my authentic response. How can I convert from Islam to Judaism, when inside my ancient, intertwined soul, in order to be a believing Muslim, I am already Jewish inside?

Chag Sameach, brothers and sisters. Continue to be my gentle guides.