“Wow…what a way to blow away years of stereotypes in one evening! Everyone should do this,” my 16 year old son said as we got into the car. He was talking about the Niagara Foundation’s Abraham’s Tent program. The motto of the program is “Open Doors, Open Minds and Open Hearts.” Starting in Ramadan, the initiative “aims to provide space for people of differing religious and cultural traditions to get-to-know one another in the cozy intimacy of each other’s homes and seeks to build community through casual conversation over a delicious meal.”
My family and I had a wonderful, warm, delicious meal at the home of Sinem and Galip and their three beautiful, blonde haired, blue-eyed daughters. Sinem and Galip are Muslim, from Turkey. Geno and I are one-half Brazilian/Agnostic (raised Catholic) and one-half Jewish/USAmerican. Our son is a mix of everything in between.
“I made the right decision,” my son added, about going to the dinner. It was so close to “you were right, mom,” that I just smiled silently. Just six hours earlier my son was begging to get out of it. “It’s the last weekend of sophomore year; there’s a big party; Why are you ruining my life?” he cried. “If we are back in time I will drop you at the party,” I told him. Expecting a somber affair, that seemed plausible. After all, we were scheduled to arrive at 7 pm and Muslims are all very conservative and serious, right? Little did I know when I said this that a typical Ramadan evening is full of course after course of food and lively discussion, sometimes lasting from dinner all the way through to the pre-dawn morning meal.
We removed our shoes and Sinem loaned me a pair of slippers (is that religious, cultural or simply protecting hardwood floors? It’s the latter in our home on removing the shoes—good idea to have extra slippers on-hand.) We sat in the living room to chat first—work, school, how you ended up in the area. After a while the younger girls, ages six and seven whispered to their mother. “They wanted to know why we can’t eat yet,” she told us. Yes, I wondered—are they being polite because we are here? Should I offer to help in the kitchen? And then we hear the music from the kitchen, and everyone jumps to action. “Time to eat,” they announce. I realize with a pang of guilt about my own Yom Kippur practice—late dinner day one followed by early dinner day two—that you are actually supposed to wait until sundown. In mid-June, sundown is about 8:30.
Dinner was so delicious! We started with lentil soup with a squeeze of fresh lemon; then pide (flatbread), borek (a spinach-cheese pastry), stuffed grape leaves, roasted chicken and vegetables, beet slaw, dates and almonds; cucumber salad and fresh, sweet watermelon. Next was Turkish coffee (the custom is tea, but we’d been talking about coffee. “Want to try Turkish coffee?”) We moved back to the living room for tea. As we sat and talked, more food came out with each passing hour…rice pudding; a fresh fruit tray.
Other images and thoughts, not necessarily in order…
- As the adults talked, the younger girls marched in a circle around the interior wall that divided the kitchen hallway and living room. It reminded me of my sisters and I (I’m also one of three girls) doing the same thing in our childhood home; Philip Sousa blasting on the Motorola stereo, my dad leading us in a march.
- Now successful businessmen, Galip and Geno bonded over stories of hard work to establish their lives as young immigrants to the US. “I was a pasta chef.” “I cleaned 500 college dorm refrigerators in a weekend.”
- Their oldest daughter, age 12, sitting on the arm of her father’s chair, alert and attentive, bursting to transition from the child’s play of her sisters to joining the adult conversation.
- Asking questions and getting a glimpse of understanding—there’s a generous window of time to do each of the five prayers, and each takes a different amount of time, depending on the repetitions. The call to prayer ends the previous window (there’s an app for that.)
- Understanding the joy and challenges as a parent—schedules are out the window as children might get up to eat the morning meal with parents at 3:30 am, after staying up late with friends and visitors who stopped by the night before; seeing the opportunity to teach values about faith and traditions.
- We talked about politics, religion, geography, faith and family. We kept feeling bad about overstaying our welcome. “Of course not,” they assured us. “Often friends and family come and stay until the breakfast meal just before sunrise,” Galip told us, encouraging us to stay longer.
We are now looking forward to hosting our host family for Passover or Shabbat at our home. In thinking about how we celebrate, I love how each family creates its own unique family traditions that intermingle with cultural and religious traditions. I laugh as I think of hosting non-Jewish guests at a Friday night dinner. “I know I need challah and candles but I can probably Google a Shabbos checklist to make sure I don’t forget anything.” I think of Sinem and Galip’s email that we received before meeting them at their house, asking us about dietary restrictions or allergies. Will I need to change anything to host a family that is Muslim in our home? Is there anything we should or shouldn’t do?”
I can just ask our new friends. We want to share our tradition and be respectful of yours. It really is about opening doors. And I know our minds have been permanently opened in return.
Want to learn about person-to-person exchanges?
For others wanting to participate, the Niagara Foundation offers plenty of opportunity for “fellowship and understanding” with events year-round. Learn more (and sign up for their enews to get notices of upcoming programs) on the Niagara Foundation website.
I wrote about opportunities to international visitors for cultural exchange through World Chicago earlier this week.
Another avenue for cultural insights and busting stereotypes is by going to a show at Silk Road Rising Theatre. Silk Road “creates live theatre and online videos that tell stories through primarily Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses…expanding cultural representations since 2002.” That statement is modest in light of Silk Road’s powerful work that captures a profound depth and diversity of perspectives on culture and identity. Learn more at www.silkroadrising.org