Jewish-Muslim dialogue deeper than it seems

Jewish-Muslim dialogue deeper than it seems

By Aaron Greenblatt

Once every year, we Jews gather around the seder table to recount the Passover story, but one narrative has not found its way into the Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewry) canon.

This past Tuesday, the eighth and final day of Passover, the Middle East Dialogue Group celebrated a festival with some 70 people interested in exploring the long-overlooked Moroccan Jewish Mimouna tradition.

According to Yigal Bin-Nun’s April 7 article “Lady Luck” (from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz), the word “Mimouna” expresses its theological origins. It is normally depicted as a holiday of faith because of its similarity to the Hebrew word “emuna,” or faith. It is linked to revolutionary rabbi and physician Maimonides because the celebration falls on his father Rabbi Maimon’s birthday. It continues the Passover themes of slavery and redemption in the Hebrews’ frightful Exodus from Egypt to the land of Canaan.

Before most of Morocco’s Jews immigrated to Israel, France or North America, Mimouna typified a time of coexistence between Jews and Muslims. During the week of Passover, “chamatz” (leavened bread) is forbidden for Jews, so they tended to give all bread products to the Muslims, who, at the end of the week, reciprocated the gesture with a feast. Jews and Muslims filled the streets mingling with one another. They sang, they danced, and of course, they ate. Yet, when I studied abroad in Morocco this past semester, I found this glorious tradition and its message in hard times.

Before the creation of the state of Israel and the ensuing complications of identity, “Jews celebrated this holiday with their Arab neighbors because they were Arab,” said Shir Harel, MEDG vice president .

While some of Mimouna’s traditional foods were noticeably absent at the event - such as the sweet, sticky crepe-like pancake called “mufletta” - table decorations captured the bounty and joy that characterize the holiday: three goldfish swimming in a bowl and those chocolate gold coins known as “gelt”. The latter symbolizes all the Egyptians’ jewels that washed ashore after the Red Sea crashed down upon them.

The evening started off with hors d’oeuvres and an introduction by MEDG president Jordan Dunn, followed by a presentation from participants in the Jewish-Muslim New Orleans spring break trip. Next, MEDG officers acted in a skit called “The Jewish Mother and the Creation of Mimouna,” which portrayed Moroccans’ overall commonality through the fictional plot of a Jew seeking to wed a Muslim.

The highlight of the evening came with the three-piece band accompanying a belly dancer. Two guitar-like instruments called “ouds” and a “dumbek”, a type of drum, flirted along a melodic waltz as the dancer wielded an azure scarf that sang where her hips left off - a truly sublime energy radiated throughout the room.

“Music is an international language - it’s a way to communicate emotions,” said Matt Kilmer, the band’s percussionist. How so?

“You deal with vibrations in music. Sound is at its core. Through these vibrations - and positive thought - you transform people.”

So far, we have witnessed the all-encompassing nature of love in food and song, but there was another way I have yet to mention. The evening’s final segment concluded with an excerpt from Shalom Sahbity (“Peace, my friend”), a performance by NYU students Catherine Hannah and Simnia Singer-Sayada, who use art to explore identity and culture. The former, a Jew of Tunisian and American descent, the latter an Egyptian Coptic, they spoke in a smorgasbord of English, Hebrew and Arabic, describing their families and upbringing in order to travel beyond the realm of “religion and the ambiguous tracking of blood.”

After the performances, I spoke with Harel, an Israeli, who acknowledged that Mimouna is slowly gaining recognition in Israel. “We wanted to bring forth this unknown and marginalized tradition to campus, where Jewish culture tends toward the Ashkenazi-centric with the emphasis on Yiddish and gefilte fish,” the Gallatin senior continued.

But an Israeli audience member explained, “In Israel the emphasis of the holiday’s relations between Muslims and Jews are pushed away because of the conflict. People prefer not to associate with Muslims.”

That is why the MEDG brought together Jew and Muslim, secular and religious. Proceeds raised by the organization go toward the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which confronts rising environmental challenges in Israel through cooperation between Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian college students.

Further self-segregation, not only in Israel, causes people to reinforce - rather than challenge - perceptions of others grounded in the pages of “history.” The truth is, the Jewish-Muslim narrative is a much more nuanced, inspiring story than what popular culture would lead you to believe. This knowledge might inspire us Jews into a more compassionate vision for when we say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Aaron Greenblatt perplexes himself biweekly in his column. Send him your enlightenment at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Orginally published in NYU’s Washington Square News