By Darcy Grabenstein
In Threading My Prayer Rug, author Sabeeha Rehman tells a compelling and personal story of her journey from Pakistan to America, and how it impacted her life as a Muslim woman. The book begins after the September 11 attack, with anti-Muslim sentiment in the US at an all-time high. Rehman, who lived in Staten Island, was one of the volunteers working to establish a Muslim community center in Manhattan’s financial district. She was dumbfounded when the project was met with protests of “No mosque at Ground Zero!” The project was actually a cross between a YMCA and the 92nd Street Y, a Jewish community center I’ve been to for cultural events on many occasions. And the location was not at Ground Zero.
In the aftermath of 911, Rehman shared how she cringed every time there was another news report of a terrorist attack, and prayed that the perpetrators were not Muslim. I get it. Every time there’s a report of a crime, especially stereotype-reinforcing ones related to finances a la Bernie Madoff, I pray that it’s not someone Jewish. Just as Rehman sees crimes committed by a Muslim as tarnishing the image of all Muslims, I see crimes committed by a Jewish person as a sin, a disgrace, for all Jewish people. Any untoward activity by a Muslim or Jew is also seen as a justification for those intent on committing hate crimes against us.
Rehman was determined to help educate her community about the Muslim religion. In the process, she learned a great deal about other religions as well. I agree with her approach, for discrimination is borne of ignorance, which breeds fear and hate. Several years ago, when I taught Sunday school at a synagogue, we took the students on a field trip to a local mosque. We were welcomed with open arms, and I learned so much in just a few short hours. For any Jewish or Muslim women in the US who want to build bridges of understanding, I recommend checking out the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.
Rehman’s journey begins in Pakistan, where an arranged marriage led her from her home country to the US. (She and her husband, Khalid, have been happily married for over 40 years, by the way.) Raised in a traditional Muslim family, she was in for a rude awakening when she arrived in the US in 1971.
She is torn between holding onto her beloved Muslim traditions and fitting in with American society. Should she pray five times a day? Should she eat only halal foods? Should she wear pants? A hijab? Although my family has been in the US for generations, like many Jewish Americans we also struggle with maintaining religious observances vs. fully assimilating into American culture. This is most evident in December, when the nation is in full-on Christmas mode. Like Rehman, I recall trying to explain to my two young sons why we don’t have a Christmas tree. (And, no, we don’t have a “Chanukah bush” as some Jewish families do to ease the blow for their kids.) When strangers wish me a “Merry Christmas,” instead of explaining that I don’t celebrate the holiday I simply respond with “Happy Holidays.”
I’ve always known there were many similarities between the Muslim and Jewish religions, but this book opened my eyes to even more parallels. I’ll list the ones that stood out for me here:
- Religious calendar: Unlike the solar-based Gregorian calendar used by most of the world, the Islamic calendar is a lunar one and the Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar one.
- Kosher and halal food: The Jewish practice of kashrut means eating no pork, seafood or mixing meat and dairy foods. Muslims also are prohibited from eating pork. In both religions, the animal must be slaughtered swiftly using a knife and saying a blessing. Muslims are permitted to eat kosher meats.
- Arabic and Hebrew prayers: Rehman explains how she learned to read the entire Koran in Arabic; however, she did not understand what she was reading. Likewise, after years of twice-a-week (and greatly detested) Hebrew school, I can read Hebrew. But if it were not for the side-by-side English translations in the prayerbook, I’d only understand a few words here and there.
- Fasting holidays: During the holiday of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for 30 days. On Yom Kippur, Jews fast from sundown to sunset the next day.
- Women seen as “impure”: Muslim women who are menstruating are exempt from fasting during Ramadan, which Rehman details as placing a great stigma on them. They also are exempt from prayer. Although in Orthodox Judaism women do not read from the Torah, and there are no formal restrictions in place for other denominations of Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal), some prohibit women from being on the bimah, or altar, and touching the Torah during menstruation. Both Islam and Orthodox Judaism prohibit sexual intercourse for married couples when the wife is menstruating.
- Women and modesty: Traditional Islam and Orthodox Judaism place a priority on women’s modesty. Observant Muslim women wear a hijab head covering and some wear a full-body Orthodox Jewish women cover their knees, elbows, collarbone and midriff, and most do not wear pants. Married women also cover their hair in public, either with a wig known as a sheitel, hat or scarf.
- Separation of sexes: Mosques have separate worship areas for women, and in Orthodox synagogues women are either relegated to the balcony or are separated from the men by a mechitza, or physical divider. I’ll never forget being in my father-in-law’s Orthodox synagogue for our aufruf (oohf-roof) ceremony prior to our wedding. In modern congregations, the couple is called up to the Torah for the honor of an aliyah, reciting the prayer before reading the Torah. Here, in addition to being seated separately, only my fiancé was invited up to the altar, and my name was not even mentioned as the rabbi blessed him. I thought, What am I? Chopped liver?!
- Dating and marriage: Touching is prohibited for both unmarried Orthodox Jews and observant Muslims. For Orthodox Jews, a shidduch the process where Jewish singles meet each other in a public setting as a precursor to marriage. I remember being in the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where dozens of frum (religious) couples sat at tables, keeping a respectable distance between them, on blind dates. Dating for observant Muslims typically includes a chaperone. For both religions, physical touching, including handshakes and high fives, between a man and woman is prohibited unless it is a spouse or relative.
- Gender-related issues: Homosexuality is frowned upon in both Islam and Orthodox Judaism. Other branches of Judaism, however, take a liberal approach, with rabbis representing a diversity of sexual orientations and races. THZ’s previous rabbi was a Black woman.
While the title is Threading My Prayer Rug, the book is a reflection of how, due to assimilation, Rehman’s symbolic prayer rug starts to unravel over the years. Then, little by little, she begins weaving religious traditions back into her life.
I couldn’t help thinking of the speech I wrote for my older son’s bar mitzvah nearly 20 years ago. A bar mitzvah (bat mitzvah for a girl) is a religious ceremony when a boy reaches age 13. It’s the first time he wears a tallit, a prayer shawl, and reads from the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew bible. I made a colorful needlepoint collar for his tallit, and in my speech to him I compared the colorful threads to the threads of tradition that tie him to his Jewish ancestors, from one generation to the next. By maintaining Muslim practices in the home, Rehman was doing the same thing for her two sons.
It’s no wonder that Threading My Prayer Rug was shortlisted for the 2018 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. The book also was named one of Booklist’s To 10 Diverse Nonfiction Books of 2017. I can’t wait to read her newest book, We Refuse to Be Enemies: How Muslims and Jews Can Make Peace, One Friendship at a Time.