You’re A Kind of Muslim, Right?
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You’re A Kind of Muslim, Right?

Chana Shapiro discusses a few recent conversations in which she educated strangers on Judaism.

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

“Mrs. Shapiro, I’m Ayesha.” The nurse welcomed me and led me into the dreaded chamber of self-loathing where one’s height, weight, oxygen level and blood pressure are measured. Just let me say that I’m never at the top of my game when I go to a new doctor.

In anticipation of this first visit, I filled out a detailed questionnaire which Ayesha reviewed while I prepared for the ritual. I removed my shoes, watch, bracelet and earrings, attempting to tip the scale favorably. Then I requested a few minutes of respite while I calmed myself emotionally for the blood pressure assessment. Aware of my anxiety, Ayesha complied, which gave her extra time to go over my questionnaire.

Ayesha asked, “What’s this?” pointing to the line in which I hadn’t liked any of the given choices. Therefore, instead of “Caucasian” I had checked “Other” and written “Ashkenazi Jewish.”

“What’s this word?” Ayesha asked, pointing to “Ashkenazi.”

Allowing my zealous quest for “teaching moments” to override the more desirable professional relationship between patient and nurse, I ran with it.

“I wrote that answer to inform the doctor about my European ancestors and genetic makeup. Some Jewish people share traits that may require special medical attention.”

“Oh, I know all about that. You’re a kind of Muslim, right?”

Right then and there, I decided to quickly halt running with it. “Jews and Muslims are different religions and have different histories, and I don’t know if we have common genetic traits. It would be interesting to find out.”

After the doctor’s visit, I passed Ayesha as I left. “I’m just curious,” I asked her, “where did you hear that Jews are a type of Muslim?”

“Oh, I go to church, and I learned that Jews come from Abraham, who is the father of Muslims,” she explained. Hmmm. All too often I find myself in a situation where I have two bad choices: get into a difficult, complex discussion or exit unsatisfactorily. Ayesha had work to do, and I wanted to think about a useful response. “I hope we can talk about this some other time,” I offered, heading out.

A few weeks later, I was on a plane. I had the seat between my husband, Zvi, on the aisle, and a fellow who identified himself as Brian, next to the window. He was a serious-looking graduate student. Simultaneously, a jolly fellow, with a name tag reading “Jim,” sat down on the aisle directly across from Zvi.

The flight took off, and Zvi opened his prayer book to silently read the verses specified for travelers, unaware that Jim was watching him with great intensity. Zvi handed the book to me, and then I read the verses.

Jim wasn’t the only one paying attention.

Brian saw that something mysterious was going on, and when the book was given to me, he strained to get a good look. The prayer isn’t very long, and soon I pulled out the magazine in the seat pocket in front of me and started to do the crossword puzzle.

Both neighbors had been waiting for us. Jim across the aisle leaned over to Zvi and asked, “Are you reading the Torah?” The oddly-begun conversation between them lasted the full 1 ½ hours of the flight and resulted in an exchange of contact information.

Taking his cue when the Jim-Zvi interchange began, Brian had a different suggestion for me, “That’s the Koran, isn’t it?”

“We’re Jewish, and that’s Hebrew,” I answered. “I guess Arabic and Hebrew can be confused if you don’t read either one.” I opened the book and showed it to Brian.

“I heard that people who aren’t Jewish can’t touch your books,” he stated.
“Not so.” I handed the book to him, and he carefully turned a few pages. Brian and I chatted for quite a while about our respective religions, and we acknowledged that we’d both learned a lot.

When Zvi and I compared our separate conversations, we agreed that this flight was the most interesting one we’d ever had. Once again, I was reminded that there are good people everywhere like Ayesha, Jim and Brian, who have heard a lot about Jews, but they don’t know us.

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