Category Archives: Guest Letter

photo of Josep holding Letters to Josep

Guest Letter FROM Josep: A Clarification on Josep’s Religious Views

In my previous post I mentioned that I sometimes feel it’s a little disingenuous to describe this blog as one that documents a friendship “between a Jew and a Christian,” as that makes it sound like we are both dedicated members of those religions in the traditional sense, and that’s a bit of an oversimplification. “You’re more of a… how do I put this… secular humanist theist whose beliefs are vaguely structured on Christian concepts with a suspicious bias toward their Jewish sources?” I wrote. “Does that work?”

Well, guess who’s here to set the record straight!

photo of Josep holding Letters to Josep
This guy. (He sent me this selfie like 2 years ago, but I told him I’m not willing to feature it on the “about” page because I want one with him looking at least slightly pleased about the book in his hand. He claimed that he took this at 6 am and was therefore exempt from expressing any positive emotion whatsoever. Fair enough.)

This is the first time I’m writing a letter to the blog that is partially “dedicated” to me. ‘Bout time!

The reason I am doing that is that I normally am a very shy person, walking away from any spotlight. But reading letters of religious people here and reading in your last post that I was not a typical Christian, I decided to make my own position clear.

What do I believe in?

My background, both in terms of my family and in terms of my education is Catholic. And my family is pretty religious.

I can not identify myself as a Catholic for many reasons, the most important being that the Catholic Church requires strict adherence to many things that I do not believe in or I directly feel are wrong. But I consider myself a Christian with Catholic tendencies.

I believe in God.

I do not think God is a He or a She.

I do not believe in the Holy Trinity.

I do not care if the Virgin Mary was really a virgin or not. It does not take away the goodness of Jesus’s actions and words.

I believe Jesus may have been the son of God, but it’s not a requisite to believe he was inherently good.

I respect all faiths and beliefs that are based on love and/or doing good–and I do not care what other people believe in.

But I do not condone evil (in the sense of doing wrong), worshiping evil (in the sense of worshiping something that requires the spread of bad things, feelings, or actions).

I do not condone lack of civility, education, and good manners. I deplore selfishness above all and selfish people.

I believe in science.

I believe that all through the history of humanity, people have created gods to explain most of the things that happened around them (that they could not understand).

I believe that all through history, the powerful have used religion to abuse the frail, the weak, the poor… basically the other 99% of us.

I do believe that most religions, faiths, and beliefs want to complicate things unnecessarily with rules & guidelines in order to create a “cast” of people that can interpret what God wants from us.

I believe that most of religions and faiths do create “institutions” that are full of people that say they are mediators between the people and God and that they can understand God’s will and/or word for us.

I do believe in a simpler God: He does not care about rules/guidelines or complications (liturgy) for worshiping him.

(If so, bear in mind that the most popular religion is Christianity with 2 billion followers and within it, there are hundreds of branches that pray and believe differently. Therefore most of humanity is doomed if God wants us to pray in a single way, as there are 7.5 billion people in the world and most likely, 8 billion of them pray and believe differently.)

I do believe that God just wants us to: to do good, be good, spread goodness.

For me, all the rules I need are the 10 commandments plus one sentence from Leviticus: love your neighbor as you love yourself.

The liturgy and complication of things create dangerous cults, such as Opus Dei, Legionarios de Cristo and others that appoint themselves “religious” vigilantes.

I do deplore such practices within Christianity and believe they are just one level of danger below Islamists, Wahabists, and Salafists.

The thing that pits religions against each other is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. And then we hate each other and kill each other just because we are different. In reality 99% of humanity wants to have a normal life, have a house and a family and to take care of their children.


So basically, “secular humanist theist whose beliefs are vaguely structured on Christian concepts with a suspicious bias toward their Jewish sources” isn’t that far off the mark, eh? But if you identify as a “Christian with Catholic tendencies” I’m not gonna argue!

(Just kidding. Of course I’m going to argue. I’m always going to argue. ‘Tis the way of my people!)

Guest Letter from Jackie: A Christian at an Orthodox Jewish Prayer Service

A Christian at an Orthodox prayer service, Josep? Whoever heard of such a thing? 😉

Well, unlike you, today’s guest lives in a country where they don’t need armed guards interrogating people at the door. Jacquelyn Lofstad is a 19-year-old college student from Minnesota, United States, who was raised in a Baptist family. She’s a reader who stumbled across the blog through Google, and her submission of this letter was the first contact she made with me (which is a first–all previous guest letters have been by people I know from other contexts and/or who I cajoled asked to write one!). She also writes a blog of her own about the Old Testament and how it relates to Jesus and the gospels, partially inspired by a trip she took to Israel not long ago.

She decided to share with us about an experience she had recently: observing the Shabbat morning prayer service in an Orthodox synagogue. (For those of you who need more info on what Shabbat is, click here.) I think this is a beautiful counterpoint to our previous guest letter, which was about a Jew’s positive experiences in churches!

Here’s Jackie:


Dear Josep,

Recently, I had the privilege of celebrating Sabbath at an Orthodox Synagogue. The Jewish people are beautiful, dedicated, and tenacious in their faith. I was extremely blessed to be able to observe a Shabbat (sabbath) service.

I am a 19-year-old college senior from Minnesota, United States, studying music education and history.  I was raised in a Baptist family but do not swear complete allegiance to any particular denomination.  I just believe the Bible, want to honor God and love people in the process.  After visiting Israel over spring break for a Bible study trip, I gained so much respect for the Jewish people’s tenacity and dedication to their faith.  Also, I love the Old Testament and am frustrated that the church does not talk about it enough.  Researching Judaism seemed like the obvious answer. Wanting to learn more, I contacted a local rabbi and asked to observe a synagogue service.

I entered the room during prayers and was handed a prayer book with English translations – praise God! My lack of education was clearly shown when I forgot that the Hebrew language and therefore the prayer books, read right to left!

One thing that struck me about the Hebrew prayers was how focused they were on God and God alone. So often I will only pray to ask for things. Their prayers focused on the glory, majesty, power, and love of Hashem (Hebrew name for God, literally translated as “the name”).

After the prayers, the Torah was brought out. The cantor and the congregation sang and chanted with joy as the Torah was lifted out of the arc in the front of the room and brought to the center of the congregation. The blessing of having the word of God IS something that we should rejoice over. The Torah in the center reminded me how God is a God for all people. He comes down, right into the middle of our lives. The word of God speaks right into the middle of our messy situations. The Torah reading for this day the “snake being lifted” in Numbers. They also read from the prophets on a yearly rotation – this week the men read from 1st Samuel.

The rabbi then spoke about a former rabbi who died at the hands of communist Russia because he refused to be transported on the sabbath. While he could have easily justified breaking sabbath to save his life, he decided not to because of the people that looked up to him. While I do not have the same sabbath convictions as the Jewish people, I also have people looking up to me. I need to take my actions seriously, because as a teacher, I will have people looking at my life as they make decisions.

After the service, which was over two hours (they are dedicated people), I was invited to the Kiddush lunch afterwards. The stew was cooked the night before and left on the stove because no cooking is done on the sabbath.

One lady told me about how she read a book about how a Christian converted to Judaism because she felt like Yom Kippur offered more room for grace than Christianity. This saddened me because we clearly are not showing/sharing the love and grace of God that well then!

I had a long conversation with another woman about Israel, Judaism, and many other things (Israel actually opened many doors for conversations so praise God!). She shared how it was difficult to get a job without working on Saturdays. I again was struck by how these people’s first priority was their faith. I can learn from this. I was then asked why many Christians don’t like Israel (This question was a bit stressful–19-year-old having to answer for all Christians 😛 ). I responded by saying that many Christians misunderstand both the heart of God and the Jewish people. At the end of our conversation, we thanked each other for sharing our perspectives–it was a really sweet moment.

I learned so much from this visit and hope I represented Christianity well. I am encouraging my friends and colleagues to be willing to experience new things and hear people’s stories. The world needs people who care. Be that person, because Jesus was that person. He heard people’s stories. He saw the beauty in diversity. And he was Jewish too 🙂

Sincerely,
Jackie


Are you a reader who has something interesting to share with Josep and me about religion or culture? Don’t be shy–be like Jackie! Submit a guest letter!

Guest Letter from Jill: Thank You, Christianity

Hey Josep! Been a while since we’ve had a guest letter, eh? This one is from a long-time reader, and someone I’ve known… since the womb, actually.

This was entirely her initiative! Don’t look at me!!! 😉

But while I’m here, I shall take the opportunity to brag about her shamelessly. You said once that I’m one of the most empowered women you know, and if you want to know why, it’s because this woman is my mother.

My mom, Jill Baker Shames, was raised in a secular Jewish family in New York and became religious in college, as she will describe below. But she’s always insisted on doing everything her own way! When she was pregnant with me, she woke up one day with a sudden urge to study a martial art. My dad thought it was one of her crazy pregnant lady things and that it would pass. Well, it’s been 31 years and it still hasn’t passed! 😉 She is currently a fifth-degree black belt in Shorin-Ryu Matsubayashi karate; one of the most experienced and celebrated empowerment self-defense instructors in the country; and a martial arts therapist (and licensed social worker) who works with kids with terminal illnesses and their families, teaching them to use tools from the martial arts to help them cope with pain and stress. She serves as coordinator for Kids Kicking Cancer Israel, an organization that trains and employs martial arts therapists to work in Israeli hospitals. And because clearly she has so much free time on her hands (…) she also volunteers for her local Psychotrauma & Crisis Response Unit, whose personnel arrive at the scene of a traumatic situation (sudden death, car accident, etc.) and work with the witnesses and bystanders at the scene to help them process what they saw and prevent them from developing PTSD.  Did I mention also that she co-founded the Israeli national women’s martial arts organization, which she and I left last year for reasons I won’t elaborate on here, and helped establish a chapter of the Guardian Angels–an organization of volunteer citizen patrols for tough neighborhoods–in Israel? Oh and yes, this is the same mother who donated her kidney to a distant cousin two years ago. (And yeah, she’s a writer too–that link is from her Times of Israel blog!)

In summary, I may have followed in her footsteps in some ways–learning karate and self-defense from her and becoming an instructor under her tutelage–but I will never be as awesome as she is and we all know it 😛

I vaguely recall that you and her may have corresponded at some point many years ago, probably on something to do with Casa Shalom. In any case, she decided to write you a guest letter from her characteristically out-of-the-box perspective. 😉 Without further ado:


Dear Josep,

Your online Jewish Education has given me a great deal of hope and satisfaction. After all, what dedicated Jewish woman would miss the opportunity to be a Yiddishe fly-on-the-wall kvelling1 about all the things the world–particularly the Christian world–owes to its Jewish roots?

However, I am going to do something that is at once incredibly Jewish and… incredibly not. And that is to express my gratitude to Christianity for what it taught me about being Jewish.

Expressing gratitude is quintessentially Jewish.2 HaKarat HaTov, literally “acknowledging the good,” is an axiom of Jewish life. On the other hand, given the amount of suffering that Jews have endured in the name of Christianity over the millennia, having anything nice to say about That Religion is an anomaly at best.

But I never claimed to be normal.3

I was raised in a family with a powerful ethnic Jewish identity but received an extremely limited Jewish education. As a child, what I knew about being Jewish was pretty much limited to a handful of holidays (Chanukah and Pesach being the biggies), not going to school on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Bar Mitzvah parties, a few Yiddish phrases (not for polite company), chicken soup, bagels, and lox [smoked salmon–DL]. My family gave me a strong sense of loyalty and belonging to the Tribe intellectually, ethically, and ethnically, but spiritually? If Judaism had a spiritual side, I knew little or nothing about it.

Yet, even as a young child, I had a strong connection to Gd. My parents tell me that at the age of 3, I used to stand in the middle of the living room speaking aloud to Gd. I decided to fast on Yom Kippur at a young age. I fasted even when no one else in my family fasted. I wanted to go to synagogue even when no one else wanted to go. As I grew older, I felt my family members saw me as a strange bird in the flock. I was alternately praised and teased for my interest in things Jewish. I did not feel comfortable talking about my spiritual longings. I developed my own rituals and prayer practices. And I started going to church.

Mostly it was something I did on sleepovers. I was at my Catholic or Lutheran or Methodist or Episcopalian friends’ houses over the weekend, so why not join the family in church? I loved the mammoth stone buildings echoing songs and prayers. I loved the light pouring through the stained glass windows, the pageantry of the services, and the fellowship of the participants. I watched and rewatched classic movies like Ben-Hur, The Robe and all those films in which kindly priests stepped in to help young toughs move toward healthy adulthood.

Looking back, I wonder that my parents were able to see going to church as some kind of cultural experiment without worrying that I would be lured away by “the love of Jesus”, the material splendor of Christmas or the ease of assimilating into the majority culture. And they were right. Even when I joined the Methodist youth group, the token Jew arguing with Christian Youth Leaders about the prophecies of the End of Days, even when I watched Christian TV or listened to Christian music radio or sang Latin Mass in school choir, I was never tempted to stray. Rather, I was comforted by finding others in the world longing for Gd. I was filled with awe by the beauty, the faith and the compassion I found in Christianity in all its many forms. I found a fellowship of the spirit and a love and clinging to Gd that I could not find at home. I experienced awe that I had never experienced in the rituals of my own faith. After all, it was easier to get lost in the forest of Judaism’s rules and rituals than to delve into its deep and complex spiritual roots.

It was only when I went to college and could finally access Jewish living and learning by myself that I was able to take all the devotion that Christian institutions had kept warm and flowing for me for 18 years, and plug them into my spiritual path.

So, while it is true that the history of the Jews as a People in Christian lands is a sordid one, my personal history with Christianity remains one of fellowship and gratitude.

So, thank you, Christianity, for giving me the spiritual oxygen I desperately needed until I could learn to “breathe” on my own. In the Jewish Bible, Gd calls us Jews “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”; it entrusts us with helping all the nations of the world find and follow their spiritual paths. Under your spiritual wings, you helped me remember that as long as I had faith in Gd, I was not alone.

In these days of skepticism and anti-theism, I consider it my sacred trust and honor to return the favor.

Jill Baker Shames, MSW
Spiritual Jedi4
[DANIELLA’S AMAZING MOTHER.–DL]
www.paths2power.com


1. A Yiddish verb that means to take great pride in something or someone, usually quite vocally. Related closely to schepping naches, as defined in 10 Essential Words in Judeo-English.

2. The name Judah, from which the word “Judaism” is derived, literally means “giving thanks/expression of gratitude”.

3. Everything makes so much sense now, eh Josep?! 😉

4. In case you haven’t seen any of the Star Wars movies–and since you haven’t read Harry Potter, I wouldn’t be surprised at such grievous cultural delinquency on your part–the Jedi Knights are sort of mystical warriors who fight against forces of evil in the Star Wars universe. In her work with the Guardian Angels, there was a protocol not to use real names in radio transmissions, so all Guardian Angels had to choose a nickname. She chose “Jedi” because, aside from the obvious, it’s a word that has the same meaning in all relevant languages–English, Hebrew, Amharic, and Arabic. Not a lot of words like that!


Would you like to share about your own experiences with religion–another or your own? Write us a guest letter!

A Jewish synagogue in Munich

Guest Letter from Naomi: An American Jew in Munich

When I posted about my recent experience in Frankfurt, I got a response from an online friend of mine who is an American Jew living in Germany. She was sorry to hear about my impressions of Europe, because they didn’t reflect her own experiences. I was delighted when she offered to write a guest letter about it, because I have been focusing a lot on antisemitism in Europe and I’d like to provide a different, more optimistic perspective.

I met Naomi on an interfaith group on Facebook. As you will see in her letter, she and I share many interests! The rest, I will let her tell you. This letter, like the last few, is in the form of an interview. Enjoy!


Dear Josep,

I’m Naomi, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently living in Munich, Germany (with some time spent in between in New York, Prague, and Jerusalem). Over the years I studied creative writing, history, dance, and social work–I currently have a master’s degree in social work–and my passions and interests largely lie in the arts, working with people, culinary adventures, and being outdoors.

My cultural and religious background is somewhat multifaceted, as I was initially raised as a Reform/liberal Ashkenazi Jew, then my parents became more Jewishly observant and joined a Modern Orthodox synagogue. From preschool through high school, I attended Jewish day schools (and was in the first graduating class of two brand new ones) where I learned Hebrew, some Aramaic and a ton about Judaism.

Though I’d consider myself “just Jewish” these days, I feel quite well-versed in my religion. And growing up in the Bay Area I’d probably describe my cultural leanings as “liberal, curious and open.” I ended up in Germany as my husband was getting his PhD here. I initially worked as an au pair for a year prior to grad school, then returned after I finished my degree right before our weddings. (Yes, we had two weddings!1) I spent a lot of time here in between as well.

I [Daniella] posted recently about a negative experience I had in Germany and the discomfort I feel as a Jew in Europe. (Josep also shared, in the comments, about a negative experience he had in Berlin.) We also had a guest letter from a French Jew who loves France dearly, but feels very uncomfortable there as a Jew. Your experience, in contrast, has been largely positive. Can you tell us about that?

My experience as a Jew in Europe has been somewhat unique, particularly in the context of most German Jewry; I have some knowledge and experience of Jewish life in the Czech Republic as well. So I have to preface this by saying that I can’t really speak for all of Europe as a continent, as it’s very heterogenous and Jewish communities vary wildly throughout the region.

By “unique” I mean the fact that I am neither German nor from a former Soviet Republic, the two communities that make up the majority of Germany’s Jewry, so I’m a bit of an outsider in that regard being an American.

My husband, son, and I belong to the liberal Jewish synagogue in Munich, which in and of itself has been a positive experience. It’s a very warm and welcoming community with a diverse membership; we have Brazilian, Israeli, and Australian members, to name a few countries. I started becoming involved in an organization called Rent a Jew2, where Jewish community members go to schools and workplaces to put a human face on the Jewish community and share personal anecdotes and experiences about Judaism.

As one might imagine, Jews are rather a minority in Germany (there are quite a few in urban areas such as Munich, but don’t make up a significant part of the country’s population), so being Jewish is a different experience than in a place like New York City or London, where one can often assume that people have heard of holidays like Hanukkah or know that there is such a thing as kosher food. You really can’t assume any kind of basic knowledge, so people often have questions for me if they find out about my background–or, very interestingly, people will often mention that they themselves have some Jewish heritage–particularly in Prague, where the vast majority of our friends have at least one direct Jewish ancestor.

Despite this, I have never personally encountered any direct anti-Semitism or prejudice, just occasional curiosity. Sometimes there is a sense of being left out during the holidays, but this is honestly a similar experience anywhere outside of Israel. I think being Jewish here in Europe has strengthened my Judaism, as we have to make more of a conscious effort to be involved, unlike somewhere like New York City where you’re basically Jewish by default just living there (kidding, kidding). I imagine that for the few observant Jews living in Munich, you have to be particularly strong, as there is only one kosher restaurant and grocery store, and no eiruv around the community to allow for things like pushing a stroller on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.3

I also find, on a personal level, something emotionally significant about pursuing Jewish life in Europe after World War Two. I feel strongly that it’s important for Judaism to continue to thrive here. It’s almost like a full circle, as my ancestors had to flee from persecution and now I can come back and, in a way, help “rebuild” within the community.

Also, unlike back in the US, there are hundreds of years of Jewish history here4, and as someone passionate about history, that’s been a fascinating exploration since I’ve been living in Munich.

You are married to a non-Jewish Czech. How have you acculturated to each other’s different backgrounds?

I would say pretty well. My husband probably knows more about Judaism than many Jews! He has learned quite a bit of Torah, is currently studying biblical Hebrew and Yiddish. One of our weddings was also Jewish. So in terms of acclimating to my family’s Jewish background, I’d say he’s very well integrated and very involved.

Culturally speaking, Americans and Czechs have a few differences (from my perspective)–Americans are often perceived as overly effusive and sometimes insincerely friendly, and Czechs are often perceived as being withdrawn and sarcastic. However, these are stereotypes that one side often has of the other, an issue with every country’s culture. My husband has spent quite a lot of time in the US, including two stays as a student, so I think we are each in the position that we have had a lot of time and opportunity to integrate into one another’s communities. Sometimes there are funny differences, like my American family’s bewilderment that most Czechs–and Germans as well–don’t have a dryer. Apparently living without a dryer is very un-American!

When your son was born it was important to you to have him circumcised according to Jewish tradition. Can you tell us about that experience? How did your husband feel about it?

Both my husband and I did feel it was important to have a Brit Milah for our son, to have him connected to the Jewish community through a very tangible and powerful experience. It really is very powerful, as it’s obviously not easy to have such a tiny baby go through that, and as a mom you are just recovering yourself from childbirth and are totally out of it–so it’s an intense day for everyone involved. It felt especially significant to have him have his Brit Milah in a country where the ritual is extremely rare and occasionally under threat (one of the few things that unites Jews and Muslims on a regular basis in Europe). To be completely honest, if it wasn’t such an important facet of Judaism, I’m not sure I would do it of my own volition. But in the end, I am happy he is part of such a lineage, and I’m proud every day of my Jewish-American-Czech-Bavarian little guy (or however else he may choose to describe himself in the future). He is a part of so many cultures, naturally from birth, that I’m almost a bit jealous.

Naomi


Daniella’s notes:

1. That’s nothing! My grandparents had three! …Never mind. Carry on.

2. I gotta say, I hadn’t heard of this organization, and when I saw their name I laughed out loud. Can’t decide whether I find it more funny or disturbing…..

3. An “eiruv” is a sort of legal fiction that helps us get around the prohibition to carry objects in public areas during the Sabbath. It’s a string connected through a bunch of poles, that acts as a “gate,” which makes the area technically a private area in halakhic terms. Most Jewish neighborhoods and cities have an eiruv. Barcelona does not, Josep, which is why I found myself walking to the synagogue on Friday evening with no passport, key card, or wallet. In retrospect, that was not a very smart thing to do. But I was hungry and hoping to be invited for a meal, and it never occurred to me that anyone else would be interested in tagging along. I guess I didn’t know you well enough at that point! I could have been your ticket in!!! 😉 

4. Just to be precise–as I’m sure Naomi knows–there are hundreds of years of Jewish history in the USA, but obviously, far fewer than in Europe. The first American Jews were Sephardim fleeing Spanish persecution in the 16th century.


Are you a Jew living in an unusual place? Or any other person with something interesting to share? Please consider sending us a guest letter!

To view previous guest letters, click here.

Guest Letter from Bobby: On the Baha’i Faith and Its Call for Religious Tolerance

I am very excited to present this guest letter about the Baha’i faith. As I’ve mentioned before, I hang out on some online interfaith groups, and Bobby recently joined one of them, saying he’d like to learn more about other faiths. When he mentioned that he is Baha’i, I immediately asked to interview him for a guest letter.

Baha’i is a monotheistic faith, relatively recent in origin, that is not widely known. I only learned of its existence because of the beautiful Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel, which I have seen from afar, but never visited.

The view from the top of the Baha'i Gardens, overlooking Haifa Bay
The view of Haifa Bay from the top of the Baha’i Gardens

So what’s the deal with these people? Who are they, and what do they believe? I asked Bobby, and as my understanding of the Baha’i Faith deepened I gained a sense that it has an extremely important message for people of all religions, especially those of us who believe in interfaith dialogue and connection. I hope you enjoy this letter as much as I did.


Greetings Josep!

My name is Bobby, and I’m a Baha’i living in Missouri, USA. I wasn’t born into a Baha’i family–my family are all Christian–but when I was 14 my grandmother passed away and I started to think about religion more seriously, a friend of mine introduced me to the Baha’i faith and after investigation I realized that (for me at least) it’s the truth.

Tell us a little about the background of the Baha’i faith. What does the word “Baha’i” mean? Where, when, and how was it developed? What are its main theological principles?

Baha’i is a term used to describe followers of Baha’u’llah, whom we believe to be the messenger of God for this age. The word Baha’i comes from the word Baha which is the 100th and greatest of God’s names–it means Glory–and Baha’u’llah means The Glory of God. The Baha’i faith recognizes many Messengers of God, including:

  • Zoroaster
  • Krishna
  • Moses
  • Buddha
  • Jesus
  • Muhammad

The three central figures of the Baha’i faith are as follows.

The first is the Bab, who was the forerunner of Baha’u’llah, prophesying Baha’u’llah’s coming. The Bab declared in 1840 that he was the Mahdi, the 12th Imam of Islam that was prophesied to return before the coming of the Promised One.

The second is Baha’u’llah. He is the divine Messenger for our age.

The third is Baha’u’llah’s son Abdu’l-Baha. He was the leader of the Baha’i faith, writing many invaluable books about our faith.

Some of the most important principles of the Baha’i faith are: harmony between science and religion, equality between men and women, unity of humanity, and unity of religion.

I understand that the Baha’i faith recognizes all other monotheistic religions as stemming from the same spiritual source, and that it celebrates diversity of worship. Does that mean that the Baha’i faith recognizes all those other religions as being true, in the sense that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all correct in their understanding and interpretation of God’s will? Or is it that the technical details don’t really matter, as long as we are devoted to serving God and humankind?

The Baha’i faith teaches that all religions are true and contain the seeds for the message of the next of God’s Messengers, but Baha’u’llah taught that the adherents of the previous religions erred when they created sects/denominations. Because God is a perfect unity, without division of any kind, his religion is one. The creation of division in religion and all the fighting it’s caused is harmful to the peace God wants us to obtain, but ultimately all religions are correct because the are the revealed divine will of God.

I can understand and get behind the idea of this as a sort of general principle–at the end of the day, we’re all trying to achieve the same thing. But it gets complicated when we talk about specifics. Because some beliefs in one religion absolutely contradict the beliefs in other religions. For example, Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah and a human manifestation of God. Muslims believe he was a prophet. Jews believe he was none of those things. This is far more than a squabble over a minor detail; it results in a completely different understanding of the will of God.
I am reminded of a classic Jewish joke, where two Jews go to their rabbi to settle a financial dispute. The rabbi listens carefully to the first Jew’s account and says, “You’re right.” Then he listens to the other Jew’s account and says, “You’re also right.” The first Jew says, “But rabbi! We can’t both be right!” And the rabbi says, “You’re also right!”
So, how can we all be right? 😉 If all religions are the revealed divine will of God, why does it appear to contradict itself?

Wonderful question!

The issue is not so much with the religion and the religious texts (which would cause the religion to not be the true word of God), but rather the problem is with how man interprets the writings. We believe that Jesus did fulfill the prophecies to be the Messiah, but not all Jews believe this because they interpret the prophecies in different ways than Baha’is. For instance, we believe that the prophecy that the whole world shall know God and worship him has nearly been fulfilled thanks to the spread of Christianity and Islam. If it weren’t for Jesus sending out his followers to spread the faith, the majority of the world would not believe in God.

Another prophecy is that when he [the Messiah] comes there will be a resurrection of the dead. This is one of the 13 principles of Jewish faith.1 We believe this happened spiritually rather than physically. The Jewish faith was in a great time of changing and turmoil 2,000 years ago with the Roman invaders, and Jesus’ coming caused the dead spirits of the Jewish people to come back to life. The Jewish people (speaking of those who rejected Jesus) really flourished in their writings and deeper understanding of Torah post Roman invasion up until not too long ago.

Now as for the Muslims, they have two classes of Prophets. The first is Nabi, the second is Rasul. A prophet is a Nabi, someone who is inspired by God, but the Rasul is the Divine Messenger of God (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are on this list), and they consider Jesus to be Rasul.

So there are no contradictions between the religions. It is a progressive revelation. The only issues are with interpretations. But from my understanding of Baha’i writings this is what God wants. He doesn’t want there to be only Christians or only Baha’is. He wants all of his religions to exist at the same time in harmony, with the understanding that they are one religion.

If you thought this was confusing you should hear me try to explain Jesus’s end times prophecies! 😀

I think I get it. You believe that all religions were meant to be the same, and Baha’i has its own understanding of the religious texts and how they all fit together. So it’s not so much that you think the Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all “correct” per se, but that the Torah, Christian Bible, Qur’an, and other holy texts are all the word of God, and the discrepancies between the religions are the result of the (according to you) erroneous ways we interpreted and applied them. Is that correct?

Simply put, yes, that is the belief. But to err is human, and the Baha’i writings say that no matter what one’s faith is, if he practices with conviction, he is in the right. So even a Jew who rejects Jesus is considered right in their practice of the religion of God, from my understanding, because they don’t have to accept Jesus to still have the (a?) correct religion 🙂 Many Baha’is go to synagogues, mosques, and churches every week to learn and commune with our spiritual brothers and sisters. We wholeheartedly believe that you all have the truth. It’s just your doctrine on certain things that we have a different understanding of.

I feel that we live in a world where a sort of “zealous ownership over religious truth” lies at the heart of the biggest and bloodiest conflicts. What do you, as a Baha’i, wish members of all these different religious groups would recognize about each other? How do you think we can navigate these differences in our belief systems, when they appear to be mutually exclusive?

As a Baha’i I wish that everyone would realize we all worship the same God, albeit in different ways. If we could realize that our seemingly different religions are actually the same, once you strip away the cultural influence and superstition, then, I think, we could end religious prejudice.

How do you practice the Baha’i faith on a day-to-day basis? What calendar do you follow, and what festivals do you celebrate?

The Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book of the Baha’i faith, is the record of the commandments of God for our age, it tells us our day to day responsibilities as Baha’is. Among these are the Obligatory Prayers in the morning, at noon and at sunset. Another command is for daily meditation while reciting Allah’u’Abha2 95 times.

We use the Badi calendar created by The Bab. This calendar has 19 months with 19 days each, also containing intercalary days that have became a gift giving holiday for the Baha’i called Ayyam-i-Ha. Some other holidays are Naw Ruz which is the Persian new year, the martyrdom of the Bab, the Ascension of Baha’u’llah, the Day of the Covenant, and others.

What is the significance of the Baha’i Gardens in Israel to your faith? Have you ever been there?

The Gardens of Haifa are a holy place in the Baha’i faith. They go up the side of Mount Carmel to the shrine of the Bab, and lead to the Shrine of Baha’u’llah in Bahji, Akka (a.k.a. Akko or Acre), Israel.

The Shrine of Baha'u'allah near Acre, Israel By Marco Abrar, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1349433
The Shrine of Baha’u’allah near Acre, Israel
By Marco Abrar, CC BY-SA 3.0

Baha’is make pilgrimage to these holy spots at least once in their lifetime if able, but sadly I have not had a chance.

According to Wikipedia, there are somewhere around 5-6 million Baha’is in the world. Are you part of a community? What is your experience of belonging to a faith that is relatively unknown, that many people you meet may never have heard of?

According to the latest enrollment numbers from The Universal House of Justice (the closest thing Baha’is of to a “church”) there are 7.6 million enrolled Baha’is around the world. Unfortunately none of them live near me! I would love to live in a community; Baha’is get together every nineteen days, that is, the first of every month on our calendar, for a feast. How wonderful community life would be! But a good thing is that I have many people to educate on the Baha’i faith around here.

What are some of your favorite things about being Baha’i?

My favorite thing about being a Baha’i is that I never have to say that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. My second favorite is that the Baha’i faith teaches that hell is a metaphor not a real place of torment.

Is there anything else you think is important for us to know about the Baha’i faith?

The Baha’i houses of worship (one on every continent!) are open to members of all faiths. I very much recommend visiting one! I adore the House of Worship in Chile.

The Baha'i House of Worship in Santiago, Chile. Photo courtesy of Baha'i World News Service
The Baha’i House of Worship in Chile. Photo courtesy of Baha’i World News Service

Bobby


1. For more about the Jewish concept of resurrection of the dead, see “The Vagueries of the Jewish Afterlife.“”

2. “Allahu’Abha” is the traditional Baha’i greeting that means “God is the most glorious.” It can be compared to Islam’s “Allahu’Akbar.”


Do you belong to a lesser-known faith, or a smaller sect of one of the major religions? Want to share your unique perspective? Write us a guest letter of your own!

Guest Letter from Alana: An Orthodox Christmas, from the Holy Land to Sin City

So you may have noted that I mentioned that we had a “couple” of Christmas letters coming, and then only posted one. That’s because good things come to those who wait! 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit late, but I did not want to miss the opportunity to post this letter from my friend Alana.

I don’t remember exactly how I met Alana; probably through an online Muslim-Jewish dialogue group… which is funny, because she’s Christian! 😉 But there tends to be a lot of overlap between Muslim-Jewish dialogue and Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, so Palestinian Christians like her tend to get lumped in with the Muslims, I guess. We both got such a kick out of discovering that I live a mere five-minute drive from Beit Sahour, the Palestinian village where her father, paternal grandfather, and maternal grandparents were born!

Alana is currently studying international affairs, has written for various publications, and as you’ve probably gathered, is involved in peace and dialogue efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. I was especially excited when she offered to write something about Christmas because she has family in Bethlehem, where the Christmas story takes place! She grew up elsewhere, however, and she’ll tell you about that in a minute. 😉

But before I give her the floor, I just want to say that I am so grateful to her and her family for letting me share this little slice of their lives on my blog. Especially in light of recent events, I think it is really important for members of both our peoples to listen to each other’s stories. Alana doesn’t get into her family’s story here from a political perspective, but it was very important to me to discuss it with her and hear her parents’ feelings about it.

Anyway! Here’s Alana, and a painfully pared down selection of the bajillion lovely pictures she sent me 😉 :


Dear Josep,

Hi! My name is Alana and I’m a twenty-year-old university student. I would like to tell you about my religious identity and how it relates to my national identity and contradicts my local identity. I would say that I was quite religious most of my life. I think I lost a bit of my spirituality along the way as I became older, but as I explore my identity, I realize I want to have a better relationship with God.

Here is an anecdote to assist me in explaining who I am:

“Baba, I wish I was born in Beit Sahour! Or Bethlehem!” A little naïve girl version of myself lamented this while I was reflecting on relatives in town who happened to be born there.

“Why?” my dad asked, implying that American citizenship by birth is way more valuable.

“Jesus was born there!”

Even my dad who swears by his spirituality disagrees with the notion of his daughter taking her first breaths in the Holy Land. It’s ideal, but my father left for a reason. He wanted a change.

Alana's dad with her (right) and her sister
Alana’s dad with her (left) and her sister

Where did my father, paternal grandmother, and uncles uproot to? Well, I’ll give you a hint, it’s referred to as “Sin City” where what happens there, inevitably stays there.

Yes, I was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A.

Alana's very first Christmas in Las Vegas
Alana’s very first Christmas

Almost my entire family is from a small village called Beit Sahour in the West Bank. It’s half an hour away from Bethlehem, the town that my paternal grandmother’s family is from. It also happens to be the famed Biblical village where once upon a time, Jesus Christ was born. No big deal. I just happen to find roots in the same area where Jesus Christ was born.

*nuns proceed to fangirl*

The reason that this might be a tad interesting is that my family is also Orthodox Christian. We are Christians who come from the Holy Land, and for at least over a hundred years or so, the place where Jesus Christ came into existence.

I think this is a huge part of why I, as a devout child, regretted not having the chance to be born near where my Savior was born. It seemed like an honor at the time, and celebrating His birth is definitely one of my favorite traditions every year.

My family is Orthodox Christian. My family in the U.S. are members of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. It’s the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in the United States. Antioch is a city in modern Turkey. It was a part of what was formerly known as Syria (different from the modern nation-state of Syria).

So how does one celebrate Christmas in Sin City? Well, for my family it’s not too different from the Christmas you’ve heard. Ok, I guess the praying in Arabic at church is kind of a huge difference. Oh and I cannot forget the Christmas songs in Arabic! My mother has an entire album of songs that she plays in the car on the way to church on Sundays in December or in the house. They were always soothing to listen to, and to be honest, I like them better than Christmas songs in English sometimes.

One thing I want to point out before I explain how my family celebrates Christmas is that Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th. We have a different calendar than Catholics/Protestants. Here, in the United States though, we, along with those at our church and other Orthodox Christians, celebrate Christmas on December 25th. I think this was mostly done for assimilation purposes, but I’m not sure. (My family back home celebrate it on January 7th.) With that said, I do like that we in the west at least celebrate Christmas at the same time as western Christians.

It’s also important to note that Jesus Christ is said to have been born in the spring, at an uncertain date of course. During the rule of the Roman Empire, Christians were only allowed to celebrate the birth of Christ if it aligned with the pagan holiday of the Winter Solstice. Thus, this the reason why Christians now celebrate Christmas in the winter. The reason for the season technically also has a pagan layer with it, along with traditions like putting up a tree.

Now for an explanation of how my family celebrates the holiday!

My childhood was much more lively around Christmas time, for a plethora of reasons, both internal and external. One of the most profound ways that my family and I began the month of December was participating and sometimes hosting a Christmas party with our close friends. Every year, a different family (there are four of us) would take turns hosting our annual party.

Alana and her sister at the party, age 12 or so
Alana (right) and her sister at the party, age 12 or so.

The adults played games and drank, while the children played and ate cookies and the like. The patriarch of the family that hosted the party that specific year would dress up as Santa Claus and distribute gifts to the children.

alana christmas 12

These gifts were purchased by their respective parents prior to the occasion. It was a tradition that we always upheld. Our annual Christmas parties were always such an enjoyable time and I miss them dearly. The memories will last a lifetime.

Leading up to the Christmas Day, the Sunday before Christmas at my church is quite special, and not just theologically. When I was younger, the children, teens, and young adults would perform a play reenacting the birth of Jesus Christ annually. It became a tradition for our parish. The youth would participate and the adults would watch. Taking place in our church, the person playing Mary would be sitting on the steps in front of the altar, carrying a baby doll to represent baby Jesus. Whoever plays Joseph sits by her while the “three wise men” bring their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Shepherds that were called upon by an angel to visit Jesus filter in after the wise men. Lastly, angels, mostly young children, descend onto the scene. They walk in between the pews singing various hymns. To finish off the play, they sit down in front of Mary and Joseph. The play ends with Mary, Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds, and angels gazing at their Savior. As a child, I was always cast as an angel. I longed for the day I would have a better role. That day would not come for at least several years though, especially since the tradition of the play was broken for a while.

alana christmas 13
Clearly the cutest angel in the church

Around the time I joined my church’s choir, when I was only ten years old, my priest decided we need a change when it came to our yearly play. He was getting tired of the old routine and wanted to liven up the Sunday prior to the day we celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth. So, he decided that the youth of the church should sing Christmas songs for the parish. Our choir conductor agreed to gathering some of the children and teenaged members of the church to participate. We always managed to convince enough people to sing their hearts out for the special performance after our pre-Christmas service. My sister, godsister, and I always took it quite seriously though, since we all love to sing and we happened to be members of the parish choir in the first place. So, we always rocked the show, especially since the three of us started a tradition of choreographing a song-dance routine that we would perform after all of the general songs were sung. Everyone looked forward to us performing, it was the highlight of my day.

Alana, her sister, and godsister at church
Alana (center), her sister (left), and godsister at church

Another tradition that I found special was the integration of Arabic Christmas songs into the program, even though it was just one. At the start of the program, the children and teenagers would walk into the church ringing bells in their hands. While they did this, they would chant “Laylit eid” or the Arabic version of Jingle Bells! They definitely did this after singing it in English, or course. I love that song so much and to this day, it is still one of my favorite Christmas songs. After our Christmas choir program, a member of the parish, usually male would dress up as Santa Claus, knock on the church doors, and proclaim the phrase “Ho, ho, ho.” The doors would then be opened for this Santa Clause who would carry a red bag filled with small and usually identical gifts for the children. It was a nice way to end the program every year.

This tradition went on and thrived until one year when my priest decided to bring the old play back. We were all surprised, but we went with the flow. That year was 2013 and I was eighteen years old. Finally, I was at an age where I could play a part besides an “angel.” Guess what? I was not only promoted, but I was given the most important role of all. I played the Virgin Mary. Oh my, I was so ecstatic. Finally, what a huge upgrade it was for me to play such an important part, and I definitely made sure to do the beloved Virgin Mary justice. That had to be the most important performance of the play that I ever participated in, and it went very well indeed.

Alana as the Virgin Mary
Alana as the Virgin Mary!

I have so many memories from those Sundays, including up until this past year. But the most important event prior to Christmas day is definitely Christmas Eve mass. This is when we really dress up and take pictures for Christmas. Everyone attends this service, especially those “Easter and Christmas” Christians (those who only come to church for Easter and Christmas services). Anyway, it’s a big deal, but alas, we do not get into the truly fun part until Christmas morning.

Christmas morning. For those on the outside who only see what it’s like through the lens of the media, i.e. TV’s and movies, it may seem a bit overdone. They practically memorize the stereotypical setting and custom and sigh thinking, “Why is this important?” I understand, but for me, it ceased to seeming like a repetitive thing and I hope the Christmas morning spark is something I will always experience. As a child, my mom, sister, and I would bake cookies that we would put out for Santa. We would also put out a glass of milk for that jolly fellow. After we would come home from church, my sister and I would soon fall asleep, giddy for the next morning. Soon enough, the sun came up. My sister and I would pop up from our beds and scurry to the living room. There they were, those magnificent gifts we were waiting for, under our beautiful twinkling Christmas tree. Believe me, that wasn’t it, once my dad started working the graveyard shift at his job, we had to wait, until around noon time. The wait was the best part though, but of course we wanted to finally see what we received from Santa Claus and our parents. Opening presents is a ritual. First, the stockings. My mother(Santa) would fill our stockings with chocolates, candy, tiny knickknacks, you name it! I personally loved the tiny gifts inside. Growing up, my sister and I were granted some pretty spectacular gifts.

Alana and her sister. So cute!!!
Alana and her sister with their gifts. So cute!!!

Honestly, this is great and all, but that’s not what this is about. The fact that my parents spent their time and money to make our sisters happy, even in a material sense, showed us how much they truly loved us. Growing up in the Holy Land and the Middle East respectively, my parents did not have much. They both grew up mostly dirt poor. My mother always explained to me that she had few toys, and I cannot tell you how many precious Barbie dolls I had in my vast toy collection. The toys, clothes, shoes, electronics, etc. My parents bought it all and they sacrificed so much for indescribable Christmas mornings, and overall, our livelihood. They gave us so much; I do not think I will ever be able to truly repay them back. It would be a pity to take all of it for granted, but you do not ponder the extent of your parent’s love, i.e. the hard work it takes when you are a mere child. You just receive it with no questions asked. Writing this blog post makes me realize how lucky I am, that I have not only been able to experience a microcosm of Christmases in Bethlehem, but I have experienced Christmases that my parents could have only dreamt of indulging in as children themselves. They did not have what my sister and I have. They had almost nothing, but for some reason, seeing the smiles on our faces when we rip open that wrapping paper is all that they need to be happy. I may have begun to gift give to my parents and sister in the past few years as a young adult myself, but my parents always shrug off the gifts. The only gifts they have, the only presents they need, are the beaming faces that my sister and I produce on that lovely holiday of ours. Since they love us so much, that is the only Christmas wish they have ever had for the past twenty years and I am beyond thankful for that.

alana christmas 5
Alana’s mom
Alana's family at Christmas this year
The whole beautiful family at Christmas this year

Celebrating Jesus Christ’s birthday in a town of “sin” may seem strange or impossible, but as my story outlines, it’s not only possible, it’s extraordinary. I may not be able to visit the Church of the Nativity every year around Christmas time, or visit the huge Christmas tree that is put up in Manger Square. I may not even be able to see most of my family, but celebrating Christmas in my hometown of Las Vegas has always proven to be wonderful, and I would not have it any other way in my eyes. I’ve only celebrated Christmas or “Eid milad” in Las Vegas, Nevada, and to be blunt, I think I would prefer to take part in Christmas festivities in the city of sin for the rest of my life. It’s familiar and it’s home. It’s unique and creative and that’s what I love about it. I would not change that for the world.

Merry (late) Christmas!

With love,
Alana B.


Would you like to share with us about your family’s holiday traditions? Or about your family’s culture or religion in general? Write us a guest letter of your own!

Guest Letter from Jonathan: A Puerto Rican American Christmas

I am pleased to present our first guest letter on Christmas, by my friend Jonathan. Jonathan is a devout Catholic, but has taken a bizarre interest in the Jewish roots of his faith, to a point that even you, Josep, would start shaking your head in disbelief. Living in NYC, he has been thoroughly exposed to Jewish culture, and knows more Talmudic texts, Hebrew, and Yiddish than any Hispanic Catholic should. (He’s the one I was joking with about the Pope. I often jokingly accuse him of being a Judaizer, threatening to report him to the Inquisition. He takes it very well.)

We have had many memorably amusing discussions concerning our religions. Such as that time when I complained on Facebook about finding granola bars in my purse on Passover, since oats are one of the five grains, meaning it was seriously hardcore chametz…

Screenshot (32)

Now, before we proceed to his letter I must warn you that his terminology might be a little hard to follow if you’re not familiar with Catholic concepts. I tried to get him to tone it down, but what can I do, once you get him talking about Jesus he can’t help himself!

Okay, now that I’ve finished embarrassing him, here’s Jonathan. A joyful Three Kings’ Day to those who celebrate!


 

Dear Josep,

I pray that you are well by the grace of God when you so happen upon this letter.

My name is Jonathan. I am not quite sure how I came to have the pleasure of Daniella’s acquaintance. I can only assume that it was through her husband Eitan’s FB page, and our mutual interest in the religious climate of Inquisition era Spain.

I am a Latin Rite Catholic of Puerto Rican descent born and raised in “the diaspora” in New York City.

The Christmas season, or more appropriately the season of Nativity has come upon us once again. As you are more than likely aware of, this is the time of year when Christians the world over commemorate the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Contrary to popular belief the Christmas season itself begins on 25 December and ends on 2 February with the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord/The Purification of Mary which commemorates the Jewish rite of pidyon ha-ben (The Redemption of the First Born), of which our Lord was obligated to having been born under the Law of Moses. However for our purposes I will be focusing on Christmas as observed in my household.

Traditionally speaking, Christmas in my family would officially be ushered in with “La Misa de Gallo” (Translated literally it means “The Mass of the Cock/Rooster”), but in the English speaking world it is more commonly known as Midnight Mass. This mass commemorates the shepherds who kept vigil til dawn upon our Saviour’s birth. The reference to the cock in the Spanish name is thus an allusion to the cock’s crow at dawn when the Shepherd’s vigil ended. Most places however do not observe the Midnight vigil in this manner, but opt for a liturgy which ends at midnight, or begins at midnight. As I’ve gotten older I have opted to instead observe Christmas day mass on the morning of 25 December as I prefer the more hushed and solemn tone for personal reflection on the day’s mystery.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I realize that what is of true importance is the historical and metaphysical reality we’re presented with during Nativity. Namely in that the very God became as one of us by partaking of our humanity (whilst preserving His divinity hypostatically), and radically elevated what it means to be human. Whether from East, or West, from eternity was the nation of Israel chosen as the center of the World to draw man to His center. To call man to a new way of being by means of participation in Christ’s Sonship. The Nativity is not merely an event that occurred 2,000 years ago, but one which takes place daily in our lives (that’s true of the Resurrection as well).

I don’t necessarily think the latter is a deviation from my upbringing, but if anything it paved the way for my preference for those respites into solitude and silence during the holidays.

Christmas day is relatively quiet in my home, with gift giving taking a back seat to the festive foods particular to the season, as well as the time spent with family. While I was born and raised in the US mainland, my family managed to preserve a number of cultural traditions particular to my Puerto Rican heritage. However, as with all communities in the diaspora, there is a give and take between the practices of the homeland and the new nation of residence, with a synthesis of sorts resulting between them. Amongst the more “American” derived practices was the decorating of a pine/fir tree (in my case synthetic) with all manner of lights and ornaments for Christmas. While I was raised with the practice from my youth (my mom having crafted an entire set of really beautiful ornaments at one point), this was not held in the same esteem as it may have been amongst some of my fellow compatriots and co-religionists. The tree would go up the day after Thanksgiving without any of the fondness or formalities associated with tree trimming, or its appropriateness or lack thereof within the season of Advent (the penitential period observed by Western Christians prior to Christmas which calls to mind not only Christ Jesus’ first coming, but also His Second Coming). Nevertheless, it was never really a central part of my upbringing, but something that we did because we lived in the States.

Jonathan's Christmas tree this year
Jonathan’s Christmas tree this year

One peculiarity associated with our Christmas decorating was collecting pine needles which would be left in small bundles at the foot of the tree. These bundles of needles were intended for the reindeer who pulled Santa Claus’ sleigh (Not that Santa Claus figured much into how I observed Christmas growing up. The figures of St. Nicholas and Father Christmas were only vaguely associated with one another, even if the occasional “Behave or Santa Claus won’t bring you anything for Christmas” was uttered.). This practice might seem peculiar given that most families leave out cookies and milk for Santa Claus, but in reality it was a synthesis of my family’s traditional observance of “Dia de Reyes,” known in English as “Epiphany”/“Three Kings’ Day.” (This feast is observed on 6 January and commemorates the visit of three wisemen/kings from the East who observed the Messiah’s Star from their respective homelands to adore the new born King of Israel.)

Traditionally on the eve of the feast, children would build small feeding troughs in shoe boxes filled with hay/grass (representing the manger that the Christ Child was laid in) and leave it beneath their bed in which the Three Kings would leave small gifts for the children of the house. The hay/grass within the “manger” was meant to provide sustenance to the camels (or horses) who had journey from the East with the Three Kings. A small bowl filled with water would likewise be left out that the camels might quench their thirst. Likewise in place of milk and cookies for Santa, a shot of rum would be left out for the Three Kings that they might share in the joy and merriment of the newborn King, Emmanuel, for He is truly God amongst us. However, in my case some of the traditions associated with Epiphany came to be transferred and adapted within the context of Christmas Eve. Growing up there was nevertheless an effort to preserve “Dia de Reyes” in my household by means of withholding the exchange of some gifts until Epiphany. As I got older and my desire for receiving gifts waned, so too did some of these practices, though in essence they got me much closer to contemplation of the metaphysical reality presented by the season of Nativity, the incarnation of the Word of God in the person of Jesus.

In Puerto Rican households during Christmas you will invariably a feast composed of various festive foods. However no Christmas table is complete without the following staples: roast pork shoulder (pernil), yellow rice with pigeon peas (arroz con gandules), and pasteles. Likewise, no Christmas is complete without coquito. However, if any Puerto Rican had to choose which of these ubiquitous staples reminds them most of Christmas, without a doubt they would say pasteles and coquito.

Coquito is a coconut cream based egg nog like beverage enjoyed throughout the holiday season. Traditionally it is made with overproof rum (pitorro). Every which family has their own closely guarded recipes passed down from generation to generation. Coquito like sofrito (A paste made of various herbs and spices used as a base for most traditional stews, sauces, soups, and rice dishes in Puerto Rican cuisine) is just one of those recipes you do not share with people outside of the family. In some way each generation is bound to the other through the dishes we share at the table. This is a common theme throughout most of our family gatherings, but in particular at Christmas time.

As mentioned previously, no Puerto Rican table is complete at Christmas without pasteles. Pasteles are like their more well-known counterparts tamales, but are comprised of an entirely different masa (“dough”), comprised of starchy tubers or made from unripe green bananas. This masa is placed upon a banana/plantain leaf which has been cut and slightly wilted, and greased with a bit of annato infused oil/lard, and is later filled with a stewed pork meat filling that includes capers, olives, and in some families raisins and almonds. The banana leaf enclosing the masa and meat filling are then folded into rectangular cakes and wrapped in parchment paper, tied in paired bundles with butcher’s twine, to then be frozen,. When the time comes to consume them they are taken out of the freezer and placed in salted boiling water for about an hour when they fully cooked and are then ready to serve. It might be laborious, but it is indeed a labor of love that I will always remember fondly, because of how it brings together generations of women in my family who have passed down the “sacred art.”

Amidst all the wonderful smells of foods being prepared in the kitchen for Christmas, none of them compares to the sight of generations of family matriarchs seated at the table in the kitchen preparing pasteles. Some of them grating the tubers and other vegetables for the masa, while others cut the leaves and parchment paper, and another the cords to bind the pasteles. Once all were seated at the table, you could hear all manner of catching up between them all. Conversations about current events, general catching up about friends and family, and the occasional argument between my mom and aunts, all under the supervision of my grandmother. On occasion when one of us kids would stumble into the kitchen to talk with our moms, we’d request customized pasteles which our moms would set aside for us when it came time to eat. (I have a particular fondness for green banana based masa over cassava (yuca) based masa, and like to vary between the standard pork filling, and the pork fillings with raisins and almonds.) If we were really brave, we would try our hand at helping with the wrapping and preparation, only to later be kicked out of the kitchen for taking too long to make just one, or some other mishap. To this day I am amazed at the speed at which my mom is able to make them, without there being a loss in quality. We either helped too little, or did not help enough; we could never win! However, in many ways it was probably a way for my aunts, mother, and grandmother to reminisce about the past with one another.  Any of us kids who really took the time to listen as they prepared the pasteles would learn a lot about our moms and grandmother when our moms were just children.

Of course while our moms were in the kitchen, that meant that the men were in the living room having a few beers, or sipping on a bit of coquito chatting amongst themselves, and occasionally rough housing one of us kids. My cousins and I usually stuck to my room to play with our Christmas gifts and just catch up in general. Nothing out of the ordinary for us, just the usual, kids being kids. The occasional argument might break out over having to share with my cousins, but again, who hasn’t been in that very position when your cousins are on your home turf? But I digress. As my cousins and I got older, and our common interests diverged, we each came to a more mature relationship amongst ourselves.

As cited previously, what binds us together during the holiday is when we come together to eat. It wasn’t so much a formal affair wherein we all sat around a table to share a meal, but rather it was a more festive affair with extra chairs set about in the living room, some people on the sofa, other on the love seat etc., each being served by one of our moms, or as we got older, serving ourselves the foods that were in the kitchen. Each of us sitting around, with music in the background, just enjoying each other’s company.

When I was younger, I remember on more than one occasion during family gatherings being made to dance with my mom, that I might learn the dances of my homeland. One of my cousins and I would turn it into a competition of sorts between us, dancing with our moms who taught us the steps of the dance.

As the music waned, and people brought their dishes to the kitchen sink, stories of Christmases past emerged along with family stories and jokes. This was usually my favorite time with my family. It was the one time of the year when without prodding everything you ever wanted to know about your family just happened to fall right into your lap without prodding on your part. The deceased members of family though not present in body came to be present in spirit, especially those family members that I had never had the fortune to meet. Somehow in those remembrances of repasts we were all together again. Of course in God’s mind the past, present, and future do not exist, so in some way it was like experiencing a foretaste of eternity unbeknownst to us. However that shouldn’t surprise me, considering that Emmanuel, the Kingdom of God born and present amongst us, has by His incarnation (which by our baptism we become partakers of in dying with Him and being born anew with Him) unites heaven and earth. Those who have passed from this life and are alive in Him thus remain ever present in our midst through the Communion of Saints. The Saints being those who sanctified the world by virtue of their bearing and birthing Him within it. This in turn orients my gaze towards eternity.

The mystery of the Incarnation is ever present and pervades all things, but at Nativity (or more appropriately the Adventide vigil) we meditate on the incarnate Emmanuel, during His first and His eventual second coming. The Paschal Babe who has come, has died, has risen, and will come again to judge the living and the dead at the culmination of the ages.

This brings me to my final point of reflection on the mystery of the Nativity, namely what have I done to make the Kingdom of God present in this world?

I think my family has done their part in forming me within the various folk forms and traditions that facilitate that task. I am by no means perfect and have much room for improvement, but nonetheless I believe that amidst the chaos of the world I too can keep vigil towards that Silent Night of the eternal Yerushalayim.

May the peace of the Christ be with you and yours this day and all days.

Happy Christmas!

-Jonathan

Guest Letter from Yasmina: Eid al-Adha

In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, I noticed some interesting Hebrew and Arabic videos circulating on social media talking about how the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha coincide this year. (Here’s the one I liked best, posted by the Jerusalem Municipality, featuring Arab and Jewish Jerusalemites speaking about their experiences of Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha and wishing each other the best for their respective holidays. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles.) I was wondering why I felt déjà vu, until I realized that it’s because, in a rare coincidence, the exact same thing happened last year.

Now, while I have a reasonably thorough knowledge of Judaism and a working (if fairly superficial) knowledge of Christianity, my knowledge of Islam is woefully lacking. I have been attempting to remedy this by participating in online Jewish-Muslim dialogue, which has been enlightening and inspiring (and sometimes difficult, as all truly important dialogue is). Still, pretty much the only thing I could remember about Eid al-Adha was that there were slaughtered goats involved. Or was it sheep…?

…Yeah.

So I sent out a call for a guest letter on this holiday, and found Yasmina, a writer in Chicago who blogs for the Huffington Post and contributes to the Good Men Project (a project I happen to particularly appreciate, being the mother of three little boys, and the wife, relative, friend, and/or colleague of an impressive lineup of truly amazing men). You can find her personal blog at yasminareality.com.

Yasmina was kind enough to tell us about this holiday and how it is celebrated in her family and community, and she even sent me pictures of their food! 😀 Enjoy, Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim readers, and happy day-after-Yom-Kippur to my Jewish readers!


Dear Josep,

It’s an exciting week this week. We have the first day of fall to look forward to as well as Eid al-Adha on September 24th. A lot of people are familiar with Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha is different. This Eid commemorates the story of Abraham where Allah commanded him to sacrifice his son in a test of faith. He passed the test but his son was saved, turning into a lamb before the knife could pierce him.1

On Eid al-Adha, families pay for the halal slaughter of lamb and distribute the meat to the poor.

"Eid al Adha" by The Bull Pen [CC BY 2.0]
Eid al Adha” by The Bull Pen [CC BY 2.0]
It’s at this time too that the Muslim community welcomes back those who went to Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is required of Muslims who can afford it, once in their lifetime. Listening to the stories of the new Hajis during this time and how it has changed their lives is always awe inspiring.

My family celebrates Eid the same way each year. We go to Eid prayer early in the morning and listen to the khutba (sermon) given by the Imam. It is usually an uplifting sermon encouraging worshippers to visit relatives and neighbors and to give charity.

"Eid Prayers at Barashalghar, Debidwar, Comilla" by Mohammed Tawsif Salam - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Eid Prayers at Barashalghar, Debidwar, Comilla” by Mohammed Tawsif SalamOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

After prayer, people wish each other Eid Mubarak! Children run around the hall to the adults who give them dollars or candy. After prayer, we go to the cemetery which is flooded with other Muslims visiting their deceased loved ones on this holy day.

We gather for Eid dinner as the final tradition for the day. My family is mixed heritage. We represent the cultures of America, Bulgaria, Croatia, Turkey, Palestine and India! Can you imagine the variety of food we eat on Eid with this type of representation? There is nothing like it! I will start making the Bulgarian banitza tomorrow which is filo dough filled with a mixture of butter, feta cheese and eggs.

Okay, one banitza just came out of the oven. :) Filo dough filled with a feta cheese and egg mixture. Very Slavic and in this case--very Bulgarian.
The banitza fresh from the oven. 🙂

My sister in law will make butter chicken, a staple in her Indo-Pak upbringing. My cousin will make traditional Palestinian hummus, roasted lamb and kenafa. And we will have Turkish baklava for dessert as my auntie makes it the very best!

?

 

We laugh, tell stories, pray, play with the children and enjoy family time which is how holidays should be spent. Hope you can join us some time, Josep!

Sincerely,
Yasmina


1. Note from Daniella: as you probably know, this story is common to all three Abrahamic faiths. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Isaac was the son being sacrificed, and was stopped by an angel of God. God then pointed out a ram whose horns had been caught in the bushes, and directed Abraham to sacrifice that instead. (So Jews refer to it as “the Binding of Isaac.”) In Islamic tradition, the son was Ishmael. I was going to include one of an abundance of illustrative paintings depicting this Biblical event, but  then remembered that there’s a reason the only ones I could find were Christian: representing the prophets in a visual form is forbidden by Islam, so it seemed inappropriate here.

Want to tell us about your experience of Eid al-Adha, or a different holiday in your tradition? Send us a guest letter!

Guest Letter from Saadia: Ramadan 101

I am honored to post this guest letter from Saadia Faruqi. Saadia is an interfaith activist, speaker, and author from Houston, Texas, USA, who grew up in Pakistan. I met her on “Abraham’s Tent”, a Facebook community for religious dialogue between Jews and Muslims. Given our common passions for writing and for bridging the gaps between our cultures, we hit it off pretty quickly. 😉 I recently asked her if she could write us a letter explaining the Muslim month of Ramadan, which, as mentioned in the previous post, began last week. She kindly obliged.

But before we get to her letter, I have to tell you the really exciting thing: Saadia’s first book, a collection of short stories called Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan, was published just a couple weeks ago.

I finished reading it today, and here’s what I have to say about it: buy it. Now. 😛 With her rich and vivid prose, Saadia paints a diverse collection of characters from all walks of life in modern Pakistan, from the dirt-poor Asma to wealthy “political princess” Rabia, from cantankerous grandmother Farzana to industrious 10-year-old Nida, from desperate Faisal who gets drawn into a terrorist cell, to successful rapper and musician Javed Gul–and all of them are well-drawn and deeply human. All the characters face struggles that closely relate with their unique environment, but are universal, too; struggles with family, self-worth, justice, cruelty, grief, and ambition. The result is a rich and nuanced tapestry of poignant stories exploring many aspects of life in modern Pakistan. The impression I got from Brick Walls was of a Pakistan that is complex, dangerous, and beautiful, where evil and cruelty are real and very present, but hope, courage, faith, kindness, and compassion are greater.

Have I convinced you yet? Click the photo of the cover to the left to buy it on Amazon. 😉 And you can read more about Saadia and her work on her website at www.saadiafaruqi.com.

Ramadan kareem, and enjoy!


Dear Josep,

You must have heard that Ramadan has started, and I’m sure that like many outside the Islamic faith you have more questions than answers. It’s not all that complicated, however, and you’ll find Ramadan very similar to the Jewish tradition of fasting.

First I thought I’d remove some common misconceptions about Ramadan. It is not a holiday or celebration as it is frequently called, it is a month – the ninth month of the Islamic calendar to be exact. Muslims don’t fast the entire month, because that would be absolutely insane and probably fatal, but the fast lasts from dawn to sunset every day for 30 days. And every Muslim doesn’t fast, although the media makes it seem so. Only healthy adults are required to fast, and those who are sick, traveling, pregnant, nursing or children are exempt from fasting during Ramadan or any other time.

So what is Ramadan exactly? Muslims fast in this month first and foremost because it is a commandment of God as recorded in the Quran. We don’t fast to commemorate any event or memory, nor do we fast because any human being in the past used to do so. Our fasts are for God alone, and on His command. The Quran states:

“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint (2:183)”. Remember that Muslims believe that the Quran is the literal word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel (more on that in a future letter). In addition Ramadan also commemorates the beginning of the Quran’s revelation which first began in that sacred month.

The Islamic fast is a complete fast, not unlike the one on Yom Kippur1. We eat a meal before dawn each day, and then don’t ingest a single thing – water, food, medication – until sunset, when we break the fast with another meal. We also don’t engage in sexual relations during the fast. The aim is to allow Muslims to understand that what we consider needs are actually things we can do without for the sake of God.

But I don’t want to give you the impression that Ramadan is all about abstaining from physical things like food and drink. The real abstinence during this month of fasting is keeping away from bad habits, and the purpose of the fast is to urge us to improve ourselves spiritually. Think of it as a boot camp, where fueled by hunger and thirst, we are motivated to do better, to forego our ego and our base physical self in order to rise to a higher level of spirituality. There is a hadith (saying) of the Prophet Muhammad: “He who does not desist from obscene language and acting obscenely during the period of fasting, Allah has no need that he did not eat or drink.” (Hadith books of Bukhari and Muslim). So you see, Ramadan is not really about the fast, but in fact it is a time to practice enhanced worship, to try to achieve patience and a nearness to God that cannot happen when we are busy feeding ourselves literally and figuratively.

Of course it is not as easy as it is made out to be. Personally, I find fasting almost as difficult as being patient while hungry. But the blessings promised by God to Muslims who fast are so great that I am eager to participate as much as I can. Yes, it is hard to abstain from the most basic of life’s supposed necessities, but the reward is worth it. Muslims believe that the one who fasts sincerely can have his or her sins forgiven, and can achieve the love of God.

Ramadan is also a time of community and social activity. Mosques are filled at sunset because we consider it better to break our fasts together. Late nights are spent in special prayers called Tarawih, and in the final days of Ramadan some people stay in the mosque in seclusion and prayer. Even those who are not fasting are able to participate in the spiritually uplifted atmosphere in mosques and homes during this blessed month. Everyone urges each other to do good, feed the hungry and give plenty in charity, for all good deeds are richly rewarded during this month.

Fanous, lanterns traditionally used to decorate homes during the festive month of Ramadan.
Fanous, lanterns traditionally used to decorate homes during the festive month of Ramadan.

So that’s Ramadan in a nutshell. Only one who fasts can understand the true flux of emotions, the courage and strength this time requires. Such is the strenuous nature of the fasts that at the end of the month Muslims celebrate with a special event called Eid, in which we wear new clothes, give each other gifts and offer special prayers of gratitude. At Eid we are thankful that we were able to participate in Ramadan and attain some of its blessings. Eid is the big send-off party, the expression of goodbye until next year. Ramadan is special, and hopefully what we learn during this month will stay with us for the next 365 days.

Regards,

Saadia


1. Note from Daniella: Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and there will be a letter about it when it comes around. I would say the fasting of Ramadan is more similar to that of the “minor” fasts in Judaism than Yom Kippur. But I will be writing about Jewish fast days soon, as we have one coming up in a couple weeks, and there I will elaborate on the differences between the “major” and the “minor” fasts, and how these compare to Muslim and Christian fasting.

Want to share your own experience of Ramadan, or another period of uplifted spirituality in a different faith? Comment below, or write us a guest letter of your own!

Guest Letter from Abi: Praying Together

This letter is from my dear friend Abi. Abi has been involved lately in interfaith dialogue specifically between Muslims and Jews, and peace and dialogue initiatives addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A mutual friend of ours joked recently that “Abi is to Muslims what Daniella is to Christians…”

(…I think she was referring to things like, me posting ranting tirades in defense of the Pope and Catholicism on Facebook, and then joking with my Catholic friend about it in Yiddish.) (…What? You should be asking more questions about the Catholic friend speaking Yiddish than about me defending the Pope. 😛 )

Ahem. Anyway. Abi’s letter is about interfaith prayer, and I felt it was fitting since I have been covering the topic of prayer, and in honor of Ramadan, which began last night. Speaking of which, we have a great upcoming guest letter on Ramadan, so stay tuned! 😉 I also have another, related story that I will share after her letter.

Chodesh tov, Ramadan kareem, and enjoy!


Hi Josep,

I’m Daniella’s friend Abi and like Daniella I am also a Modern Orthodox Observant Jew. I find your relationship with Daniella inspiring and I wanted to share with you today some thoughts about interfaith prayer.

I recently saw this video about an organized event bringing Jews and Muslims to pray together. Here is the video.

Watching it reminded me of a wonderful experience I once had in my college in Jerusalem. I would always look for an empty classroom in the break to pray the afternoon prayer, mincha. (There is actually a synagogue on campus but it was locked most of the time.) Often people would come in in the middle of my prayers if they had a class there after the break and sometimes I would get very distracted, so I always hoped nobody would come in.

On one such afternoon, I had already started praying and I noticed out of the corner of my eye a female student walking in. I was hoping she wouldn’t distract me by talking on the phone and that more people wouldn’t come in. But then she knelt down and prostrated herself and I realized that this was a Muslim woman and that she was joining me in prayer.

It felt very special to be praying side by side, in different ways, but to the same G-d. My kavana (intention and focus on prayer) intensified and I felt so grateful to this woman for joining me. I can’t quite describe the feeling that washed over me but I felt very connected to my prayer and to G-d at that moment.

She finished before me and she left and by the time I had finished she was gone. I really wanted to thank her for having the courage to join me and tell her how much it meant to me, but I didn’t know where to find her.

Listening to the joint prayers on the video reminded me of that feeling of connection to G-d and to each other through prayer.

I pray that we learn to love ourselves, each other and G-d, and find many ways to connect.

Thanks for listening,
I hope you are well,
Abi


So here’s my story, which is actually my husband Eitan’s story. Eitan is a rabbi and tour guide, and a couple weeks ago he was guiding a very special “interfaith” group of college students from the USA–mostly Christians, but a Muslim and a Jew as well. He had a similar experience to Abi’s when the Muslim girl asked to pray the afternoon prayer him while they were in the Old City, and they did, Eitan facing the Temple Mount and the student facing Mecca. But that’s not what the story is about; it’s about the stop they made in the White Mosque in Nazareth. The man who received them and showed them around was an Arab Muslim in his 70’s. When asked if Shia Muslims were also allowed to pray at the mosque, he said, “Sure, Muslims of any denomination can pray here. Jews can pray here too.” He told of a time 50 years ago when he was close to his Jewish Moroccan neighbors, and their families would eat from the same serving plates. “Nowadays everything is politics,” he lamented.

He then showed the group how he uses his prayer beads. Eitan remarked that it made sense to have something to fiddle with while one prays to aid concentration, and joked that he should get something like that to play with too. The man said, “Here, take mine!” And he gave Eitan his prayer beads.

These ones. Muslims use them to help them keep count when reciting the 99 names of Allah.
The prayer beads he gave Eitan. Muslims use them to help them keep count when reciting the 99 names of Allah.

They hugged, and Eitan says when he turned back to his tourists, there wasn’t a dry eye in the group.

Inshallah (God willing–Arabic), od yavo shalom aleinu (peace will yet come upon us–Hebrew).


Blog readers: Abi, Josep and I would love to hear about any experiences you may have had of connection to people of different faiths. You can share with us in the comments, or write your own guest letter!