There are moments when everything aligns. For me and the Sinai and Sunna project, there have been a series of wonderful alignments over the past year, and especially over the past several weeks. Sinai and Sunna was already shifting -- from a performance conveying the parallel stories of one Muslim and one Jewish woman, to an ensemble-based project with an array of stories -- when I had the opportunity to share a piece of it in the New Ground Spotlight last December. New Ground: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change has been an organization quite close to my heart for a while. My daughter participated in the first high school cohort of their MAJIC program (Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change) and I have been a supporter, from the sidelines, of the Young Professional Fellowship. Their annual Spotlight event is an opportunity, Moth-style, to hear stories from Jews and Muslims around a particular theme.
Last year’s theme was “Standing Up for the Other.” I was already in the process of developing a piece I was calling “Smart Jewish Woman in Search of Smart Muslim Woman for Conversation and More” in Stacie Chaiken's What's the Story? workshop. The piece would help me explore and articulate my reasons for engaging in this project – and in its finished form, a way to advertise the project to potential collaborators and partners. As I spoke about the piece with a friend, she said, “I’m on the Spotlight committee and we’re looking for stories!” (Alignment #1!) I couldn’t imagine a better place to find people for this project than at a storytelling event drawing Jews and Muslims interested in the intersection of culture and dialogue.
The evening was a great success – both for New Ground and for Sinai and Sunna. I made wonderful connections with other storytellers, and we got some good footage of the performance. (Please click and watch if you haven’t seen it yet!) But the MOST important part of the experience, as far as the development of Sinai and Sunna is concerned, was the session where the storytellers gathered to see, support and comment on one another’s work. The evening reminded me in my kishkes (guts) of something I already know: as powerful as it can be to hear someone else’s story, it is even more powerful to watch him or her craft the story – to voice it and embody it in an increasingly powerful way – and even MORE powerful to be a part of that process with him or her. As you get inside people’s stories, you can’t help but begin to understand them with increasing complexity and you can’t help but fall a little bit in love.
In our rehearsal session we watched one another’s work unfold and develop, and gave one another feedback to strengthen each piece. I happened to sit down next to the sweet, smart and enthusiastic Tasneem Noor who told her story about moving from India and Pakistan to Los Angeles during high school, and landing in Culver City High where the diversity allowed her to find her place, settle in and begin asking important questions about American society. Although we had never met, Tasneem and I both responded to the evening’s theme similarly: not feeling so much the pressing need to “stand up for the other,” we both articulated a stronger desire to “stand next to the other” – in almost the same words (Alignment #2!)
Before this rehearsal, I thought my next step was identifying women to create an ensemble performance about how we conceal, reveal, discover and recover who we are; this performance would act as springboard, to help audience members engage with one another. As the effects of the rehearsal evening settled in on me, however, I realized the power of simply witnessing one another’s stories and helping one another to flesh these stories out. It became clear that the inter- and intra-faith engagement work of Sinai and Sunna should begin as workshops for women who want to come, share and craft stories about who they are with one another -- without having to perform for anyone accept those who’ve chosen to join them in the room. There’s a lot of work to do right there, from the get-go. (Alignment #3!)
After many conversations with women involved in Muslim-Jewish engagement, it was time to pull together some folks I know and value to do a “focus-group” version of the workshop. I had the vision and skills to design the crafting/storytelling portion of the workshop, but was feeling I needed some help facilitating the discussions after the art-making was done -- not only did I need a Muslim voice along-side mine as part of the facilitation crew, but I also needed a Jewish facilitator on board as a consultant; in hearing about the skills in engagement and conflict resolution that my friends had garnered during their time in the New Ground Fellowship, I felt I had things to learn and experience before facilitating this part of the conversation.
Tasneem and Eliana Kaya were wonderful consultants before the workshop, helping me to think through both the arts workshop itself as well as the post-workshop reflection. At the end of August, eight of us came together to give the workshop a spin. We had a blast learning new tools for expression together, and beginning to get to know one another in a different way. People who hadn’t done this work before were able to see the power of finding our own stories in our bodies, and then putting our embodied stories next to one another’s . . . but it was a frustrating scratch of the surface. Clearly this work needed much more time. We would need a part-two.
It was great to draw on the support, wisdom and skills of Eliana and Tasneem, but I was realizing I wanted to deepen these skills myself. Too old for the NG Young Professional Fellowship, I started searching for other ways to get more training. About a week later, I received an e-mail from Aziza Hasan, Interim Director of NewGround: NewGround was reconsidering the age limitation. Did I know anyone who might be interested, or would I consider applying myself? I started my application that weekend.
A couple of days later I noticed the American Assembly’s 2001 report, “Religion in American Public Life” lying around (one of those things that happens if you are married to Aryeh Cohen). Reading through the conclusion, I came across this paragraph: “We call on representatives of religious communities to engage in outreach education about their own faith with other faiths and the larger society in order to combat stereotypes, increase understanding, and invite cooperation on shared issues of civic concern. We should be cautious about attributing a single voice to other religious traditions since we are aware of different voices within our own.” This was it: “This is the work New Ground is doing. This is the work I want to be doing with Sinai and Sunna. As an artist and activist, this is the work I want to be pushing forward in the world, and I’m potentially well-positioned to do it.” (Alignment #4!)
I wrote the quote into my essays, and submitted my application. And the next day, something even better happened.
I received an e-mail from Aziza, “Can we talk today or tomorrow?” “That was fast,” I thought, assuming she was calling to interview me for the fellowship. “Actually, I’m following up on a comment you made in one of the program committee meetings,” she said. “We are hoping to create a more robust stable of facilitators, and you mentioned you were interested. We’re wondering if you want to start now.” The MAJIC program was in need of a Jewish facilitator, they were interested in bringing me on board as a participant in the Professional Fellowship and simultaneously as a facilitator for the high school students. And . . . they were hoping to infuse the program with the appropriate integration of some theater and movement work. An opportunity to see the program from the inside and offer my expertise as an arts educator – all precisely in the setting of my current project. It did not take long for me to say, “Yes!” Seldom does the universe seem to align with such clarity.
While my work with New Ground and MAJIC this year may prove to slow progress toward a public performance of Sinai and Sunna, I have no doubt that every part of the work – the arts-based workshops with individuals, the performance itself, as well as the post-performance engagement with audience members – will be infinitely deeper and stronger as a result of the skills and relationships I will build this year.
I stand grateful for these alignments as the year comes to a close. And one final alignment as a blessing for us all. This year, the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah – the 10 Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur – align closely with the dates of the Hajj – the annual Pilgrimage to Mecca. Both of these times in the calendar may be seen as an opportunity to “realign” and reorient one’s self with great intention. May this be a year when each of us finds his or her path, and from this place meet one another with intention and integrity.
Shana Tova - Happy New Year and Eid Mubarak – a Blessed Festival,
May we all be sealed for good,