Can you guess the context?
I have been asked many questions about Muslims, the Muslim faith, the Muslim whatever, but this had to be the sweetest and most endearing.
If you haven’t already guessed, we were in a mosque, in a prayer hall, in the women’s section, settling down for Friday Jumma prayers. My Jewish friend Bernice and I had just sat down on the red prayer rug.
I noticed her shifting positions, trying to get comfortable.
“Will we be sitting on our knees the whole time?” She asked. “Lately my knees have been hurting me.”
“You don’t have to sit on the rug. See those chairs by the wall. Why don’t you sit there.” I led her, and as she gratefully took a seat, I sat on the rug beside her, positioning myself on the gold line marking the rows and facing the direction of the Kaaba. As more and more women filed in, women of all ages, and eased into a kneeling position on the rug, she lowered her head and whispered to me.
“Do all Muslims have good knees?”
I smiled. Didn’t you?
“The observant ones do, for sure. With all the kneeling, five times a day, every day, you bet they have good knees.”
Until that moment, I hadn’t realized what a visible impact the daily exercise of five prayers has on one’s quadriceps. Up, down, sit, stand, bend, kneel, up again, down again…. Who needs gym membership!
You must be wondering what my Jewish friend was doing in a mosque during Jumma prayers. I have to admit that I am not a regular attendee of Jumma prayers. In fact, I am rather irregular. So when Bernice reached out to me to tell me how sorry she was about the tragic shootings in New Zealand and asked me to join her at the 72nd Street mosque for Jumma prayers, I was shamed into going. Wouldn’t you be? (If you were a Muslim, that is).
As we waited for services to begin, I explained to Bernice the rituals of Jumma—the sermon followed by prayer.
“Will the sermon be in English?”
“I expect so—with congregants from all parts of the world.”
Women walked in—women in long cloaks, women in jeans, a female cop removed her NYPD jacket and donned on the head scarf…. As we sat facing the plasma screen displaying security camera videos, there was a crackling in the speaker mounted on the wall. The imam gave the Adhan—call to prayer (in Arabic)—and began the sermon, first reciting Quranic verses in beautiful Qirat (In Arabic) and then began his sermon—in English. We didn’t get to see the imam—the screen was fixed on the security videos. So Bernice and I sat in the company of women and listened. She stood up with us in prayer, prostrated with us in prayer, sat down when we sat, kneeled down when we kneeled. As we ended the prayer in Salaam, women walked up to her to greet her. The female cop removed her headscarf and put on her NYPD jacket, women buttoned up their quilted black jackets over their long skirts, and we made our way to the shoe rack by the door. I hugged Bernice, wondering how the service had made her feel. I know how her presence made me feel. She could have spent her day running errands, making that important phone call, having coffee with a friend, or checking off her to-do-list, but she took the time to do what her heart desired—to stand in solidarity with her Muslim sisters in their hour of pain. And she would have endured the pain in her joints.
That was one-on-one solidarity.
As we stepped out, lined up outside the mosque was a throng of people holding posters, Jewish New Yorkers Support our Muslim Neighbors. I recognized Rabbi Shuli from B’nai Jeshurun, people from the JCC, from West End Synagogue, and Ruth Messinger (former Borough President). One of the women was in a walker. I had seen her when I first arrived, standing outside—alone—waiting for the rest to join her. In a walker! We walked up to them…hugs. People were filing out of the mosque, men in white thobes and skull caps, men in shalwar qameez, women of all ethnicity, all stopping by saying, ‘thank you for coming, thank you, thank you.’ Even the cab drivers rushing to their double-parked yellow cabs, stopped to say ‘thank you.’ All this time when we were inside the warm and cozy prayer hall, these people had stood outside in the cold for over an hour holding posters, silent, their silence speaking louder than any megaphone. As we return to our homes after Jumma, they will return to their synagogues this evening for Shabbat services.
I dedicate this blog to my friend Bernice.