“We are going to have some difficult conversations. You can disagree; you can get upset; you can be angry; but you cannot leave the room.”
Those were the ground rules, announced by the workshop leader as she faced the Muslim and Jewish women in her class.
What did I just get myself into! Is this going to be a discussion on Gaza and Jerusalem?
I had missed the deadline to sign up for the workshop of my choice for the annual conference of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom—Muslim and Jewish women coming together to fight bigotry and hatred. So the organizers assigned me to a workshop of their choice. Fair enough. It turned out to be a workshop on “Feminism, Faith, and Freedom: The Power of Commonality, The Dignity of Difference.” A mouthful; so cliché-ish, but deadline-miss-ers get what they didn’t ask for. A woman I had never heard of ; was offering it. Letty….something.
“Muslims sit on the left side of the room; Jews on the right,” she said. No political pun intended.
I moved to the left. We were eight—eight Muslim women, looking across the room at 30 Jewish women.
Always the case.
So is this going to be a ‘let the games begin?’
“Will the pre-menopausal women please walk up to the front.”
A handful walked up, as we sitting seniors chuckled.
“You see! These women are not Jewish or Muslim; they are pre-menopausal women.”
“And you all sitting on your chairs, are not Jewish or Muslim; you are postmenopausal women.”
“Now go back to your seats, and those of you who had a happy childhood, come up to the front.”
Most walked up; a few remained seated.
She turned to the standing women, “You women have had a happy childhood,” and pivoting to face the seated, “and you women have issues to work through.”
We are all women, and some of us have some issues.
“How many of you are happy in your work? Come up to the front.”
“You have to be happy to be an activist.”
Interesting. Somehow I thought it was the other way around. On the other hand…hmmm!
“How many have had a #MeToo moment?”
No one flinched. Half the women walked to the front, from both sides. I shouldn’t be surprised. But I was. I was surprised that the Muslim women were gutsy enough to reveal themselves. Would I have?
“That is your template for activism,” the instructor said. By then I had forgotten her name.
I think I am getting the drift of it.
“Raise your hands. How many were immigrants?”
A few, me included.
“Whose parents were immigrants?” More hands.
“Whose grandparents immigrated?” Most hands in the room were up.
Point made. We are all part of the off-the-boat families; just different timelines.
What Does her Face Tell You
At random, she picked a Muslim and a Jewish woman, and had them sit facing the room. Each was handed a photo of a young girl.
“Tell us the Muslim girl’s future?” she asked the Jewish woman.
“She is poor, will be married off…is sad…”
She handed the same photo to the Muslim woman; same question.
“I see a girl who is defiant, a fighter…”
One photo; two sets of eyes.
What about the Jewish girl?
“Unsure; not confident; wants something but doesn’t have enough money,” said the Muslim woman.
And the Jewish woman: “Has a possibility of an education...”
“Which one will be better off in America?”
“And as girls, what will be the same for them?”
Aha! Point made.
When You Felt Most Vulnerable
“Here is an index card. Write down when you felt most vulnerable; and when you felt most strong. Don’t worry, no one will know it was you.”
Think hard. A 67-year lifespan (almost – my birthday is Nov. 14), a quick recall, memory sifting, and pick out that one moment. I won’t tell you what I wrote, because those are the rules.
She took our cards, shuffled them, and then handed each of us a card. Someone else’s card. We were supposed to read it out loud.
“I felt most vulnerable when I was giving birth;
when I was sexually harassed;
after the 2016 elections;
when I heard anti-Semitic remarks;
when my marriage broke up…..”
“I felt most strong when I became a mother;
when I raised my voice;
when I left my husband;
when I voted…”
Collective sighs, murmurs of pain, of affirmation, of empathy, of recognition. Always of recognition. Letty asked what we thought.
“I am thinking that if these questions were posed to men, the answers would have been different.”
I have to go home and ask Khalid.
“I couldn’t tell if the answer was from a Muslim or a Jew.”
By now I had forgotten what the topic of the workshop was, but I was getting it. We see each other as being different, we perceive one another through lens of our assumptions; yet, above all, beneath it all, after all, before it all, in spite of it all, last of all, and first of all, WE ARE WOMEN. We are equally passionate, equally vulnerable, and equally strong.
The best was yet to come, but this blog is already too long, so click here for Part 2. A hint: how do we stereotype ourselves—good and not good; and how do both sides react to seeing a man in a Yarmulke and a women in a nikab?
P.S.: I opened the Yapp App to look up this amazing instructor’s name: Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Author, Founding Editor – Ms Magazine
I had missed the deadline; but I won the Jackie-pot
Read part 2 here: Do You Stereotype Your Own?