Standing on the bima in a small Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn, Eli Reiter launched into an only-in-New York riff about a covenant — not between humans and God, but between humans and rats.
Other storytellers got more personal. One spoke of the hurdles she overcame to find her bashert; another of regrouping after divorce and eventually finding true love. A business professor described his up-by-the-bootstraps journey from working-class Dubai; a Muslim reporter narrated a surreal story of confronting anti-Muslim attendees at the 2016 Republican National Convention; and a German poet told of his unlikely odyssey from skinhead to Muslim interfaith activist.
The stories were told during “Freedom: A Muslim-Jewish Storytelling Night,” held March 15 at Congregation Kol Israel in Crown Heights.
Some of the stories addressed Jewish or Muslim identity head on. Some, like the rat story, had nothing to do with religion. But all allowed the 70 or so people in the sanctuary to get to know someone from another religion just a little bit better.
This is the second Muslim-Jewish storytelling night Reiter has hosted at the 94-year-old Orthodox shul. CKI Rabbi Sam Reinstein (whose wife, Hannah Dreyfus, works at The Jewish Week) said the event was part of an effort by the congregation to reach out to other Crown Heights residents.
“It’s something that we’re really happy to do as part of the community,” he told The Jewish Week just before the storytellers took the stage. “We’ve been hosting town halls for the 77th Precinct, and we held a town hall for [New York State Assemblyman] Walter Mosely. We’ve been trying to be as big of a tent as possible, and doing things with our Muslim neighbors is definitely part of that.”
Some of the stories were poignant; some were tinged with humor.
In Reiter’s tale, he was standing on a subway platform when suddenly, “I hear a yelp and I see people scurrying out of the way. And there was a rat running down the platform. And that rat broke the human-rat contract: We have the platform, and they have everywhere else,” he quipped.
As the rat scampered towards the end of the platform, a construction worker nonchalantly stuck out his boot and “gave the rat a gentle push” back into its nether realm.
“It was a moment of small resistance,” Reiter said, choosing a term that has great resonance in these fraught political times. “It made me feel proud to be a New Yorker.”
In a telephone interview with The Jewish Week following the show, Reiter, 28, said he first got into storytelling about six years ago, and then, three years in, realized he “wanted to do something more impactful.”
Growing up Orthodox in Midwood, with a Pakistani neighborhood just a few blocks away, Reiter has always been interested in building Muslim-Jewish relationships.
For one thing, he said, “Muslims and Jews have to stick together, especially in times of hate … . Whenever there is an uptick in anti-Muslim attacks, [attacks on] Jews aren’t far behind.”
Reiter’s storytelling series come as Jews and Muslims across the nation are forging closer ties in the Trump era, with groups like the Sisterhood Of Salaam-Shalom growing rapidly in the last two years.
Reiter is unapologetic for his non-religious-themed bit at the event.
“I think humor is great — it really brings people together,” he said. Approaching the topic of Muslim-Jewish bridge building indirectly, Reiter suggested, can sometimes be more effective than a head-on dialogue.
“By no one being too on-the-nose, by not saying, ‘We’re here for dialogue,’ you can make more of an effect,” he said. “It’s a way for people to share experiences.”
“The 70 or so audience members opened their ears and their eyes and their hearts, and we all did it as a group,” he added. “We all left a little bit changed, and we all changed together.”
Amy Klein, who writes about fertility and health for The New York Times and other publications and runs a Jewish storytelling program called “Memoirs of the Tribe,” talked about her decision to pay a rabbi in Israel just over $100 — just in case — to remove the curse he said was preventing her from finding her husband-to-be.
“I think it’s really important to hear different voices and I thought the Muslim stories were fascinating,” she told The Jewish Week during intermission. “If we can hear each other, in this kind of political climate, a Jew hearing Muslim stories and a Muslim hearing Jewish stories, then we can get through what is going on in the world today.”
Other storytellers included Aymann Ismail of Slate’s video series “Who’s Afraid of Aymann Ismail,” who described standing in line at the RNC when a man dressed in full Thomas Jefferson costume — “he looked like he should be on an oatmeal container,” he joked — asked him if he was Muslim. When he said yes, the man said “Islam is evil.” Mansoor Basha, who has told stories at “Risk!” and the “Moth Radio Hour,” discussed growing up in Dubai with a father who worked for the sanitation department and studying his way to scholarships that allowed him to study computer engineering at the University of Central Florida (which he chose because it was “near Disney World”) and eventually earn a master’s at Harvard Business School.
“What prevents ignorance and discrimination is really just talking to each other.”
Sandi Marx, who has participated in PBS’ “Stories From the Stage” and the “Moth,” described divorcing her husband who, among other things, committed the “murderable offense” of suggesting, while she was pregnant with twins, that she join a gym. Her yarn continued with her meeting the man of her dreams, a leather-jacket-wearing dentist, on a blind date. Dennis Sadik Kirschbaum, of the Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism, told a harrowing tale about joining a neo-Nazi gang at the age of 11 in a desperate attempt to find a community, and then losing his family when he converted to Islam at 16.
Chau Mui, a 28-year-old who works in advertising, came to the event because she’s a friend of Mansoor Basha. Having grown up in a Buddhist family, Mui said she was fascinated to learn a bit about Jewish and Muslim life.
“I didn’t know that 60 percent of Americans had never met a Muslim before,” she said after the show, referring to a line in Aymann Ismail’s narrative. “I didn’t know what a shekel was.”
But on a deeper level, she said, “One of the things that I guess I kind of knew is that it doesn’t matter what religion or ethnicity you are, you can be hilarious. …
“But I think what I really learned is that sharing stories about your different cultures and diversities really brings people together,” she said. “What prevents ignorance and discrimination is really just talking to each other.”
Sara Akil, a 26-year-old financial risk analyst who is Muslim, didn’t know any of the performers but saw the event on Facebook and was intrigued by the title.
“Talking about the Middle East, it’s a never-ending conversation… It’s important when there are [events] like this and both sides are coming with good intentions.”
She was drawn to the idea of people from two religions that are historically divided getting to know each other. “I guess there are a lot of misconceptions about religion in general,” she said. “There are two sides to every story.”
Alexis Drattell, an Orthodox 26-year-old program manager at Meor Manhattan, which provides Jewish programming to the post-college crowd, came because she thinks building bridges between Muslims and Jews “is needed now more than ever.”
“Talking about the Middle East, it’s a never-ending conversation. And I think that it’s important when there are [events] like this and both sides are coming with good intentions” that she participate, she said.
Abdel Minem Mustafa, 24, a translator who is earning a master’s in ESL education at Hunter College and studying Islamic studies online at Mishkah University, an American university near Tampa, Fla., focusing on Islamic studies.
“A big reason that I’m here is that I like to engage in interfaith dialogue,” he said. “I believe that it’s the first step.”