October 15, 2009
Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan —
Curiosity Over Assumptions

We shine a light on two young leaders of a new generation of grassroots Muslim-Jewish encounter in Los Angeles. They're innovating templates of practical relationship that work with reality, acknowledge questions and conflict, yet resolve not to be enemies — whatever the political future of the Middle East may hold.

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is co-director of NewGround, and is the interfaith program coordinator at the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) in Los Angeles.

is co-director of NewGround, and director of interfaith programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) in Los Angeles.

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A phrase that came up in our cuts-n-copy for this program, and eventually mad it into the title.

Selected Audio

Four Pairs of Interfaith Fellows

In February 2009, NewGround participants teamed up, two by two, and asked each other questions about their time in the program — the struggles and the joys, the memories and the ideas that changed them. StoryCorps recorded these conversations and we selected clips to give you a better idea of the scope of this interfaith dialogue.

Four Pairs of Interfaith Fellows: Malka + Aziza

Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Featured in this show are two activists based in Los Angeles, Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan, whom Krista first encountered in 2007 at an Interfaith Youth Core conference. Together they co-direct an interfaith fellowship program in Los Angeles called NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

Four Pairs of Interfaith Fellows: Omar + David

Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Omar Haroon and David Weiner are two friends who met through the NewGround program. Omar is Muslim and David is Jewish, and what I appreciate about their conversation is the sense of coinciding conflict and kinship it gives.

Four Pairs of Interfaith Fellows: Sarah + Joanna

Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

When Joanna says she doesn't count, she's referring to the principle of matrilineal descent in Judaism where Jewishness is passed down through the mother. Not all denominations in Judaism observe this law, but it's still a very real issue that Sarah and Joanna seem to have wrestled with throughout their lives.

Four Pairs of Interfaith Fellows: Arash + Ramin

Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Much of their conversation seems to center around the complexity of identity that can come in a pluralistic society.

About the Image

Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan pose for their interview with StoryCorps.

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I love your shows. It used to be a difficult decision to make among Dharma talks at the Zen Center, Unity Christ Church services, Speaking of Faith episodes, and whether an entheogenic experience was appropriate that Sunday. I'm glad to have a computer now to listen to podcasts of past shows as well as finding out there's another airing of the show in the evening.

"Curiosity over Assumptions" was a delight as well and made me wonder how much the Christian community has Intra-Faith dialogues. I'm sure there's some, the closest I've come to personally is when I've met other like minded Christians (and those raised Christian) who attend Zen/Buddhist, Metaphysical Christian, Advaita Vedantic/Yogic, groups, center, and places of worship. I think if representatives of each grouping calling themselves Christian got together asking what do we have in common and how do we relate with those not identifying themselves as Christian, there would be quite a stir, hopefully epiphanies and assurance of our Universal Atonement. Interestingly, from a certain yogic view, the same "God-force" incarnating as Krishna, also did as Buddha and Jesus Christ, ultimately, as all awakened/awakening beings. In zen, deluded Buddhas are beings, awakened beings are Buddhas. My assumption is the Golden rule would be one of the most uniting principles for Christian s of diverse backgrounds. Having been born pagan, raised, baptized and confirmed Christian, then embracing an Agnostic/Inter-Faith/Meta-Neopagan/New Age/Buddhist/Yogic/Entheogenic/Oneirogenic/Integral approach to religion/faith my head and heart spin at times and I wish everyone could level up a bit (or deepen their wells). I still draw on some of the biblical scriptures though I think the best is often mirrored in other scriptures/texts often, sometimes in better ways. Meditation and living wholeheartedly is what I find essential.

The scripture "faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love" 1 Corinthians 13:13 appeals to me as describing the three levels of divine experience, though I'd start with hope (for something more than the mundane suffering), then faith (some sense that there is something beyond suffering of which we are a part), and love (that which relieves suffering and show unity of peace, wisdom, kindness). Love is the greatest because "God is Love" 1 John 4:8. Love which created and sustains us, is what we are. By loving we practice realizing that which we are and that ultimately nothing is separate from us, thus comes "the peace that passes all understanding" Philippians 4:7.

I love this line from A Course in Miracles, a universal theology is impossible, but a universal experience is not only possible but necessary. I believe that people both fear and desire that experience.

Just for amusement and edification I offer this quiz the Belief-O-Matic˙ http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Quizzes/BeliefOMatic.aspx
its Warning: Belief-O-Matic˙ assumes no legal liability for the ultimate fate of your soul.
Have fun, enjoy this moment :)

Namaste and blessed be,
David N. Alexander

I just listened to and followed your transcript of this week's broadcast. Your music selections were provocative. Thank you.

Dear Krista

As a psychologist and marriage and family therapist I have long studied and written and taught about the importance of curiosity and problems with certainty for my clients and my students. So, you program on being attentive to to curiosity and assumptions as dialogue is opened up between Jewish and Muslim communities was of particular interest to me.

Curiosity is so crucial in everyday life as well as it being, in my belief, at the core of good psychotherapy. In fact, I and two other colleague wrote a paper on "The temptations of power and certainty" in the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy" 16 years ago.

I am attaching a PDF which I use as a handout to my clients and my students. It speaks for itself - and spells out two kinds of curiosity and two kinds of certainty and the relational or systemic implications of each.

Thank you for your thoughtful and engaging program every week. It's a delight and I listen to it as I travel to Sunday services at White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi.

Ken Stewart

Listening to “Curiosity of Assumptions” was a wonderful experience and one I think any person could truly benefit from. I’m amazed to think of what wonderful relationships and friendships NewGround has founded. In my experience interfaith relationships and dialogues usually focus on each side trying to change the other’s mind or trying to prove themselves “right”. It is so refreshing to finally hear people speak of something as incredibly simple as understanding. Let’s not try to beat each other up over who is “right” but instead try to understand one another and empathize with one another and share in each other’s struggles and victories. I think Ms. Hasan made the most important point of all when she said, [y]ou don’t have to give up who you are in order to embrace somebody else”.

I was also stuck by Ms. Hasan’s complete and honest acceptance of the fears that many people still have towards Muslims. I don’t think those fears are irrational, but to blame entire nation of people for the acts of a few is grossly unfair, but also a sad reality that many people face post 9/11. I can see the points on both sides, but the way she handles it and continues to handle it is very impressive. In such heated matters like this, it is often hard for either side to keep a level head. The way she simply faces the issue head on with such grace and acceptance is very admirable. I myself might feel too angry to be so accepting of that sometimes unfair criticism and fear. I might feel resentful for having to constantly explain that my religion does not condone violence.

My hat goes off to those special individual who can put their differences aside and participate in groups like this. I think this is a very good sign that things can and will get better.

Krista Tippet invited listeners to " ... tell us about a surprising or revealing moment that helped change the way you think about the other." About two years ago, my Universalist Unitarian church congregation undertook a visioning process. We taped the pre-requisite big sheets of paper to the walls. We used magic markers to write down our thoughts and ideas. Our hopes. Our dreams for our community. Standard stuff. Then I saw what Liz wrote: “Stop using the word God.” My heart sank.

In my church, we recite a covenant each week that concludes “… thus do we covenant with each other and with God.” Even though I don't know how to define God, God is important to me. For me, God is, and I want that acknowledged.

I was angry and resentful of what Liz wrote. But mostly, I was afraid. What would I do if the congregation acted on her suggestion? My thoughts jumped to how I might have to leave my church. I was upset, but held my feelings inside–which was good because I quickly realized I didn’t need to go anywhere. If my church “dropped God,” I would simply say the word silently.

By the time the visioning process ended, I had come even farther and realized that more than words, it was the community that mattered, and that we in our own messy way would continue to love and support one another in individual faith journeys no matter what words we used.

My church never acted on Liz’s suggestion. We still covenant with each other and with God, but Liz got my attention. I kept an eye out for her. I was leery of her. Despite my realizations, I wanted to stay clear of her. She was Other.

I would still be standing that ground, if summer hadn’t come along. Kayak-time. I love to kayak, and I am often looking for a companion to join me. A friend told me that Liz had a kayak and was always looking for someone to go with her. Liz? Liz? I didn’t know about that. But the next Sunday I ready to head to the river, and there was Liz drinking coffee after the service. Yes, she’d love to go kayaking that afternoon.

It a lovely day that I will long remember. Not because of the way the sunlight sparkled on the water. Not because of the blue herons slowly rising from the water’s edge, or the kingfishers darting up ahead. And not because of the soft-shelled turtles sunning on water-soaked logs. No, it was because halfway through the paddle, while eating snacks on a little beach, Liz and I talked. Fairly quickly our words came around to religion. I told Liz my understanding of the ultimate reality that I call God. She told me hers. And this I will never forget: We were both saying the same thing.

For months I have seen The Other each day during my commute. He is usually writing or praying towards the east, presumably facing Mecca. It is Ramadan and I feel compelled to do something. I am currently in a convergence of faiths: The Other is Muslim, I am Unitarian Universalist, my wife is Jewish, and the car in front of us is probably driven by a Christian--the vanity license plate is naming a verse in Romans. My wife and I are also in a car but The Other is living under a bridge--not only of different faith, but different socio-economic status.

That afternoon I finally buy a waterproof blanket, warm socks, some bottled water, and dates with which he can open his Ramadan fast. The next morning I find a nearby parking space and walk over to his spot under the bridge. He is rolling a cigarette, taking a break from the opened books and half-filled notebooks surrounded by an orderly and neat collection of his possessions. A screen of fallen branches provide him some privacy from the passing cars. Tentatively, I offer a greeting and he comes over to me.

While explaining why I am here and telling what I brought, his brow furrows in confusion. With a thin, but strong voice and looking directly at me with clear and serene eyes, he thanks me, but firmly states that he has all he needs. I am monetarily stunned. Can he be serious? Is he in denial? The many readings of Buddhist literature concerning possessions come to my rescue and remind me that some people don’t seek the car and house with a white picket fence, but aim towards more spiritual goals.

I tell him how compelled I am to do something after having seen a need and ask again that he take what I brought. He accepts, but is clear that he will give my offering to a fellow homeless person who sometimes shares this bridge. I wonder if my insistence has roots in thoughts other than helping. Perhaps I want him to accept in order to save some semblance of my view of his situation. Identifying any action that I have ever taken that had a singular motivation is difficult.

Before leaving, I ask his name. "Yusef," he replies with a smile and we shake hands.

In this case, all my pre-conceived notions, mostly accepted from the media, about Muslims and the homeless fail. He is kind and charitable. He is educated and scrupulously clean. He is satisfied and friendly. I am, again, reminded that even though stereotypes may have some basis in reality, extending that stereotype to all member of a community will usually demonstrate the error of such thinking.

No mention of Jewish violence but Miss. Tippet explictily asked the Muslim woman about reaction to Muslim violence. I thought that the Muslim woman always responded very well to all the questions put to her.
Miss. Tippet herself spoke for a large percentage of the hour, disappointingly.
The imbalance of power is too great between the Jew and the Muslim. For example, it is the Jews that dominate publc radio broadcasting and also higher education teaching positions in this country and also the book trade, so they control what I can and can not read! What do the Muslims at this time dominate in America?
Much of Miss Tippet's contribution was concerning "us vs. them". If this ying/yang male/female tension did not exist then people would not have much of a motivation to do anything. I thought that in Christianity I was told that God gave me others so that I could learn about myself, actually at the momment I do not quite remember the exact teaching! Much is made in both of these traditions about cleanliness and dirtiness. This is not within my personnal experience, I have never really known the Muslim family or the Jewish family, although I have tried to meet them. When I have met them it was always within an American context which reminds me to say that this program exemplifies that this Muslim/Jewish peaceful relationship very much uses the English language.
Thank you for the show.

For as long as I can remember, I've been troubled by the iron curtains of perception that divide people into 'us' vs. 'them' (the enemy). In my heart of hearts, I instinctively sense that we can't really be all that different from one another. Every time I learn of people from 'enemy camps' who are attempting to bridge the divide and do the real work of coming understand one another, I pay attention. Listening to this program gives me hope.

In the wake of 9/11, amidst the shock, grief, and marshaling of righteous revenge, many of us cringed, and worried that our response to this tragedy would make things far worse, instead of making anything better. I'm grateful that Malka and Aziza were among those who chose to let this tragedy serve as catalyst for personal change - the kind that ripples out into the community and world. Their story, and the work they are engaged in is cause for hope. Where ever any two people who have thought of themselves as enemy, or 'other' can find reconciliation, mutual care and respect, then we know that redemption is not only possible, but happening here and now.

I am grateful to have grown up in a family and community that truly valued diversity. Yet here and there, I have opportunities to stumble upon my own limited view of another. I was raised Catholic, and retain a great deal of the richness of that tradition in my core. Along the way, I keep discovering sacred writings from other traditions that I find great resonance with.

Years ago, I encountered a poem by Ken Sehested in a journal I subscribed to, entitled, "Annunciation". The poem beautifully expresses the mystical importance of Mary's story, and the potent implications of Jesus' coming arrival into a troubled world. I immediately added it to my collection of poems I live with.

In reading about the author, I had a chance to encounter a small prejudice I didn't even know I had. Ken is a Baptist minister, and my experience with Baptists was next to nil. I remember being amazed that this poem, which I might have guessed to have been written by someone in the Catholic tradition, was written by a Baptist. This may sound insignificant, but it helped me (again!) recognize that the hunger for the Sacred and truth that lights a way is universal. As it turns out, Ken is also very active in a variety of programs of interfaith dialogue (including the Baptist Peace Fellowhsip). He has also co-edited, along with Rabia Terri Harris, a booklet containing quotes from the Christian and Islamic scripture traditions, entitled, "Peace Primer', published by the Muslim Peace Fellowship. (He/ they would likely be great candidates for interviewing on SOF.)

Here is the poem:

Hail, O favored one!
But Mary was greatly troubled
at the angel’s erupting, interrupting greeting.

No wonder.
The annumciation of heaven
splitting earth
is always troubling
Mountains shake
hearts quiver
at the sound of God’s rousing.

No wonder.
Such announcements stir dangerous memory:
the crumbling of ambition,
quakes rending high places;
and raise saviors out of mangers
to subvert palaces and princes and priests.

Hail, O favored one!
Heaven’s comedy breaks with a grin:
into the womb of a teenage peasant,
to shepherds standing in dung-filled fields,
to goyim -- refuse of creation -- of distant lands
who decipher God’s signature in the very stars.

With Mary, Herod also shudders,
gripped with fear,
at the sound of the heavenly Hail!
His heart, too, is troubled
trembling tremoulous.
But Herod-hearts
cast slaughtered innocents
in their wake.

Only those with wombs of welcome
to heaven’s Announciation
can magnify God and heal the earth.

* by Ken Schested, executive director of the Memphis, Tennessee - based Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America

(Note: the attached photo is of me with my newborn grandson, Reynolds Jerome.)

we are a jewish/christian family, since 2 sons married catholic girls and 1 son, a jewish girl. my daughter is divorced. we have been celebrating chanukah and christmas together, giving appropriate gifts, for 20 years until last year. my son decided that he no longer wanted to celebrate the holidays together as long as there was an exchange of gifts. he no longer is part of the family's shared holiday festivities.
at passover last year he refused my daughter when she asked if she could come to his seder, saying, "why is this night different than any other).
the only reason for his refusing her, it seems, is because she's an atheist. she is a special needs sister, who never gave him reason to treat her in that way. the prior year he hosted passover to an indian family. he has not been attending temple and it's not fitting his personality to behave this way. i cannot get through to him that the family is suffering because of his alleged jewishness. his wife is very involved with temple and i'm sure gives strong input to her family. religion has destroyed a fine family.
any comments and input would be greatly appreciated.