Interfaith: Growing up Muslim amongst Jews

Familiarity breeds understanding

As a Muslim-American, I realize that my diploma from the Hebrew Academy of Toledo is an unusual credential. But in the context of my family and our identity, it makes perfect sense.

My mother emigrated from India to the U.S. in 1963, settling in northwest Ohio two years before the quota laws changed to allow a significant wave of emigration from South Asia and other non-European countries. My father, who had gone to school with my mother’s brothers and was seeking a better education for himself, arrived in Toledo, Ohio in 1967. A year later, my parents married. Ethnically alone, they found commonality with the local Muslim Arab community of Lebanese and Syrians who themselves were the children of immigrants that had come a century before to help build America’s automobiles at the Ford plant in southeastern Michigan.

The Arabs welcomed my parents with open arms and quickly folded them into their community, teaching my mother how to make stuffed grape leaves and helping my father perfect his Arabic. While I imagine that these early years must have been difficult for them, my parents were and continue to be deeply religious Muslims and found the shared faith a comfort that allowed them to settle and raise their family within the Arab community in Toledo. They helped build the city’s beautiful mosque (which, in fine Ohio fashion, is right in the middle of an endless cornfield) and became active members in the community.

Eventually, when the Indians and Pakistanis finally arrived, my parents somehow could never entirely fit in with them. My parents’ experience was uniquely theirs – arriving in the U.S. without their ethnic community, they held on to their South Asian heritage but at the same time welcomed the Arab community into their hearts and home as part of their newly forged Muslim-American identity. Their cultural identity was a summation of the South Asian heritage that bore them and the Arab community that nurtured them, both parts inextricably linked to one another to create the home culture in which I was born and raised.

It was in this home environment that celebrated cultural pluralism that my parents nurtured my cultural identity as a Muslim-American. They shared their love of faith and country, demonstrating in word and deed the connection between being a faithful Muslim and a patriotic American. By the age of four, my father was already bringing me door-to-door with him to collect money for the homeless. On a typical weekend home from college, my mother dragged me from my bed to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Giving back was a duty and a privilege because we were Muslim and American. But this is only half the story. Like my parents before me, my home environment only partly shaped my identity. The other part came from my daily life with friends and an even wider notion of ‘community’.

My parents’ commitment to their faith and their country not only led them to give back but also led them to push me to test my notions of identity and to take true ownership of who I am. With this belief, they enrolled me at the Hebrew Academy of Toledo, a small Jewish day school nestled in the suburbia of northwest Ohio. Being the only non-Jew in the school, I learned Hebrew and prayed in the synagogue alongside my classmates. On Sundays, I attended Arabic and religion classes at our mosque and prayed the mid-afternoon prayer with our Muslim community. There was no contradiction in these actions in my mind or within our family. For nine years, this routine was my definition of normalcy. The seamless and daily transition from my Jewish environment to my Islamic one allowed me to genuinely appreciate the faith of my friends alongside my own. My parents made sure that I knew the differences between Islam and Judaism, explaining the Islamic perspective on every topic I was taught at school. At the same time, they were ever careful to explain the respect we as Muslims should have for our Abrahamic brothers and sisters in faith. Our different perspectives did not negate the validity or the truth in the other faith.

I graduated from the Hebrew Academy in 1993 and moved on to a nonreligious school for junior high and high school. As far as I know, no Muslims besides my two siblings and I ever attended the Jewish school. Similarly, as the Muslim community grew and began to set up its own elementary schools in town, no Jewish children ever enrolled.

The embrace that my parents felt from the Arabs when they arrived to America found its echo for me within the Jewish community, which welcomed me in as family, ensuring that I always had a kitchen in which to break matzah, and a sukkah in which to shake the lulav. I know that much of my own adherence to Islam as an adult can be traced back to my Jewish friends from my youth who shared with me the joy and spiritual fulfillment they felt from practicing their faith. Their commitment to their faith inspired and encouraged me to explore and appreciate the complexity of my own.

Zeba Khan is the founder of Muslim-Americans for Obama, an online network dedicated to mobilizing Muslim-Americans to get out the vote for Barack Obama during the 2008 Presidential Election. An advocate for Muslim-American civic engagement, Zeba can be reached at zeba.hk@gmail.com. This piece was originally published at Goatmilk.


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