I didn’t closely know any Jewish people until I was in my thirties, after I came to America. And my attitude towards the Jews has been greatly affected by two important factors:
First, the Koran. In the small poor village where I was born and grew up until I went to the city for high school (Wadi Haj, near the town of Argo, on the Nile River in northern Sudan, south of the borders with Egypt), I went to a “madrassa” (Koranic school, “khalwa” in Arabic) where I was taught that anyone who was not a Muslim was a “kafir” (infidel). Later, when reading the whole Koran (and, recently, listening to it on CDs and an iPod), I found — and was very much surprised — that almost half of the Koran is, directly or indirectly, about the Jews. And most of that is negative.
Second, Israel. I belong to an Arabic generation that looked up to Egyptian President Nasser who, about 50 years ago, led a tremendous wave of Arab nationalism and, at one time, promised to throw Israel into the sea. Like most of my generation, I later realized that Israel has the right to exist. But until this day, I strongly oppose its occupation of Palestinian lands.
So, for the last 20 years, as I drove by a Jewish synagogue near where I live, I always wondered what was going on inside. Until I went for my first Rosh Hashanah — and stayed for five hours.
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When I called Rabbi Bruce Aft of Adat Reyim synagogue Springfield, Virginia about my intention to visit, he was very receptive. But, when I entered, I was intimidated. I didn’t look the part, as I am an Arab with a foreign accent and a Muslim with a Muslim name.
On the other hand, I felt the people looking at me curiously, if not suspiciously. One asked: “What is a Mohammad doing in a synagogue?” And another, upon learning I was from Sudan, didn’t spare a second before asking about “the Arabs killing the Africans in Darfur.”
But I calmed down when the rabbi took my hand and led me inside; and when I found myself facing a huge Hebrew sign that was translated to me as: “Know Before Whom You Stand.”
I calmed even more when the service started. And when I saw, for the first time, huge Torah scrolls taken out of their closet, the Holy Ark, unwrapped, opened, kissed, read, and carried up and down the isles in the utmost respect, as the congregation stood up. I thought only the Muslims handled their holy book, the Koran, with extra respect, until I saw those Jews handling the Torah.
When the Torah was carried and came close to me, I felt a majestic feeling and an utmost submission. When I saw some people touched the Torah with keys and pens, I, unsure, took my keychain from my pocket and, very gently, did the same. But, when the service was over, I learned from the rabbi that people were not supposed to use keys or pens, but a pointer in the shape of a hand. And to use “tallis” (a prayer book), the Torah binder, or their hand to touch the Torah while being read or carried around. People were not supposed to touch the actual scroll with their hand, so as not to smudge the Hebrew text.
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I didn’t know at the beginning, but the service continued for a little more than five hours. It went on and on and on — a chanting prayer, a short sermon, then a chanting prayer, some sitting down and some standing up, some silent and some loud, mostly in Hebrew and some in English. Every time I nearly nodded to sleep, we were asked to stand up for another prayer.
Not knowing one Hebrew word, I was inspired by the occasion to try to chant in Hebrew. After almost five hours I was able to chant, using transliteration: “Eyn keylo-heynu. Mi heylo-heynu. Nodeh leylo-heynu. Baruh Eloheynu. Ata hu Eloheynu” (There is none like our God. Who is like our God? Let us thank our God. Let us praise our God. You are our God). And the often-repeated one: “Adonai Eloheynu. Adonai Ehad” (The Lord is our God. The Lord is One).
I took a long sigh when the service was over, but I learned a lot from it, and the people who gathered outside were friendly and gracious. A lady said she used to see me at the nearby South Run Recreation Center and encouraged me to come back. A man greeted me with “Eid Mubarak” (for the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan). Another wondered if I could attend an interfaith gathering. And the rabbi wanted me to come again, but he posted the invitation as a “challenge”:
- “Now you have been at a Rosh Hashanah; why don’t you come on Saturday for Yom Kippur?
- “What is that?”
- “A day of fasting and praying.”
- “I just finished fasting the whole month of Ramadan from dawn to sunset; yes, I will do an extra day.”
- “This is not from dawn to sunset. This is from sunset to sunset; this is 24 hours of fasting.”
Surprised, I started mumbling and stumbling and promised to think about it.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.