Muslim, Jewish communities show mutual support through storytelling

Tasneem Noor, right, hugs an audience member after a recent storytelling event at The Hayworth Theatre in Los Angeles, where Noor was a speaker.
Tasneem Noor, right, hugs an audience member after a recent storytelling event at The Hayworth Theatre in Los Angeles, where Noor was a speaker.
Lauren Day for KPCC

Leora Wolf-Prusan took to the stage at The Hayworth Theatre in Los Angeles earlier this spring to recount her grandmother’s final hours in choosing physician-assisted suicide over life with a progressive neurodegenerative disease.

Moments before taking the prescribed suicide pills, her grandmother, “in a very pained, slow speech,” asked for gin, said Wolf-Prusan.

“[The nurse] goes into the hallway to call the physician and comes back in and says, ‘The doctor says he doesn’t know if it’s going to kill her…,” she said, then chuckled as the rest of the theater erupted in laughter.

What might have been a dark story turned funny and light-hearted.

Moments like these lay at the heart of the “Everyone Has a Story” evening, put on by IKAR, a progressive synagogue, and NewGround, a Muslim-Jewish group that has organized interfaith activities for the past decade.

Matt Price, a member of IKAR, said the evening of storytelling is a prime example of how the two minority communities are showing support for one another at a time of increased anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment.

“I think nights like this show we all have the same similar human experiences, no matter what religion or background,” said Price.

On March 1, Wolf-Prusan and seven other Jewish and Muslim storytellers took to the theater stage to share personal stories on the universal topic of death. One by one, each speaker nervously walked into the spotlight.

The storytelling evenings, started by NewGround, are open to the public and happen every couple of months. Each event has a different theme that aims to engage the Muslim and Jewish communities in conversation at a time when the climate is strained.

Andrea Hodos, who is Jewish and NewGround program director, said she never expected to confront anti-Semitism in America as she must do now. 

Hodos held back tears as she recalled the support the Muslim community showed her earlier this year after over 100 reports of bomb threats called into Jewish centers across the U.S.

“What happened was I was looking at the politics, waking up at three in the morning and, unfortunately, looking at the Facebook feed, and I realized my Muslim friends were calling out the anti-Semitism before the Jews even knew about it,” Hodos said. “There was this feeling for me of I don’t even have to ask because they’re there.”

Hodos said in the days following President Trump’s executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, the Jewish community in Los Angeles showed their support for Muslims by showing up at protests at the Los Angeles International Airport and praying with them.

Marium Mohiuddin, a Muslim and alumna of NewGround’s nine-month fellows program, has organized a group of Muslims to attend Shabbat services at different synagogues during the seven weeks that led up to Passover this month. It was to show support for the Jewish community and Mohiuddin said the Jewish community welcomed her idea.

“Everybody said ‘Yes!’ immediately. There was no hesitation at all,” she said.

After 10 years of creating opportunities for Muslims and Jews to converse, NewGround says the two communities in Los Angeles have laid the foundation for a strong relationship. But it hasn’t always been easy.

Maryam Saleemi, the group’s communications and development manager, said she initially felt awkward joining the effort because she has never had a Jewish friend before.

“I didn’t feel like I had the right words to use,” Saleemi said. “I didn’t feel like I could have a productive conversation, and I didn’t know how [Jewish people] felt about me.”

Now, Saleemi and Mohiuddin agree that the increase in hate crimes toward both Muslims and Jews has lent a sense of urgency to join in common purpose.

“Now we are all looking at each other like we are more alike in that this is affecting all of us,” said Yara Badday, one of the Muslim storytellers. “We feel less isolated, but more vulnerable.”

The storytellings give both communities a chance to come together, face-to-face, said Price with IKAR.

“When you can hear the impact of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism … when you hear how it is really affecting somebody, I think that is really powerful. I know it affected me hearing the stories,” Price said.

NewGround’s Hodos added that bridging the divide between the Jewish and Muslim communities is needed now more than ever.

“The ability to have conversations across difference has never been more difficult and never been more important, and this is the work we do,” Hodos said. 

On May 11th at 7 p.m., NewGround will co-host a storytelling and theater event with the Jewish Women's Theatre at the Iranian IMAN Cultural Center, 3376 Motor Ave.  The topic of the evening will be "courage."

This story has been updated.

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past several years. This spring, students will report and write on Southern California's Greek Orthodox community and Syrian refugees and will be visiting Greece.