Do you know how the joke about a priest and a rabbi ends? I don't. Although I did live in something like it recently, and I know what made me laugh that day. It started like this…
Through a slight deviation from Embassy's role, I ended up in conversation with a Jewish girl in Israel. She was brilliant and intimidating and intense. Some time after that, she mentioned should we be in Chicago for a few days. We made plans to meet up.
Shira would describe herself as a radical Zionist who holds to the highest practice of kosher and Jewish orthodoxy. For some reason, it occurred to me to invite along a Muslim friend...who happens to be from an Islamic country that teaches one of the most radical forms of Islam. My husband pointed out what should have been obvious: "I don't know that this will go well."
It was too late to back out. A few hours later, Shira, Barkhado and I were sitting together in a booth. They both looked tense. We were in a kosher restaurant in an all Orthodox-Jewish part of the city, and everyone was staring at us. (Was it just me, or had “Let’s Give them Something to Talk About” come on the radio? Who put that on? No one’s listened to that song in like 15 years…)
I asked if I could pray before our meal. They said yes, so I prayed a blessing in the name of Jesus over all of us. They gave a polite response: "That was interesting." We shifted around in our seats. We tried to find something to talk about that was neutral.
We were a powder keg, hoping there would be no careless toss of a cigarette. I didn't realize that it would be me.
It came as a standard measure of politeness. Shira asked me: "What is it you do again?" Ah, the one way to make the dinner more awkward! Say you’re a missionary! Tell about reaching out online and in person, and about trying to get other people to do this too!
I answered as truthfully and briefly as possible: "I work for a nonprofit."
"What kind of nonprofit?"
It's like they were begging me to say say I was the one thing they dislike more than each other.
I stumbled and struggled through: honesty wrapped in vagueness. I'm not proud of this. Some 2 hours later, the plates were cleared, and I thought the strained visit would be over. I picked up the check and reached for my car keys. But they both looked at me with unexpectedly eager expressions: "Where are you taking us next?"
I tried to give a convincing smile. God in Heaven — they want us to spend more time together? I only know of two places in Chicago, and we were already in one. So I headed for Chinatown. We put the music on loud so we wouldn't have to find ways to make more small talk. (Thank God for Despacito. That day made me a Belieber.)
As I parked, I suddenly realized my final error.
I had brought them to the single most defiling place in the city, by both of their religions' standards of holiness.
Where pig hooves and pig ears hang in windows and sit in trays in the restaurants, which are decorated with idols. Where pig innards are served alongside sea creatures that are the equivalent of a snake to them.
As we walked through, I remembered that the Mossad (National Intelligence agency of Israel) protects its building in part by surrounding it with a moat of pigs. That's how defiling these animals are considered to Muslims: it's taught that if you touch one right before you die, not even death as a martyr will send you to heaven. It's certain and immediate hell.
And here we were. I had taken an already bad idea, an uncomfortable situation, and somehow managed to make it even worse.
(What was that playing now - the scarecrow’s theme from the Wizard of Oz? “If I Only had a Brain?” What DJ was doing this to me?)
You would think I might know by now that God delights to use the unusual; the awkward; the out-of-our depth moments. It feels like my life has been a series of this: seeing his wisdom and power poured out in ways that defy expectation.
He did that again that day.
I don't know how to describe the next few hours other than to say that the conversation shifted. Maybe it was seeing all the pig ears, the pig parts; I have no idea.
Shira started to talk about the law she lives in. The weight of this yoke; what it feels like to carry it. She started by sharing a detailed explanation of why some kinds of duck eggs are kosher and others aren't: the history of the Rabbi Illowy and the Muscovy duck. She told us about the accidental "consecration" of the turkey because of a misguided assumption that it was from India.
She talked about the ripples that spread out from this: the different kosher laws that now exist for the European and Middle Eastern Jews (Ashkenazim and Sephardim); the intense scrutiny of the Torah and Mishna to determine if you're "clean;" the standards that seem to fold in on themselves like origami.
She told us about her many sets of dishes and pots; two of everything required in order to cook and serve dairy and meat separately. She told us how this multiplies out: two sets for the days of the week, but also two separate sets for the Sabbath. Two more sets for the Passover. Two separate sets of sinks to wash them in.
She told us about the anxiety that's so thick you can almost touch it in Israel: not fear of missiles (the "Iron Dome" shoots them down), and not fear of war, but an unnamed, constant strain. Shira loves the Levitical law and celebrates it. But she told us she needs to smoke pot to get through the day.
As she spoke, I thought for maybe the first time what it feels like to have this be true of your religious leaders: "They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them" (Matthew 11:28). And in such stark contrast, the words of Jesus: "Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
And as she spoke, I suddenly understood Barkhado's words on our drive down. How the stories she told were Islamic versions of Muscovy Ducks: the fatwas and edicts she lives under as mullahs try to interpret the Hadith.
The ways that this becomes personal: what it feels like when your teachers shift from straining gnats to forcing you to swallow a camel. What it felt like when her husband told her he was ready to take a second wife.
About the tension in her country and the constant fighting; the struggles for power and control. About not knowing if there will ever be peace.
We finished our tea and whatever it was on the plate in front of us. We looked at plastic combs that are made to look like switchblades. Barkhado bought me a pair of gloves. When we dropped Shira off, she asked, "Can we all just sit in the car together for a while?" It was close to midnight. We hugged when we said goodbye. All three of us, huddled in front of the headlights, trying to take a picture together. Wanting to remember this.
There are stories that I could tell from the last few months that have an end, not just a middle. This story isn't that.
But it was consecrated; it was "set apart." It was something surreal and good as only God can create. It was trust and love and a willingness to say what religion demands be kept silent. "Always look good" - especially in front of people you perceive as against you.
Always cover; always hide; always pretend you have everything you need.
It was enemies calling each other friends, choosing to drop their guard, telling the truth. It was two women living on opposite sides of the same coin, making space for God to answer them. It was holiness in a place surrounded by pig ears.