What do you make for dinner when your guests are Moroccan high school teachers who’ve never before set foot in a Jewish household? For a guaranteed knockout meal, I turned to Michael Solomonov’s outstanding Zahav cookbook.
In June, Dr. Paul Heck of Georgetown University’s Study of Religions across Civilizations (SORAC) institute contacted AJC Washington. SORAC had brought ten Moroccan teachers of Islamic religion to DC. Dr. Heck wished to expose the teachers to something none of them had ever experienced in Morocco: Jewish home life.
As members of AJC’s ACCESS young professionals board, Susan Chusyd and I both opened our homes to host SORAC’s Moroccan teachers for Shabbat dinners. Susan and I each also invited several Jewish guests who are committed to fostering Muslim-Jewish friendship.
My Shabbat guests arrived with their interpreters as I removed a roasted, salt-crusted leg of lamb from the oven. The Moroccans were eager to play with my boisterous one-year-old son, as many of them had not seen their own children for several weeks. In addition to the lamb, our spread included home-baked challah, bourekas, fennel salad with s’hug, Israeli salad with mango, twice-cooked eggplant and Moroccan carrots.
The Moroccan guests were fascinated as we sang the blessings over candles, wine and bread. They asked us to repeat the blessings so that they could listen closely for Arabic cognates. Much to the Jewish participants’ surprise, several of the Moroccans had studied Hebrew.
They told us about the rich history of Jews in Morocco. Many Moroccan Jews were merchants who traveled from town to town. Locals would rely on itinerant Jews to learn what was happening in other parts of the country. I mentioned having heard apocryphal stories of my own family being Moroccan bin-Kalmans who had made their way to central Europe in the 18th century. The teachers insisted it was high time for me to visit, adding, “It’s your country!”
We had dinner in my living room where the wall-to-wall bookshelves captured our guests’ attention. Since this was their first time in a Jewish home, I took delight in throwing them a curveball. “Want to see what this Jew reads?” I asked, before producing to surprised acclaim a stack of Islamic classics, including the works of Al-Farabi, Al-Ghazali, Averroes, Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Tufayl.
My Jewish guests and I shared our varied stories of growing up Jewish. The Moroccans found noteworthy tales shared by Stu Levy, founder of Jews and Muslims DC, of growing up in an observant Jewish household that never discussed theology. Only as a young adult did it dawn on Stu that, despite adherence to Jewish rules, his family was devoutly agnostic.
The most pointed moment in the evening came when the Moroccans broached the shadowy specter of the “Jewish lobby.” We treated this as an opportunity to have a matter-of-fact conversation about the evolution of Jewish advocacy in the US, which began as a severely marginalized group speaking up for itself and took on outsized urgency in the wake of the Holocaust. I emphasized that a central aspect of AJC’s advocacy lies in making friends with people like our Moroccan guests at dinners like ours.