by Yiftah Leket
It was a Friday afternoon, about a month ago, and I found myself in the middle of a personal crisis. My body was aching, I was thinking about Israel, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I tried to understand what I was missing so much and then it hit me. Hummus! I was craving a soft, thick, freshly made, and slightly warm plate of hummus. It’s not a coincidence that this happened on a Friday. Friday back in Israel is hummus day. I would come back from a long week on my base or finish a long week of teaching, and my friends and I would gather at the local hummus joint to eat wonderful hummus, which always led to a Friday afternoon nap before starting the weekend.
I have to be honest, and excuse me for saying this (I hope I don’t offend anybody) but for the past year and a half, since we have been living in Michigan, we haven’t found any hummus that compares to how good the hummus is in Israel.
Anyways, I decided to ask my good Israeli friend, Shahar, if he wanted to go to Dearborn to find some good, authentic hummus. Luckily, he said, “Yalla! Let’s go!” (Yalla is a known Hebrew slang but actually comes from Arabic, like so many Hebrew words and slang). I picked up Shahar, and while driving there I remembered how so many people have told me about Dearborn’s Middle Eastern food, but that they will think twice before going, especially when relationships between the Jewish and the Muslim communities are at a low.
Thinking about this, I could feel my peer’s feelings and anxieties starting to affect me. “I am lucky Shahar was in the Israeli Special Forces,” I jokingly thought to myself. Once in Dearborn, we randomly picked a restaurant called “AlTayeb”, which means ‘delicious’ in Arabic. The restaurant was clean, bright, and there were not many people there. Once seated, Shahar and I began to discuss which hummus we wanted to order. We tried to keep our voices down because we did not want people to hear us speaking Hebrew…but it was too late. Our waiter came to us with a smile under his mask, and asked, “What language are you guys speaking?” And without any notice, and without consulting me (so what if he was special operations in the army, I have a higher rank!), Shahar smiled back and said, “Hebrew.”
Our waiter immediately exclaimed “Shalom! We are neighbors!” while pointing at a beautiful photo hanging on the wall next to our table. The picture showed stone houses set just above a small port with fisherman boats. “We are from Lebanon,” he said, “And this is a Lebanese restaurant.” He couldn’t hide the excitement on his face. It almost felt like he had been reunited with relatives he hadn’t seen for years. “Bring them hummus on the house!” he shouted, and then proceeded to give us a whole speech of how this is the best hummus in the United States.
Fast forward, and we ended up meeting the welcoming, friendly and beautiful family and staff that runs AlTayeb Oh, and yes, they definitely have the best hummus we have eaten in Michigan (it is almost as good as in Israel).
The experience at AlTayeb stayed with me for the next couple of days. I came to understand that much of the voices and reactions I heard in the community, and that became the voices in my head, were affected by the violence that erupted in Israel last May. Before May, Muslims were part of the human scenery I saw everywhere I went, and it really didn’t affect me. After May, though, something changed, and I suddenly became more aware of their presence, and there was a growing feeling of division.
For me, this was very saddening. The understanding that the conflict in Israel is extrapolated to create a divide within American society is natural but frustrating. This may sound simplified, but it is almost crazy that instead of using the distance from the actual fighting to be a ground for more dialogue and understanding, we are actually giving up to the extremists, letting them win. Every time we see someone that we don’t know as an enemy, because of their origin, we lose the battle to the extreme parties. We lose the voices of the average people on both sides – who just want to live their lives in peace and harmony.
Because of this, we have created a series of programs about shared society. The programs aim to engage both Jews and Muslims in different aspects of dialogue – these are not academic programs. We are also not naive; we know the complexity is immense. I also know this from being an Israeli teacher in Tel Aviv, where Jewish and Arab students from Jaffa studied together. This is why it is so important that these are programs that make us “walk the walk”, creating platforms for small steps of normalization, taking down parts of the walls that separate us.
The first program in this series is called “Comedy for Peace”. Four comedians, two Jewish and two Muslims, will take the same stage, to bring us together through the art of comedy. The second program will be all about “straight talk”, and how to create direct interactions in order to bring the human “average person” voices rather than the extreme. Our last program will be a screening of a documentary about Israeli and Arabic food, and the ways it transforms our shared society and personal identities.
Both Israelis and Americans have different but also similar challenges within their shared societies. I believe there is much to contribute to one another from these learning opportunities, especially as we in Michigan are blessed to have such a diverse partnership region in the Central Galilee. It is not a coincidence that our partnership committee chose “shared society” to be next year’s leading theme.
So come walk the walk with us, to build more bridges towards a shared society, here and in Israel.
Oh, and go eat hummus at “AlTayeb” (Garden City branch), and say Yiftah sent you 🙂