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In Saudi Arabia, a Muslim Call to Prayer Inspires Jewish Prayer—in Private

I had to lie about my religion to enter the kingdom on business, but I would continue to daven every morning in secret

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The sun sets behind a mosque in the Saudi city of Hael on June 2, 2007. (Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images)
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In the Peace Corps, I hid my Jewish identity. But that didn’t prevent me from experiencing anti-Semitism.

As I sit for the Takhanun, the confessional prayer, I wonder how much guilt I should feel. It seems a terrible thing to deny one’s identity. Nobody forced me to come here. Yet I also think of my grandfather’s attitude that when someone serves you non-kosher food, some blame goes to that person for putting you in this situation rather than entirely to you for eating treyf. Is this a shallow rationalization? Or is this, or some similar line of reasoning, what kept some form of Jewish culture alive among the Marranos in Spain? I imagine myself in a shuttered room in medieval Cordoba, doing very much the same as I’m doing now.

Standing again for the Aleinu, I give thanks for having a destiny unlike that of the other nations of the world. But in what ways am I “other” from the muezzin down the street? Am I more different as a Jew or as just another American? To my father, who was an atheist, being an American Jew meant being a proud member of an elite, and he had little use for a separate Jewish nation. He would say, “I’ve heard people remark how it’s wonderful that in Israel, even the prostitutes are Jewish. What’s wonderful about that?” My father grew up in an era when American Jews faced discrimination. It was easy to feel like a nation apart and defensively take pride in the achievements of our people. But the barriers to Jews’ participation in American life had fallen by the time I came along.

When I reach the place in the Aleinu where I bend at the knees and bow, I think about the three men I saw last night in the airport lounge, prostrating themselves toward Mecca. I once davened in the Detroit airport, and although I chose a deserted lounge I felt intensely self-conscious every minute. Here was a barrier that had not fallen: In the United States it’s easy to be a Jew in public, but not a religious Jew. Clearly, social customs at home are not as repressive as the religious police are here in Saudi Arabia. But I can’t deny that in America, I’m a bit of a Marrano.

An idea comes to me: There’s a place where I can experience an alternative—where I’m not a stranger or a Marrano, where Judaism is not hidden away. I’ve traveled this far from my family. Why not visit Israel? All of a sudden, Jerusalem does not seem so distant. To simplify paperwork, my employer has asked this Saudi university to pay me directly as a consultant for my visit. The check will be enough to pay for a visit to Israel the following year, when my depleted fund of vacation time will get replenished. In fact, there’s a delicious irony in using the money that way. I’ll do volunteer work on an Israeli army base, as a friend of mine did.

Standing in my pajamas and Irish tweed cap, I end the Aleinu by saying the promise of a time when God’s name will be one. As the voice of the muezzin rises again from the loudspeaker of the mosque down the street, I know that this unity will not happen during my brief visit to this kingdom. Nor will it happen anytime soon at home in the United States or even in Israel. But in Israel I can experience, if only for a visit, what it’s like for the inner person to be in unity with the outer person—what it’s like not to be a Marrano.

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In Saudi Arabia, a Muslim Call to Prayer Inspires Jewish Prayer—in Private

I had to lie about my religion to enter the kingdom on business, but I would continue to daven every morning in secret

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