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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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I’m only half-asleep as I hear the muezzin’s call to prayer resounding from a loudspeaker in the half-light just before dawn: “Allaaaaaaaahu akhbar!” Lying in bed, still jet-lagged the day after my arrival in Saudi Arabia, I know I can’t sleep anymore, so I get out of bed to recite my own morning prayers.

In the semi-darkness of the bedroom, I put on my Irish tweed cap because I don’t have any kippah—it might have aroused suspicion at customs. Neither do I have any tallit or tefillin to put on, because the customs inspector would have seized them. So, I skip the familiar blessings for tallit and tefillin and begin instead with the rofei kol basar blessing for the body and the la’asok b’divrei Torah blessing for the gift of Torah. I have no prayerbook, another forbidden article in this kingdom, so I close my eyes and recite what I can from memory, murmuring quietly because in my paranoia I imagine someone might be listening.

Soon I come to the birkot ha-Shachar, the morning blessings for the renewal of the day. Melech ha-olam, she’asani Yisrael, I say, thanking God for making me a Jew. Just yesterday, as I filled out the form for passport control after landing at the airport, in the space marked “Religion” I wrote “Christian.” I did the same thing a few weeks ago when I applied for a visa, and the lie does not get easier with practice. The ruse is absurd because the rector of the Saudi university that is my sponsor knows I’m a Jew. Even the government here knows and tried to refuse my visa, but my sponsor applied some political pressure in the right places, so now as long as I keep up the pretense, the government will pretend it doesn’t know. Shetatzileini ha-yom u’v’chol yom … midin kasheh umiba’al din kasheh—protect me from harsh judgments and harsh judges. I hope that our pretense will not somehow collapse.

Why are these morning prayers so important to me that I say them even here? I was brought up in a secular Jewish household, had an Orthodox bar mitzvah to please one set of grandparents, and very soon afterward rejected religion entirely. I never lost the sense of being Jewish in some way, but it was unclear to me what to do about it. I did not know Yiddish. I had no particular interest in visiting Israel. Then, when my gentile wife gave birth to my daughter, I realized that I was part of a chain that was either going to end with me or not. The one authentic way I knew how to do being Jewish was by practicing Judaism—the religion itself. So, I read everything I could find about it in our public library, gained an adult understanding of it, and became a regular Saturday participant at a Conservative shul, eventually accompanied by my daughter. My wife didn’t have any religious practice and was very supportive of my daughter’s conversion ceremony and subsequent Hebrew school education. Seven years later, I began a routine of daily prayers, expanding it until it encompassed the full weekday service about a year ago. I came to consider myself on a gentle upward slope toward increased observance. Vegetarianism became my way of keeping kosher. On Shabbat, I’d make a point of avoiding household chores and anything too reminiscent of work, such as turning on the computer, but I would use electricity. And I remained clean-shaven, without a kippah or visible tzitzit; I didn’t stand out in a crowd as a Jew.

Ten years after I began praying daily, I planned my trip to Saudi Arabia. It was not my idea. My employer, an educational publisher, was helping a Saudi university develop an entrance exam when the rector also became interested in the career information resources that my group had developed. I was the team member most knowledgeable about the materials and what would be required to adapt them for Saudi Arabia, so I was asked to be the representative and visit the university for a week. I was already committed to the visit when my contact at the university, an American-educated Lebanese Christian, guessed that I was Jewish and told me I would need to lie about my religion.

So, now here I stand, in my dimly lit room on the Saudi university campus, practicing Judaism in hushed tones. I’m able to deal with the lack of a prayerbook by calling up passages from memory. But as I work my way into the p’sukei d’zimra part of the service, I find myself getting lost in an open sea. In the middle of a psalm, a similarity of wording causes me to skip to an entirely different part of the service, and I realize that I don’t know how this psalm ends. I try to remember which psalm comes next so I can resume the proper order, but I can’t. So, I recite misordered pieces of psalms and say as much of this part of the service as I can. Maybe tomorrow morning I’ll remember more, I tell myself.

In one psalm, I say Hashem shomeir et-geirim—God protects the stranger. I have been feeling like a stranger in need of divine protection since just after my arrival at the Riyadh airport. When I walked out of International Arrivals and into Domestic Departures for the flight to this city on the Gulf, I was suddenly almost the only person in Western garb.

Eventually I reach the blessings preceding the Kriat Shema. Sitting on my bed, I get lost once again as the text winds its way from blessing the light to describing the praise of the angels and then back to blessing the light. In this country they believe not only in angels but also in djinns. With ahavah rabah, abundant love, I am again in command of the words, and then comes the climactic moment, Shema Yisrael—hear, O Israel—but there can be only myself to hear, as I do not dare to raise my voice.

Shema—so like the Arabic word for the same thing: s’ma. Many other Hebrew words I am murmuring in the solitude of my room sound like the words that my neighbors are no doubt using at this very moment in praise of Allah. During my visit people will think I have a peculiar knack for picking up Arabic words, and I’ll give credit to my Berlitz tape because I can’t admit that I know these words from Hebrew. When I meet with my university clients to talk about the career development resources I’m helping them prepare, I’ll want to tell them that I understand and sympathize with the importance of religion in their culture because religion is important to me—but I won’t be able to open up that topic of conversation.

I rise from my bed for the Amidah. Remembering all of its 19 weekday blessings is a challenge; the Saturday morning Amidah is shorter and therefore easier. Thoughts of Saturday—tomorrow—trouble me. It’s the first day of the work week here, something else I should have realized before committing to this visit. Of course, on rare occasions I have encountered this problem at home, too. A couple of years ago, my boss had our team working three weeks without a day off, under pressure to finish a project—in fact, the very same materials that I am here to present.

As I wade into the Amidah, I manage to say most of the blessings and stay in the right order. Mageyn Avraham, Shield of Abraham—I must admit that the people I have met here so far have upheld the generous hospitality that is credited to our common ancestor Abraham. I wish I could reveal our kinship. V’li’yerushalayim—I feel a sense of sad irony as I say the blessing for Jerusalem, because I am ever so much closer to Jerusalem right now than I am when I say this at home, yet I feel cut off from it, surrounded by people who call it Al-Quds and who think it has been stolen from them. The newspaper they gave me on the plane last night had an editorial cartoon portraying Israel as sabotaging peace efforts. I finish the Amidah with the blessing for peace. The prayerbook whose fragments I carry in my memory, unlike some more traditional ones, extends this blessing to all the world, and not just to all Yisrael. Will the people here ever find peace with my people and share in the blessing?

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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