Conversations with a rabbi

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Not long after we had boarded the panoramic coach of the intercity that was to take us from Zurich to Innsbruck, the call of nature came a-knocking. After making sure my son and my nephew were comfortably tucked in their seats, I hurried to respond to the task at hand.

On my way back, I sauntered over to the dining car, where with a steamy cup of coffee in hand, I took in the breathtaking scenery and silently marveled at the Almighty’s natural bounties.

Fifteen minutes later, as I was making my way back to our coach, I noticed my seat and several surrounding ones had been taken over by a group of rabbis. As I approached my seat, the rabbi occupying my seat was deeply involved in a sermon to a group of teenage rabbis, all dressed in their orthodox outfits, including black hats and hair-locks running down their temples.

Noticing me standing there, he inquired in English if I was the seat owner. When I nodded, he made a move to get up but I asked him to continue with his sermon while I walked around some more. Eventually he took the seat across the aisle, and when I seated myself, I inquired if he was going to Innsbruck. He was off to Vienna with his family, he replied, and asked me where I was from.

“Saudi Arabia” was my reply. In the relative quiet of the coach, my voice must have carried beyond his ears. For a moment frozen in time and memory, I noticed from the corner of my eye the teenage rabbis backing away, and the rabbi’s wife quickly herding her children around her.

I also noticed my son and nephew fidgeting nervously in their seats. Were all these people anticipating something I was unaware of? But the ice was broken between the rabbi and me and soon we were engaged in a discussion of the differences between our religions, and how we both attributed our beginnings to Abraham.

“Rabbi, you say your name is Yosep?” I inquired. “Yes, like the Christians have Joseph,” he responded “Ah, like we have Yusuf among the Muslims. The same name except perhaps interpreted differently. Much like we all have the same God. So, you are a religious man, a man of the cloth so to speak, and whom we address as Sheikh in our country.”

As he nodded, I turned to my son and told him to come over and say hello to “Sheikh Yusuf” and that “he’s not going to bite.” My son, with a look that implied that his father had had too much of a whiff of the mountain air came over reluctantly. But in a matter of time, I had him and my nephew walk over to the rabbi’s family seated several seats away, and kids being kids, the children were soon involved in their own discussions. The mother, perhaps satisfied that our intent was not evil began to let her guard down and settled comfortably in her seat.

The rabbi told me he was from Israel, but had migrated to Vienna with his family two years ago. He has been vacationing in Switzerland, and was now on his way back to the city of his forefathers. He was an orthodox man and was not very happy with the religious movement in Israel. The laws of God were being violated and it was not the proper atmosphere to raise his children. The Sabbath was not held as sacredly as he would have liked.

“Rabbi Yosep, you also have to contend with the increasing violence that the Israeli government has perpetuated against the Palestinians. How does that fit into the morality of your beliefs?”

“It is not a good thing, not only for the Palestinians who have nowhere left to go, but also for the Jews. My people can sense a slow rising of sentiments against us not just in the Muslim world but also throughout Europe and if the Israeli government continues this way, it will continue to fester. The illegal settlements being built by the government in spite of UN sanctions have drawn a lot of criticism in European cities. It is some cause for alarm.”

“The Americans don’t seem to think so. The US administration continually refers to Israel as the forger of peace,” I countered.

“Forget the Americans,” was his emphatic reply. “The majority of Jews in Israel trace their roots to Europe and not to the Americas. It is here one day that they may return. And when they do, I pray they do not find themselves unwelcome.”

“Sheikh Yusuf, let us then pray together that this madness will cease. Let us carry the message of peace to our people and silence the thunder of warmongers. Your people being victims of persecution many decades ago will perhaps understand it better than the rogues running the policies in Israel today.”

— The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena


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