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Risky Conversations

Review of The Faith Club by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner. (Simon and Schuster, 2007.)

In Barack Obama's landmark March 2008 speech about his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he issued a call for a "national conversation" on race. The conversation Obama urged is not an exchange of pleasantries but rather a frank and risky interaction between people who may find themselves unable to agree with one another--perhaps unable even to like one another--with a goal of mutual respect and common sense of purpose. Obama, one senses, thinks we have finally grown up enough as a country to talk to each other in this way.

As recently as 2001 many of us did not feel ready for such blunt conversation with those outside our racial, religious or political circles. In the days and months after 9/11 we hunkered down at home (with duct tape and bottled water), sought solace in our families and houses of worship, retreated to private reflection as we observed moments of silence. I suspect that most of the interfaith services and programs held at that time were much like the ones I attended: opportunities to highlight our common bonds and gloss over our differences. I recall a panel discussion at my synagogue with a rabbi, a Catholic priest and a lay leader from a local mosque. When the Muslim representative was asked, rather confrontationally, by a member of the audience what she would say to Osama bin Laden if he appeared before her she exclaimed, "I wouldn't say a thing! I'd haul him straight to the Hague to be tried for crimes against humanity!" The audience laughed heartily and with relief. Despite her headscarf, the Muslim woman felt the same indignation and anger that we, a predominantly Jewish audience, felt. She was one of us.

The Faith Club coverIn those anxious post-9/11 days, three women from the New York City area--a Jew, a Muslim, and an Episcopalian--met to discuss their plans to write a children's book. The book was to be a soothing description of the common roots of Judaism, Islam and Christianity in the biblical patriarch Abraham. The women-- Priscilla Warner, Ranya Idliby and Suzanne Oliver--all mothers of young children, were eager to reassure their own and other kids that despite the horrors of 9/11 and particularly the demonization of Islam that ensued, the world's major religions shared core values such as compassion and charity. It was to be a "kumbaya" kind of book, a we're-more-alike-than-different story, a real no-brainer to write.

It turned out, though, that even from their first meetings, the women confronted one another and themselves with feelings that were not so comforting. Oliver acknowledged with shame that when her church was being renovated and her congregation met in a nearby synagogue she feared that her children would be mistaken for Jews. Warner was astounded and offended that Oliver didn't see any anti-Semitism in her recounting of the story of the crucifixion as the work of "the wicked hands… of the men of Israel." Idilby, for her part, found Warner's denial of the existence of negative stereotypes about Muslims in America before 9/11 infuriating.

To their credit, rather than squelching these unsettling emotions and carrying on with the feel-good children's book, the women abandoned that project and spent the next several months exploring together their deepest beliefs about prayer, faith and the nature of God. They recorded their discussions and then edited the transcripts, resulting in their joint memoir, The Faith Club, first published in 2006 and issued in paperback last summer (Free Press, $14). The only rule the women had in their freewheeling talks was that they be totally honest with one another. Many of the book's early chapter titles refer to the heated arguments to which that honesty led: "The Abrahamic Family Feud," "The Crucifixion Crisis," "Stop Stereotyping Me!" As the book progresses, the women grow to be close friends and the conflicts become fewer. Waner finds in Oliver's Christian faith a model for her own emerging belief in God. Idilby sees in Warner's liberal Judaism a parallel path some Muslims, alienated by Islam's most doctrinaire factions, might follow.

Unfortunately, the conciliation that makes for good friendships does not necessarily make for good reading. The most compelling parts of The Faith Club are the women's alternating accounts of their early difficult encounters. The generally liberal and open-minded Oliver's admission that she secretly thinks of Jews as pushy, money grubbing and neurotic is, in a way, more refreshing than disturbing. The later sections, in which the women have arrived at a mutual understanding, are sometimes bogged down by platitudes such as "…faith is not the domain of one group or another." Still, Idliby, Oliver and Warner are to be admired for engaging their differences and inviting others to do so by forming their own "faith clubs." The book contains guidelines in English, Arabic and Hebrew for starting such a club.

It is worth noting that while the three women represent three faiths, they represent the most liberal elements of those faiths. Idliby is a mostly non-observant Muslim, the product of a Palestinian-American family in which women were, as she says, "thoroughly liberated." Oliver left the Catholic Church in which she was raised in favor of the Episcopal Church where women could be priests. Warner had a Conservative Jewish father and attended Hebrew day school but gravitated to Reform Judaism as an adult. The chasm separating these women, while real, never seems unbridgeable--which does detract somewhat from the vigor of their memoir. One can only wonder about the meetings of a faith club whose members included an observant Muslim woman, an Orthodox Jewish woman, a devout Catholic… and an ardent atheist. Now that would be a conversation.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Suzanne Koven

Suzanne Koven practices medicine and lives with her Italian-American Jewish family in the Boston area. Her website is suzannekovenmd.com.

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