IS ALIVE AND WELL IN LOS ANGELES
Newground Executive Director, Rabbi Sarah Bassin (left) and Board Chair, Edina Lekovic
Home: True Stories from LA’s Muslims and Jews
An evening of humor and music at Busby's in Los Angeles
sponsored by Newground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change
By Jonathan Arkin
For the second straight year, Newground: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change filled Los Angeles nightclub, Busby’s, with 200 supporters to light up the Miracle Mile with interfaith hope and humanity. Home: True Stories from LA’s Muslims and Jews, followed last year’s wildly popular Relationships event and gave interfaith collaboration advocates a friendly stage that once again promises to snowball into a more expansive network of interactions nationwide.
Melanie, Amir, Taz, Esther and Sarah. Storytellers and emcee of "Home"
On December 2, 2012, half a dozen young performers – musicians and speakers, both observant and secular – joined with some creative and interactive offstage installations to fill Busby’s, with ideas, anecdotes, song, food and laughter.
“We’re thrilled by the turnout,” said co-host and Newground Board Chair Edina Lekovic , adding that no less than 16 organizations – Jewish and Muslim – had co-sponsored the evening. “There’s great energy in the room – six powerful storytellers have joined us here on stage.”
Esther Kustanowitz, a young Jewish woman, told a story about riding on the glorious mosaic that is New York City’s subway. Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed , a Bangladeshi-American Muslim and USC graduate, followed with a seriocomic tale of how a simple fruit – guava – binds her family to their own traditions.
“But this evening is really about you,” said Rabbi Sarah Bassin, Newground’s dynamic Executive Director, between numbers. “Together, we can create a better future for everyone.”
Asghar Husain of Public Jones
Continuing NewGround’s mission of promoting dialogue, community service and education in the name of cross-cultural, multi-faith understanding and conciliation, the organizers and participants – not to mention the seated audience – used humor and music to get a not-so-new message across: We may not be the same, but those differences could get interesting.
Following a musical interlude, young Julia Moss took to the stage to recount how the aging of the generation of Jewish Holocaust survivors affects her own family – particularly her grandparents and their children – while Melanie Zoey shared an amusing story about her “escape from Torah camp.” Off to the side of the stage, Azerbaijani artist Marjan Vayghan, currently represented by the Shulamit Gallery, welcomed guests into a makeshift tent, featuring Iranian/Persian refreshments and objects d’art.
Working together and finding similarities
“There are precious moments in life when people are actively listening to your words and I do my best to make them count,” said Amir Abdullah, a professional performer who presented a crowd-pleasing spoken-word piece. “Interfaith collaboration is a seed that was been planted into me ten plus years ago. I grew up in Florida, which has a strong Jewish population, and even before joining NewGround I was a champion of working together and finding similarities within each other's respective faiths to gain an understanding.”
Abdullah, a Floridian from Jacksonville who said he is “on loan” to Los Angeles but at 18 was “ready to leave, like Katie Holmes or a two-month-old weave,” proved his facility and flow with Hip-Hop stylings that were both crisp and colorful.
“Had to go to mosque
I couldn’t hang out with Johnny
I ate so much biryani
I thought I was half-Pakistani”
Bassin – who also chaired and co-hosted Relationships in 2011 – looked to a “new paradigm” in interfaith relationships saying that the energy created by the effort was self-fulfilling.
“This year's event gave us the opportunity to strengthen existing collaborations and build new partnerships,” she said. “The fact there were 200 attendees shows that this type of interfaith work taps into an impulse in both communities to create a new paradigm.”
Taking to the stage again with a Muslim partner – this time, the talented Lekovic – led to some welcome moments of spontaneity and reaction during the performances and the entertaining patter in between.
The youngest Newground supporter enjoys the evening
with Mom, Board Chair Edina Lekovic and Rabbi Sarah Bassin
“In all honesty, being on stage and emceeing with Edina didn't feel all that different from one of NewGround's Board meetings,” Bassin said. “The more we work together, the more we play off of one another — whether it's for an on stage performance or in constructing a communications strategy. That dynamic certainly makes my job more enjoyable.”
What exactly is it about speaking in an informal setting to (and with) those who may be perceived to be culturally far apart, that results in such an easy balance of ideas and friendship? That question was posed to several of Home’s performers and organizers.
“The law of the instrument states that you are likely to see a nail in most things if a hammer is all you have,” Jeelani said. “With the same analogy, how can you not find love if, within your heart love be all you bear? We all have love in our hearts, if we only could bear it out…and events like this give us that platform.”
“What was extraordinarily special about the night was the enthusiasm in the crowd,” Jeelani noted. “It understood the basis of the primary assumption that we aren't that different, despite how we are portrayed. Th[at] assumption played true till the end".
Amir Abdullah performing Jacksonville piece
And in the end, another example of how culture clash is often misread as insurmountable, provided the audience with constructive material to take to their respective extended families and communities.
“Interfaith friendships and relationships can be surprising to those who have very few of them,” Abdullah said. “And as someone actively involved in them, I think it can be most beneficial to those who observe them from afar, those outsiders looking in. It makes other people curious and piques their interest and then that gets the conversations going, and pretty soon, someone who may have been reluctant can also start the interfaith conversation. So really it can be one person at a time that people can see past stereotypes and see each person as an individual regardless of religion, race, orientation.”
Continuing support for Newground’s fellowships – How to help
Bassin said that the continuing support from some very active grant-funded fellowship recipients was instrumental in organizing this year’s show.
“Alumni from NewGround's most recent fellowships were essential in putting together this event, and they're out in the community working on numerous civic engagement projects,” Bassin said. “We're excited for what they have in store and we're equally as excited to add 24 new Muslims and Jews to their ranks as we've just launched our fifth NewGround fellowship cohort.”
And again, the undeniable hope that a better world is in store for those who need only look across the street, across the border, or across the university quad at one another, was held up to friendly footlights.
“We hope that tonight has been a step in the right direction,” Bassin added.
Photos courtesy of My T. Chau, Jonathan Arkin, and Tarek Shawky, a Newground Fellowship recipient.
Read the Neon Tommy article on Newground
Read the feature on Newground as an Action Now+Network GameChanger
For more information, contact Sarah Bassin at firstname.lastname@example.org, Edina Lekovic at email@example.com.
Tags: Amir Abdullah, Asghar Husain, Edina Lekovic, interfaith, Marjan Vayghan, Melanie Zoey, multi-faith, Muslim-Jewish collaboration, Muslim-Jewish relationships, NewGround, PEACE BUILDING, Public Jones, Sarah Bassin, Tanzila Ahmed