An introspection on belonging and rediscovering faith on the eve of the first officially recognized Jewish wedding in the United Arab Emirates.
Late one afternoon this past fall, the sun and the heat still high, I arrived alone at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Hilton, one of the many marble and chandaliered five-star hotels that seem to have sprouted up from the desert overnight. I was dressed in my fanciest suit — a robin-egg jacket with silver threads that fell to my knees over straight-legged pants. I thought that would be both conservative and festive enough for the occasion, but in fact I had nothing more appropriate to wear. Gowns are not in my wardrobe. I have precious few dresses, and over the course of my four years living and teaching in the United Arab Emirates, I’ve never had occasion to attend a wedding, and certainly not a Jewish one.
Anomalies abound in Abu Dhabi, beginning with the city itself. Only 50 years ago there was little else here but a few goat-hair tents and adobe encampments on an otherwise sprawling archipelago of sea-laced sand, the Persian Gulf dotted with wooden fishing dhows that, come evening, docked in clanking rows in the old port. Once an economy based on pearl diving and date harvests, those markets withered in the early 20th century when Japan created cultured pearls and California took the lead in global date production. Decades of poverty ensued, here in this country now replete with luxury hotels and yacht clubs, but the grandparents of my students still recount stories of life before villas, high-end cars and dentists.
It was, of course, the discovery of oil in 1958 that gave rise to the steel and glass cityscape glistening just across the bay from the island known as Saadiyat (Arabic for “happiness”) where I live, one of hundreds of islands in the Abu Dhabi archipelago. Designated as the cultural district, Saadiyat is home to the avant-garde architect Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Museum, a filligreed, sun-dappled saucer of multicultural art that is soon to be joined by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim. It is also the site of the newly opened Abrahamic Family House: an architectural triad of church, synagogue and mosque all in close proximity one to another.
The UAE government, meanwhile, invests large sums greening the ever-encroaching desert, seeding the clouds to make rain and planting date palms, acacia, neem, ghaf and sidra trees that all survive on IV lines of desalinated sea water, wound like skinny black snakes at each trunk’s base. It’s a desert and yet the air is densely moist; the seasonal temperatures fluctuate between sublime and stifling. Beaches border a blue-green sea where dolphins jump above the water and sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand, while just a bit further inland, shopping malls the size of small cities have ski slopes and skating rinks.
The local populace is almost entirely foreign. Emiratis comprise only 13 percent of their own population, at most. Everyone else is either a migrant laborer, from the largely Pakistani construction workers, to the Ghanian and Ugandan taxi drivers, to the Filipina nannies and nurses, or a white collar import, including Lebanese media and television specialists, South Asian and Middle Eastern doctors, and European and North and South American engineers recruited to work in the oil and nuclear energy sectors. After the UAE government launched a satellite in 2021, neon street signs all over downtown Abu Dhabi were lit with the words, “Arabs on Mars.”
Still, even in this land of the most unlikely, a Jewish wedding amidst a tide of kandoras and abayas stood out. The invitation came via a somewhat circuitous route. Knowing that I was living and working here, some close friends put me in touch with a friend of theirs, a librarian and a scholar who lives in the northern emirate of Dubai who then asked me if I wanted to be on a WhatsApp group with Jews in the UAE.
As a writer for whom sacred expression has long been a niche, this pending nuptial between Rabbi Levi Duchman and Leah Haddad, seemed to me important, symbolizing not just the marriage of two young, bright and religious people, but the potential marriage of Jews and Muslims in a new era in the United Arab Emirates — a moment that historian Mahnaz Yousefzadeh calls a Renaissance in this part of the world. A Renaissance, or perhaps a new Andalucia, the Islamic Golden Age, when Arab culture and science led the world, and Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side by side in the Iberian Peninsula.
Although the convivencia is sometimes exaggerated in history books, it is clear that the rulers of the UAE are making conscious efforts to fulfill the promise of those times, advancing peace with Israel while promoting a message of religious and multicultural acceptance on Emirati soil. The word they employ is “tolerance,” a term that implies a certain indulgence of beliefs and practices not one’s own. The government has, in fact, created a Ministry of Tolerance, while brokering a peace deal with Israel. They’ve shortened the workweek to four (or 4.5) days and changed the labor schedule to align with global markets. One can have a glass of wine or a gin and tonic while sitting on a terrace watching bathers in bikinis frolic on the strand. When I arrived in 2018, those developments had yet to occur. Unlike democracies, change here happens with the swiftness of a decree. A benevolent ruler is all that one needs.
While the Abraham Accords of 2020 have created detente between Israel and the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain, diplomatic relations are largely driven by economic interests. Direct flights to Tel Aviv from Abu Dhabi allow business people, tourists and pilgrims to circulate more freely. Still, Renaissance, rebirth. Isn’t that what marriage is? One leaves one’s singular identity behind and becomes one with another, a new entity. That may sound idealistic, but it’s an ideal many of those living here would like to embrace.
And yet as I was driving over the causeway connecting Saadiyat and Yas islands, accelerating to 140 km per hour, I became anxious. Was I about to find myself with all the Jews in Abu Dhabi, about to be unmasked as an impostor to the faith, not knowing a single prayer in Hebrew? I thought back on the Jewish events I’d attended in the past, ones that all pivoted around my father, a kosher butcher from the Bronx. His family was not religious, but as a community member he had to show up for the high holidays. Still, my Hungarian grandmother, Stella, would stuff towels under the lintel on Saturdays, the only day off in the butcher shop, to cook bacon — that most coveted of American meats. That’s the kind of Jews they were, irreverent, even sacrilegious, but fiercely loyal to their kind.
Although I was raised with my Christian mother, questions surrounding my mixed identity still haunted me. I’d recently been going through a W.G. Sebald phase, reading stories about deportations from Paris to Terezin during WWII, about thousands of Jews standing in the wintry cold, separated from their children, divested of everything they’d ever had, frightened and unsure of anything at all. I knew that Orthodox Jews did not accept me in their clan, recognizing only the matrilineal bloodline, but I also understood that Hitler and other anti-Semites would have had no trouble putting me to death. It could have been me as well, homeless and hated, in that shivering crowd.
When I first arrived in Abu Dhabi, there was paperwork to complete and health exams to do: a chest x-ray and a test for syphilis and HIV. Although I knew I didn’t have tuberculosis, I was always a bit nervous, then relieved to know that I had avoided the scourge of AIDS. I remember clearly when those four letters were sprawled across the cover of Time Magazine in 1983. I was living at the foot of the Middle Atlas Mountains in Morocco, in a large town called Beni Mellal, and someone, an American, had brought over the latest issue. At the time, we didn’t quite know what the disease was, but we knew it was sexually transmitted and people were dying. Every HIV test since then, and there have been several, has been a reminder of the lives lost and my good fortune at being spared. Still, it was clear that good health was necessary in order to reside in the UAE. They were not admitting any dependents on the state.
In addition to a health examination, applicants had to fill out a questionnaire about one’s race (Caucasian), but also one’s religion. And here I paused. My mother was raised Christian, my father Jewish, but I had been doing research and practicing with Sufi Muslims since 1994. My ex-husband was a secular Muslim, and I’m sure I had repeated the shahada, the testimony of faith — there is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet — many times. We had to choose between the three religions of the book. Which one was I?
I was not sure. There was no box for Buddhist, though I lean towards such contemplative forms, being a meditator and yoga practitioner for decades. What’s more, I felt uneasy about any kind of declaration of this kind. And if I were simply human? Spiritual? There were no categories on the forms for identities like that. And when I asked, I was advised not to leave it blank lest the visa application be sent back. I thought Christian was the least controversial and checked that box, though I felt a twinge of self-betrayal. Was I hiding my Jewish identity because of fear?
I thought back then to the decades I had spent doing research in Morocco without ever mentioning my mixed heritage. I had watched as children threw pebbles at the last remaining Jewish couple in Beni Mellal. “Al-hudi l-akhor! You Jew!” they’d scream, as the couple walked hand-in-hand to the épicerie, the market they owned in the center of town, small rocks scattering in the direction of their feet. No doubt they had decided not to migrate to Israel in 1967 (when most other Moroccan Jews left) because they had a thriving business, and people frequented them just as much if not more than the other grocers in town, since their prices were competitive. They had to be. But the subsonic hum of prejudice formed the substrate of their lives, and I saw first-hand how racism was inculcated in young and innocent minds. I hate to think what happened to the surviving spouse when the other eventually died.
The wedding invitation said to use valet parking, so I pulled up to the entrance curb and got out. In front of me, a man in a black suit, ritual tassels (tzitzit) hanging under the left and right sides of his shirt, got a stroller out of his car, while his wife, dressed in an ankle-length pastel polyester dress, held the baby. I looked closely and noticed she was wearing a wig. I followed the couple into the hotel, passing my bag through security. Naturally security would be tight. This was a Jewish wedding in Abu Dhabi after all, an Arab country in the Gulf where Jews are a very small minority. But this was a Hasidic wedding?
An image came back to me from my past. I had just returned to New York after a 20-year absence and was in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens with my newborn. It was March, a chilly spring, and my son Nathaniel was blanketed in a pram that his father had found on Ebay — the kind with large wheels and a shellacked metal cradle from the 1950s. He had just fallen asleep, the late afternoon sun falling on his angelic face, when a group of prepubescent Hasidic boys and their teacher entered the gardens. They wore long black coats, their payos dangling aside their still soft cheeks, black fedoras on their small skulls. They walked down the sidewalk that bordered the green until they reached the end, and then, as if by collective and unspoken decision, as if a school of fish decided to swim in a new direction, they flung their hats to the ground and began to do consecutive somersaults down the grassy lawn, their yalmulkas barely clinging to their hair with pins. Over and over, they spun, collecting bits of leaves and soil on their clothes, laughing with unfettered delight. I already had plenty of oxytocin in my system from nursing, the oceanic hormone that produces a feeling of oneness with the universe, but this moment stood out like a vision dancing at the edge of dream and reality, and time stood still.
I followed the signs to the reception and entered an enormous U-shaped banquet room that buzzed with people mulling around a long length of adjoining tables. I had been told that the wedding would be sex-segregated, but here in the pre-ceremony, women and men mixed freely. Tables of sushi and smoked salmon lined the walls. There was an open bar at the back where most people congregated. On the tables were plates of fruit, nuts, small cakes as well as bottles of Absolut vodka and Jack Daniels whiskey. Not your typical Emirati spread.
Among the more than 1500 attendees were Jews from Israel, Brooklyn and elsewhere in the diaspora. Some people were wearing masks, but most were not. The Hasidic men moved around the room, with their long beards, open black jackets and white shirts without ties. One man had on the traditional shtreimel, a large fur hat, but most Hasidic men were in black fedoras. The Emirati men in attendance wore the white scarf, or gutra, with the black ring, the agal, fastening it to their heads. All the men present however —whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian or other — had their head covered, as the venue provided yarmulkas with the word مبروك, “congratulations” embroidered in Arabic on the side.
The women on the other hand, either wore wigs, scarves (sheela in Arabic) or were bare-headed like me. The Emirati women wore their silk black abayas and high heels (though some wore lighter colors), some non-Emirati Arab women were in gold or silver-flecked gowns, and many Hasidic women from Europe, the USA and Israel wore loose and non-ostentatious dresses, with either wigs or scarves on their heads. Some women were in décolleté outfits, showing plenty of skin, others were buttoned up tightly in high collars and long sleeves. As far as I could tell, I was the only female in pants.
I had already gone through several phases searching for the meaning of my Jewish identity. Given my name, and the way I look, most people assume I am Jewish. But I could not, like Hannah Arendt, say I belonged to the Jewish people “as a matter of course.” I was more like Franz Fanon, the Algerian psychiatrist and writer, becoming conscious of his blackness because a little girl on the street said, “look a negro! Mama, see the negro?” My features are Jewish. My name is Jewish. I can easily go into the Bronx accent of my forebears with a sprinkle of Yiddish. But I am not just Jewish. I haven’t been to Hebrew school, haven’t been bat-mitzvahed. I was brought up with my White Anglo-Saxon Protestant mother, and eventually married a non-devout Moroccan Muslim with whom I had a daughter. (His mother, our daughter’s paternal grandmother, was from the tribe of Ait Ichou, a Moroccan Jewish lineage, and both his father and mother were Amazighin, Berber, the first peoples of North Africa.) There was nothing but mixing for centuries on both sides of our families.
But what does this mean for belonging? Like Arendt, I had a horror of nationalism and of every identity for which people were ready to kill and to die. I got this, I think, from my father, who was sent back from the Korean War before his tour was finished with a dishonorable discharge, a passivist who preferred a heroin needle to murdering a fellow human on the front lines. Home in the Bronx, his mother locked him in the bathroom until he beat it. After that, my jazz-listening, Lao-Tse-reading father in his Panama hat and cashmere coat, ceded to his parents’ wishes. They changed the name of the butcher shop to Kapchan and Son.
As I wandered slowly around the room, I felt conspicuously alone, though I knew intellectually that I was passing largely unnoticed. The Hasidic men didn’t meet my gaze, and the women were speaking among themselves. English, French, Hebrew, Arabic and Yiddish were circulating like swallows swirling in space, leaving tracks of their flight paths for people to follow. It was dizzying. When someone arrived who knew someone else, there were flurries of greetings, but here I was clearly an outsider — in terms of class (b. working), marital status (divorced) and perhaps my mixed faith, to say nothing of my research on Moroccan Sufism, mystical Islam, for the last three decades.
I retreated to my place as an observer and moved closer to the music up front. It was a men’s singing group, all of them dressed in long black coats and hats. The soloist, a slight man with a grey beard, led the singing, leaning into the melismatic ascents and descents of old Eastern European Jewish songs from the Ashkenazi tradition. They were melancholic, with beautiful harmonies. I thought again of my father, of his Hungarian and Ukranian roots. I thought of my grandfather who fled Kyev so as not to be conscripted in Stalin’s army and sent to the front lines. I thought of the Russian civilians being forced at this very moment into Putin’s army to fight a war they had not chosen. And then I looked through the crowd to a Hasidic man sitting alone at a table nearby. He had a grey beard and fine features and for the very briefest of moments his gaze met mine, long enough for me to read a deep world weariness within him. He was here, we were in a Muslim land, and this was the first officially recognized Jewish wedding on UAE soil. How many times in the past have we imagined peace and then lived to see it disintegrate before our eyes?
Someone got on a loudspeaker and asked everyone to sit down. The groom was going to sign the marriage contract before witnesses. I found a seat at the end of one table. Across from me was a single man who did not smile, and next to me, someone I assumed to be a rich Emirati in a flowing white kandora with a glamorous Russian woman at least a foot taller than he was. She was accompanied by her sister, with whom she spoke Russian, and by a young man who appeared to be her sister’s escort. She excused herself with a smile in my direction when her chair bumped into mine, but then carried on her conversation oblivious to my presence.
From what I could gather, there were prayers and rituals happening way down at the head of the table, but there was so much noise by the bar that it was hard to hear what was going on. I know the bride’s mother smashed a plate — “just as this plate cannot be put back together, so the bride breaks from her family and enters her husband’s household forever…” I seemed to hear.
Although the people in the front were shushing the crowd, no one paid them any mind. The ritual went on in the hubbub of mounting conversations, laughter and greetings. For many, this was a social occasion, and not a sacred ritual at all.
Finally, the man came on the microphone once more, and asked everyone in the room to follow the groom to a large hall for the ritual veiling of the bride. I joined the procession, next to a man in a kilt and his young daughter.
“So good to see a Scottish kilt at the wedding,” I ventured. “My maternal grandfather was from Edinburgh.”
“Actually, it’s Irish,” he said. “The Irish actually invented the kilt. Nobody talks about that. I guess it’s not often you see a kilt at a Jewish wedding.”
“It’s not often you see a lot of things here,” I said, meaning Arab Kandoras and Hasidic fedoras. “Your first Jewish wedding?”
“Yes,” he replied.
I introduced myself then, giving him my name. “I am a writer.”
“I work at Meta in Dubai,” he said.
By then we had entered the hall. People were squeezing together to see the veiling of the bride, when the bride is covered completely until she emerges in her new state as wife. She is also covered because the presence of the Divine is thought to rest on her face when she is under the wedding canopy or chuppah, and no one can look directly at the divine. It’s why Y-hweh takes different forms, like the burning bush for Moses. The sight of the light of G-d burns too brightly for human eyes.
The Irish Meta man’s daughter was pulling him forward into the crowd, but I needed to get out of the crunch, so I took a door to the terrace and walked along the outside of the ceremonial space, missing the veiling, but entering again further down on the other side, a fact that put me almost first in line to go to the next ritual taking place under the chuppah in a tent on the veranda. I got a great seat not far from the front.
Hundreds of strands of white and pink garlands cascaded down the canopy. The same men’s choir sang wistful songs in Yiddish as people filtered in. On each seat, a fan was placed, to offset the heat of the desert. Servers with trays of water circulated around the floor. Because the wedding was Hasidic, men were on one side, women on the other, but the view was clear across the aisles.
On each chair was a booklet embossed in gold with the title, “The Jewish Wedding.” Within its 28 pages was an explanation of the sacred ritual of marriage, which for the Hasidim is a “mystical union” suffused with symbolism. The chuppah is outside under the stars, for example, because Abraham’s descendants were promised to one day be “like stars in the sky” — both numerous and acting as guides to lost travelers. The chuppah also represents Abraham and Sarah’s tent that welcomed and sheltered all who sojourned nearby. The canopy, I read, symbolized “G-d’s presence hovering over the mountain during the Revelation.” And G-d was written without the /o/ because the name is holy, and once printed should never be destroyed. I thought of the Geniza files, the thousands of pieces of paper with the name of G-d written upon them and put in an underground storeroom or genizah in Cairo for hundreds of years. Where would the record of this wedding be found in the archives of tomorrow? On the worldwide web?
We waited for the bride and groom to arrive. A week from now I would meet them both in a small café on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus. The rabbi, I would learn, spoke in the Yiddish accented dialect of New York Jews, which some called Yinglish. My grandparents had also spoken this way, and although my cousins and I could still slip into this local vernacular at will, the rabbi did not code switch at all. Did his Emirati interlocutors think all Jews spoke this way? After all, it was natural to generalize from the particular. But if the rabbi spoke in only one kind of English, he was also fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. The first time he went to a Muslim country, he told me, was when he visited his brother-in-law, a rabbi in Morocco. Immediately the country drew him like a “magnet,” he said, and he ended up staying for years.
The rabbi and I would speak in Moroccan Arabic long enough to gauge each other’s fluency (quite good on both sides) and I would understand that Morocco was also a favored country of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh leader in the Chabad-Lubavitch community, who sent an emissary to Meknes way back in 1950. This respected rebbe, while pro-Israel, nonetheless encouraged Jews to stay in the Muslim lands of their birth, going against the policy of aliya popular at the time.
“If we’re going to completely leave the Muslim countries, then we’re going to be alienated from the Muslim world,” Rebbe Levi told me, quoting his teacher, “and that will be a terrible thing. It will be hard to protect Israel this way, so the Rebbe said we must build Jewish life in these countries. We must stay.”
After Morocco, Rabbi Levi went to the Gulf, first to Bahrain and then to Abu Dhabi. He has been here since 2014, seeding Chabad at New York University, and working with others on developing a Jewish presence and community in the UAE. The rabbi is now a board member of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States.
I told the rabbi at one point how I had read that Hasidim believed G-d was immanent not only in all humans, but in animals, non-sentient beings and even in inanimate objects. Divinity, I had understood, was omnipresent and it was the task of humans to be conscious of that. The Hasidim also believed that humans create their life stories at every moment, changing not just our futures, but our pasts; that on Rosh Hashanah in particular — a holiday I would soon celebrate with the Jewish community in Abu Dhabi — humans can edit our destinies in the Book of Life in which each one of us is written. Did humans have this much agency, to in fact narrate our lives into being? As a writer, I found this message compelling. The rabbi assured me that I had not misunderstood. And so, when I arrived a few days later at a Rosh Hashanah service, I lit a candle for myself and for my children and clarified my intentions for the year: writing and more writing, publication, safety and health for my mother and children. And yes, also, love for me.
I told the rabbi that my mother, who had been a dancer in NYC when she was young, was the first shiksa to marry into my father’s family, and that my Hungarian grandmother, horrified (“a shiksa and a dancer no less!”) made her convert to Judaism, insisting she do the mikvah before the wedding. My mother submerged her svelte body in the pool while a hefty woman with a shmatta on her head said the Hebrew prayers before each dunk:
Barukh atah Adonay Eloheynu melekh ha-olam…I will betroth you to me, forever. I will betroth you to me with righteousness and with justice, with goodness and with compassion. I will betroth you to me in truth, and we will come to know G-d.”
Did my mother emerge, purified of her past and one with the waters of Judaism? Was this act enough for the Hasidim to accept me as one of their own? (The marriage lasted less than two years before my grandmother paid for my mother’s solo trip to Tijauna. Divorces there were fast and cheap.) The rabbi told me that according to Jewish law (he used the Arabic word “sharia”), I was not technically Jewish, but he assured me that I was still welcome in Chabad. “We are about unconditional love for all people,” he told me, and added that my father would be proud of my search. But where do those between categories belong?
The seats directly in front of the chuppah were reserved for family — relatives and friends from Brooklyn, New York, from Brussels and elsewhere in Europe and North America, with Emirati royalty, Jewish philanthropists and powerful international business men and women who came from Dubai and elsewhere in the region. But there were also people from Israel. While perhaps not the first Jewish wedding in the UAE, it was certainly the most historic, welcoming as it did, people of many faiths, ethnicities and language groups from all over the world.
Rabbi Levi Banon, the officiator and the chief rabbi in Casablanca, welcomed the guests, telling those unfamiliar with the ceremony what to expect. He welcomed rabbis from other Muslim countries as well, from Turkey, Nigeria and Singapore. Then the crowd parted and the groom appeared, accompanied by his father and future father-in-law. The groom, the first licensed rabbi of the United Arab Emirates, had his eyes closed tightly as if in ecstatic prayer, his head rocking slightly back and forth as he davened down the aisle. He took his place under the chuppah and waited for his bride.
When she made her entrance, it was with her mother and future mother-in-law by her side. Dressed in white lace, her head draped with an opaque veil, she was led down the aisle and up a few steps to the chuppah, where she proceeded to circle the groom slowly seven times. The number seven symbolized the Shabbat, I read, the seventh day of creation, the “transcendent spiritual island in time,” but the officiating rabbi from Morocco added that this also symbolized the bride’s protection of the groom in their future life as a couple. As she was veiled to shield the face of Divinity from the onlookers, so the bride, and women more generally, were a veil for their husbands, a shield of blessing.
The music was constant throughout, though now a very special song was sung, a tune from a famous Hasidic composer of the 18th century. People clicked their cameras and iPhones flashed as the wedding ceremony continued with the exchange of rings, the presentation of the ketubah (or wedding contract), the sharing of wine, and the seven blessings for the couple, recited by respected dignitaries. We were all aware that something unprecedented was going on: a public welcome not only of the couple, but of a Jewish presence in the United Arab Emirates. A prayer for the UAE and its leaders was read in Hebrew, Arabic and English. This prayer asked the UAE rulers to protect the “sons of Jakob” residing on their land. It was a reminder of the past fragilities of Jews in Muslim countries, and a hope for future peace and understanding.
Finally, the groom broke a glass under his foot in memory of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. “By remembering sad times in an hour of happiness we enable ourselves to recall happiness.” He lifted the veil from his wife’s beautiful face, and they were acknowledged as a public couple for the first time.
While I was one of the first people to enter the chuppah ceremony, I was one of the last out of the tent. By the time I arrived in the immense banquet hall — a long curtain drawn between the men and the women’s sections — most people had found their seats. As a New Yorker, as well as an author and ethnographer, I am used to being alone in a crowd, but there was the problem of where to sit at dinner. There was no seating plan, no names next to the plates. Where was the Russian woman who briefly addressed me in the reception? Surely it would be just her and her sister now. But, in fact, they were at a table chatting with what appeared to be very chic Emirati women. I would have sat down anyway, but there were no empty chairs. I decided to get a plate of food from the buffet, and then figure it out.
Over cutting boards laden with meat, servers held carving knives aloft in their hands. I’ve never been a fan of Eastern European food. Although my father’s kosher butchery in the Bronx sold every cut — chicken, brisket, corned beef, tongue — I’m usually a vegetarian. Apart from salad, however, there was only stuffed cabbage. Not to my taste. So, I decided to take a bit of sirloin to honor the memory of my father and some roasted potatoes. I had been too overwhelmed with the scene when I first arrived to think about food, other than to observe the reception’s colorful fish makis, the pink salmon and the knäckebröd — which I supposed was as close as one got to matzah in Abu Dhabi.
I stood there, plate in hand, hoping someone would notice a lone woman and ask me to sit down, but no one did. So, I sat at the closest table, next to a young woman in conservative clothes, asking first if the seat was taken. She almost smirked and gestured that it was empty but did not smile. This made me very uncomfortable, but now the die was cast; I had nowhere else to go, so I sat down and ate in silence, cutting my food with heightened attention. The other young women at the table were too far away for conversation, and clearly no one was interested in making new friends.
“Where did you come from?” I asked to break the tension.
“Israel,” she answered with no elaboration.
“Do you live in Tel Aviv?” Now that there were direct flights from Abu Dhabi, I hoped to take that trip in the near future. Perhaps she would have some recommendations.
“No, Be’er Sheva,” she said. And that was as far as we got. The woman turned to her left to converse with her compatriots in Hebrew, all of whom were happy to ignore me.
I finished my potatoes, leaving most of the meat on my plate and excused myself for refills. A few more potatoes, and I found myself somewhere else to sit, this time next to a woman and her adult daughter engaged in deep conversation. My presence went unacknowledged until they finished talking, then she turned to me and smiled.
“Do you know the groom or the bride?” I asked. Unoriginal, but an opening.
“We’re friends with the groom’s parents actually,” she said.
“From New York?”
“Yes, from Brooklyn.”
“Oh, I’m also from New York. What do you do there?” The typical New York question. Everyone does something in New York.
“I’m a pharmacist at Brooklyn Hospital,” she said.
We chatted some more, and then the bride entered the room to great applause. We heard the men applauding the groom on the other side of the curtain as well. The band began a vigorous hora and Goldie, her daughter and I got up to dance, joining the women in a big circle around the bride, who was being spun around wildly in a smaller circle in the center.
I had been to a Hasidic wedding once before, when my second cousin married an Orthodox man in Far Rockaway (the very place my widowed great grandmother Hirsch ran a hotel and ‘lived in sin’ with Mr. Brandwein at the turn of the 19th century, according to family folklore). Peeking through the curtain of that wedding to see the men on the other side, I witnessed something I will never forget: pure joy, the boyish joy of abandon that I had seen almost two decades before on the lawn of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. It is rare to see that level of unselfconsciousness in grown men, at least in the United States, where manhood is equated with reserve and control. But peeking through the curtain, now in Abu Dhabi, I watched the men jump up, twirling in circles, holding each other by the hand, dancing without inhibition, the glow of love in their eyes. Arab Muslims in gondoras were in the circle with them, Jewish and Muslim hands raised in the air while smiling from ear to ear. These were not just any Emiratis getting lost in this mix, but people in government positions, people with reputations to protect. Yet the guests continued to join the hora, until the circle was quite large, while others filmed the performance of exuberant brotherhood for social media and friends.
On the women’s side this was happening too, women in gowns and caftans, women in practical shoes and plain dresses, young girls and older women, radiantly bringing others into the snaking folds of the circle. Some might wonder why this dancing couldn’t happen in a mixed-gender context, though years of ethnographic research in ecstatic Sufi communities had habituated me to the separation of the sexes. I had come to appreciate the relative lack of seduction present in such contexts as a relief and not a burden. It would be different, of course, if one were gay.
I have spent hours doing research with Sufi women in Morocco and in France, chanting the names of G-d over and over until my chest began to buzz, listening to women moan and swoon as they went into rapture, entering the heightened state of consciousness, or hal, that is so easy to forget in daily life. Of the 99 names of God in Islam, each moniker is one attribute of the Divine, an entry point into what is ultimately unknowable to mere humans except through these various aspects and the experience of love. Allah is the only name that doesn’t correspond to a dictionary meaning like the omniscient (al-Alim, العليم), the Artist and Designer (al-Muṣawwir, ٱلْمُصَوِّرُ), the all-Hearing (as-Samiy, ٱلْسَّمِيعُ), the all-Subtle (al-latif, ٱلْلَّطِيفُ) and others. Allah stands for the cipher that is G-d.
When my mother came back to New York from Mexico, temporarily a single woman, she became a social dance teacher. Swirling me around our living room in front of the large mirror on the wall, she taught me to follow the steps of the dance: fox trot, cha cha, waltz, and to listen to the subtle moves of another’s body. There were some ballet lessons, but mostly there were spins, twirls, legs in the air, splits and stretches done at home — freedom from strictures and categories. Movement was her anthem, and dance, her religion.
I never learned to make matzah ball soup. And though I went to see my father’s family every Saturday, my mother scrupulously kept me from them on the Jewish high holidays. I think she thought I’d be lured away. And she was right: I would have been. Because my Jewish family knows who they are. They belong, as Arendt says, and humor is the glue of their identity. They are joyful and they have rituals, though in their daily lives they are quite secular. My mother, on the other hand, was a transplant from New England, the poor cousin, estranged from the Swedes and Scots of her birth because she had forsaken them by following her artistic dreams to New York.
When my father died, it fell to me, as his only daughter, to honor his memory, and I did it by mourning the Jewish way. By that time, he had remarried, and his wife and her daughter took care of the burial and the stone, but I held an abbreviated shiva, sitting on hard chairs for three days and nights, placing a bowl of water by the lintel, gathering old pictures and inviting my family to share in the celebration of his life. I shoveled the dirt on top of his coffin, and thanked G-d for a ritual that allowed me to channel my grief. I also saw a rabbi around this time. Was there a belief in the afterlife in Judaism? He said there was not, but that memory was in fact the invisible material through which a life continued to live. Memory was presence and, like history and place, it was palpable. But how to reside in non-abiding? How to be without belonging?
After the wedding I attended the high holidays with the Jewish community in Abu Dhabi. I met Russian businessmen who were trying to stay in the Gulf so they and their employees would not be forced into the Russian army. I met housewives, American socialites, Israeli orthodox couples and a young Emirati man who attended most events as an informal cultural ambassador. I stood at the appropriate times in the services, following the English translations of the Hebrew:
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, L-rd, my Strength and my Redeemer.”
A similar phrase was said by Sufi Muslims and by Christians as well. I couldn’t help but make links between these religions, whose practices arose from one single text. But one difference stood out: “You have chosen us from among all the nations,” I read from the Amidah prayer on Yom Kippur. “You have raised us above all tongues and made us holy through Your commandments.” Unlike the worshippers of “graven images” and “alien gods,” Jews are a people apart.
Neither Christians nor Muslims worship idols, but even if one did confuse the forms with the attributes they are meant to express, even if a symbol was, like a word, conflated with only one of its meanings, aren’t there always “many’” portals to the ‘”one”? “To each according to his abilities,” said Karl Marx, echoing the Bible that haunted him like a ghost. Have humans lost their propensity for symbolic thought, the ability to hold the paradox of opposites together?
A statue of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant God sits on my desk, the remover of obstacles, the god of writers. I suppose that I, too, find a place among the spiritualists, as Julius Guttmann calls them in his book, History of Jewish Philosophy, the mystics of the east who enter into the eternal secret of nature. But if so, I am also a part of the Semitic family, the people of the book, for whom religion entails walking, marching towards the teleological end of liberation with the guidance of historical prophets and shaykhs. Once again, I find myself between realms.
All religions involve exceptionalism. All of them distinguish themselves from others. Some prohibit pork, others meat entirely, some forbid cutting one’s hair, others proscribe its removal. Taboos define who we are or are not. Judaism, however, is in the blood. There is no conversion, no learning the customs and taking the vows. No anthropological immersion or going native. Miscegenation means exile. My grandmother Stella, may her memory be for a blessing (despite all), knew that only too well.
When the Torah thanks G-d for saving “his people,” so full of repentances for their sins, was I included in the fold? The simple fact of posing the question gave me the answer. A Jew would not pose the question in the first place, at least not an Orthodox Jew who knew who she was. I am an outsider. But isn’t that where I belong? A writer is always outside, by virtue of the word, that comes between experience and its representation. And G-d after all is the Word for all the people of the Book, the final enigmatic symbol.
I like to think that my father resembled the butcher about whom Chinese philosopher, Chuang-Tzu, wrote. Carver Ting was a follower of the Tao whose “every touch of the hand, every inclination of the shoulder, every step he trod, every pressure of the knee, while swiftly and lightly he wielded his carving-knife, was as carefully timed as the movements of a dancer in the Mulberry Wood. . . .
There are spaces in the joints;
The blade is thin and keen:
When this thinness
Finds that space
There is all the room you need!
It goes like a breeze!”
Carver Ting knew about the interstices, the spaces in-between. Carver Ting was a dancer, and he was free.
I first came to Abu Dhabi to free myself of New York City’s clamor, its steel cold winters, the homeless shivering above the subway grates in dirty overcoats; the garbage stacked high on street corners, the rats and smells of urine in the subway. I came, too, to offer refuge for my then 15-year-old son, who’d begun taking risks too dangerous for his adolescent brain to calculate.
It would be a good story to say that I was fated to come to Abu Dhabi to discover my Judaism. And while that may be true, I am still as deeply moved by the call to prayer as by the aching cry of the shofar. Beauty is in fact what calls me, not a profession of faith. And beauty for me is in the slip between categories, the space between identities. It is in the freedom of the pen, and its movement across the page.
I don’t know if people danced with abandon in Andalucia, but I feel sure they did. We do know that the sight of Arabs in long white robes and Jews in black coats, dancing the hora with arms raised in a circle is a vision we never expected to see. Not here in the Gulf, so close to the trauma on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian aisle — the Jewish Holocaust and the way it continues to play out unhealed in the Israeli state’s political psyche.
If my faith is somewhere, it is not in political detente or even in tolerance, that word that renders borders and differences distinct. Rather it is in this dance of in-between, the place where feet find only temporary footing before lifting up again into the air, the place where hands find other hands to hold in an ever-tenuous circle where people join and fall out at regular intervals and are always welcomed back again. Lingering here, where there is no identity to fight for, no name to protect, is to be profoundly open to the next step. It is not easy to remain in motion with others, responding at a moment’s notice to the turn of an arm or the lean of a head, and yet it is only this dance of empathy that expands the circle of the possible. If I have a tribe, it is with the movers, the ones listening to the person next to them, and answering with a sympathetic response. Such marriages are indeed sacred, and like memory, they leave material traces for future dancers to follow.