The other night, my family was invited to an informal dinner at the home of our friends, Paul and Marion Wolff. We were treated to a delightful array of cuisine, ranging from Marion’s signature quiche to the sumptuous garbanzo bean curry of Karma, their Bhutanese son-in-law.
At the start of our meal, candles were lit and Paul shared a traditional Jewish prayer. The ancient words he spoke resonated a spiritual connection with his tribe going back through the ages. His Hebrew mantra praised God and asked for blessing on the bread and blessing on the liquid of which we would partake.
We ate and drank, laughed and talked about our experiences and our views. We shared with one another about beauty and ugliness and about darkness and light.
Just before Marion launched an equally satisfying dessert, Paul pulled out an old light blue pouch, cracked it open and slid out four khaki colored booklets. On the paper cover of these small passports was a black swastika and the verbiage of the Third Reich.
Paul opened the first passport and showed it to my wife and I. Paul “Israel” Wolff it read. He showed me a large red “J” stamped on the first page of the passport.
“All Jews had the red stamp,” he related, “and were given the middle name Israel if they were a boy and Sara if they were a girl.”
In my hand, I held a piece of history. And more importantly, next to me sat two living testaments to the tribulations of an entire race. Not to miss an opportunity, I had my children gather around the table and we again reminded them of the story of Paul and Marion.
We talked of a time in Germany when no synagogue was left undamaged and of a period when no Jew felt safe from violence and malice. We spoke of the Wolffs exodus from Germany as small children and of Paul’s return as a soldier after World War II. It was a somber discussion, but as fulfilling as the meal that we had shared.
I asked my children, “How many Muslims are there in America?”
They couldn’t answer, so I told them, “about 6 million. Son, that’s how many of Uncle Paul’s people were killed during the Holocaust.”
My son, Jibreel, who is a picture of his Jewish great-grandfather, David Zimmerman, and his sister slept with their mother that night. The realization that the entirety of a group could be systematically labeled and nearly exterminated was probably more unnerving than listening to Glenn Beck or watching the “scary” movies that we seldom let them see.
Our dinner was a jovial gathering of longtime friends and kindred spirits. We sat together, young and old alike. There was no formality and no barrier to sharing what was in our hearts. It didn’t require pomp or circumstance, a lecture or a seminar.
By living, sharing and eating with one another, we could understand one another’s joys and fears. And beyond this, we could continue a tradition of building love, a direction our creator meant for us to foster.
I believe this is the model for us to follow if we wish to inculcate hope instead of hate. For the uninitiated, invite someone to dinner from another community, one that is unfamiliar or perhaps even anxiety provoking. They may be Muslims or Mormons, Jews or Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the lessons, one can be assured, will be the same. What may start out as what the hard-hearted feel to be a dinner for schmucks may become a dinner for soul mates.
Rushdi Abdul Cader is an emergency room physician in San Luis Obispo and the driving force behind the program ALERTUS.