He shook his head with a mixture of resignation and irritation.‘This burkini ban in France’, he sighed, ‘it’s just ridiculous. No-one should tell women whether they should cover up or not.’
I knew my Muslim cab driver a little bit; it was the third time that I ran into him while booking a taxi. The first time was over a year ago when I ended up taking my baby daughter to an out-of-hours clinic and he compassionately tried to allay my worries. A year later, our paths crossed again and we greeted each other warmly. He asked me how my baby girl was doing.
As a rabbi, I’m blessed to live in the Leeds-Bradford area of Northern England, one of the most dynamic and multicultural regions in Great Britain. Having cultivated a love for interfaith work for a number of years in the Netherlands, I was eager to jump right in when I took up my pulpit in Leeds. Soon enough, I was blessed to build up solid relationships with local Christian and Muslim communities—and beyond.
As an emissary of the Jewish community, I’ve sat at many a meeting and spoken at many an event. Mosques, churches, gurdwaras, interfaith fair trade breakfasts, civic social action assemblies and pop-up food fairs in the bustling centre of town. I’ve had the honour of meeting clergy of many denominations as well as caring, loving, open-hearted and gifted lay leaders who continue to do good and important work on the local level.
Yet, some of my most meaningful interfaith experiences don’t come from what cynics term ‘tea and samosas’ gatherings of established organisations, but from my spontaneous and organic encounters with people in everyday situations.
I currently don’t own a car and get around town by way of taxi and bus, for work or for pleasure. And it is in these moments that I find myself truly and deeply connecting with other people.
‘How was your day, love? Where did you just come from?’
In the North of England, everyone – friend or stranger – calls you ‘love’ (or sometimes ‘duck’, which I find even more endearingly bemusing).
It takes a little getting used to, especially in formal settings, but can be even more incongruous when it’s an elderly bearded Muslim gentleman in traditional garb driving a taxi. Many a feminist analysis has been written over the use of this word ‘love’ as a moniker for women, but generally it is meant in gentleness and kindness and I choose to take it as such. This sort of conversation often happens when I’ve come back from London on the train and hail a cab to take me home. I’ll be tired and feel a little washed out, eager to get home to my husband and children when I slip into the seat of the car. Invariably, the friendly cabbie will strike up a conversation in delightfully unexpected ways.
Then the inevitable happens: ‘so what do you do for a living?’ and I always feel a little bit of a jolt; the tiniest bit of resistance.
Sharing my vocation feels like the sacred baring of my soul – it is deeply personal yet immensely important. Each time I answer a stranger’s question about what I do for a living, I take an emotional risk. In an age of increased ethnic and political tensions, of heightened anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, it’s not just an emotional risk I’m taking either.
Yet, the values of my tradition and the calling of my God compel me to tell the truth, even if, or especially when it feels uncomfortable. I feel privileged that as a blonde, female, young(ish) rabbi, I can singlehandedly smash preconceptions about Jews, women and rabbis in one fell swoop. So I suck in a deep breath.
“I’m a rabbi, actually.”
Sometimes they know what that is, sometimes they don’t – and I simply explain that it’s not dissimilar to being a Jewish imam. Given the legal, ritual and theological similarities between Islam and Judaism, this is pretty accurate.
“Wow, a rabbi? So you’re Jewish? I didn’t know women could be rabbis!”
Those are the usual, expected responses. Sometimes they want to know whether I teach only women (as female scholars in traditional Islamic communities often do) and I gently tell them that I teach, preach and lead prayers for a mixed-gender congregation. They often express a delighted amazement that a modern-looking young woman like myself would actively choose a religious life.
“So you are religious then? You believe in God?”
They feel heartened by this, as if the unexpected, incongruous combination of a young blonde woman as a religious leader inspires them somehow.
What I rarely, if ever, get is hostility.
None of my taxi drivers – Muslim or non-Muslim, immigrant or indigenous – are rude to me. Their questions are respectful and they want to drink in the perspective on diversity that I can offer them. They ask me questions about the Taurat (Torah) and Jewish observance; we share experiences over the discipline of fasting, compare notes on family life and faith and joke about the copious amounts of food consumed in our respective communities. We rarely discuss politics and are just happy to cement our common bond as human beings and citizens of this society. I always end up leaving my taxi a little more buoyant, my faith in humanity restored.
For all the institutional support, with all the tea and samosas in the world—the core of interfaith work lies in the very real relationships you build with very real people. It entails taking very real emotional risks and building very real trust, so that we can speak warmly as well as honestly with each other. Interfaith work is a mirror in which we see other and self reflected. During this season of introspection, let us all think how we can take a chance on building the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of humanity, one cab ride at a time.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz was born in Amsterdam. After training as a cultural anthropologist she pursued Jewish studies at Paideia in Stockholm and rabbinic studies at the Ziegler School of Rabbinics in Los Angeles and Leo Baeck College. She is the Assistant Rabbi of Sinai Synagogue in Leeds.
Image credit: Folkert Gorter