Aleph / Alif
Acrylic on paper, 23×29 inches

In the lobby, a green wooden box disarms me, makes me feel, if not at home, at least that I'm in a parallel universe, safe. Metallic English letters spelling an Arabic word, "Sadakah," gleam on one of its sides. I don't speak Arabic, but I understand: coins and bills for righteous purposes are to be dropped through the slot on top by congregants as they pass through the lobby into the sanctuary. Should I donate a dollar or two? I don't think so: I'm a stranger here, a first-time guest in this suburban mosque near Boston, and don't have my bearings yet. Perhaps, if I return, I'll be generous with pocket money.

I've asked to come here, through a friend of a friend. My guide this afternoon is Soheir, a warm middle-aged woman wearing a headscarf. Originally from Egypt, she's a retired nurse who now teaches classes on Arabic and Islam. She welcomes me, requests that I remove my shoes, shows me where to put them, and promises to answer my questions later, questions about Arabic and Islam that have arisen through my current project, a series of drawings combining Hebrew and Arabic letters on the same page.

Soheir brings me into the sanctuary. I had done some research to see what my Jewish tradition has to say about a Jew visiting a mosque: how to comport oneself, and firstly, was it forbidden to enter? Not that I would follow such a prohibition. I had already decided that I needed to do this. I'm a liberal Jew who chooses at times not to follow the sacred traditions. Still, I was relieved to learn that it's allowed. But, the rabbis wisely prohibit a Jewish visitor from participating in Islamic prayers: we mustn't just go through the motions, thereby mocking their way of having a sacred conversation with God.

The sanctuary, a plain carpeted room with few windows, few decorations, fills up slowly with men in their work clothes, from jeans to suits, all shoes removed, as Arabic prayers begin. A handful of women sit in the back, just like in an Orthodox shul. I sit alone off to the side. The imam's sermon, in English, includes a story about the value of lasting love, manifested by an elderly couple, as compared to the value of material love of a rare sports car. I'm glad to be able to follow the words. But why doesn't the imam speak in Arabic? Soheir will tell me that, in this diverse Muslim community, most are Pakistani Americans, and don't know Arabic. The mosque offers adult ed classes in Arabic, as my synagogue some five miles up the road offers Hebrew classes to those who might know prayers by heart without understanding the words.

Soheir and I return to the lobby and sit facing each other while congregants filter out after prayers. She tells me that she likes the colors of my drawings of Hebrew and Arabic letters, and suggests that I enlarge the series by writing whole words. She will tell her religious community about my upcoming gallery exhibit. She answers my questions. She invites me to come again to the mosque, to join her adult ed class in beginning Arabic. I think about returning, picture myself awkwardly mouthing the greeting, As-salamu alaykum, growing accustomed to the strangely familiar sound.



Joel's art has ranged in style, subject and medium, including illustrations of Hebrew blessings, and discarded library catalog cards. His current work blending Hebrew and Arabic letters will be displayed in "Traditions in Translation: Two Artists Explore Their Legacies," at Fountain Street Fine Art, in Framingham, from June 12 through July 12.

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