Posted by: Lister | January 25, 2008

Jews and Muslims in Brooklyn

This is an old article, but I found it interesting.

Jews and Muslims Share a Piece of Brooklyn (Aug 1995). It’s well worth a read. Here are some highlights:

It begins by recounting an event where a patient representative at Maimonides Medical Center, Douglas Jablon, had to help a group of Yemenis find a place to pray for a relative. “This,” he said, “is not something you see in this hospital every day.”

But over the last five years, a Muslim immigrant community has been steadily growing in Borough Park in the midst of one of New York City’s largest populations of Orthodox Jews. The Muslims — who come primarily from Yemen, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh — are drawn there precisely for the world that the Orthodox Jews have created: a devout, insular community that is relatively crime-free and clean.

While the religious passions of Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Muslims have made them bitter enemies in the Middle East, they have found, to their own surprise, that in Borough Park they may have more in common with each other than with American secular society. Their beliefs in worship, religious education, dietary restrictions and conservative social decorum have made them oddly compatible.

Both communities tend to keep to themselves, which allows them to interact when needed but not get in each other’s way.

“We see each other during the day’s business, we make our transactions and then we go our own ways,” said Dr. Faizul Kabir, a dentist who is the president of the Sandwip Educational and Cultural Society, a growing group of devout Bangladeshi Muslims. “We are both peoples that keep to themselves, and we complement each other in this way.”

Joseph Rapaport, an Orthodox Jew who runs Brauner’s Bakery on 13th Avenue, echoes many other Jewish residents when he says that relations can sometimes be very friendly. For the last couple of years, he said, he has been trying to learn a few phrases in Arabic from some Muslim merchants. “I go in and try to ask them how to say hello in Arabic and a few other things,” he said.

But he added that there was always a certain distance. “I think we are both a little scared of each other, but we don’t know why,” he said.

Muslim shop owners say they are careful to avoid chatting about anything more controversial than the weather with their Jewish customers, especially when the newspaper headlines on their racks announce another episode of bloodshed in the Middle East.

“We don’t talk about religion, we don’t talk about news,” said Riyadh Kassimshaibi, a Yemeni who manages a grocery and newspaper store on 13th Avenue, where his fellow countrymen have recently opened several newspaper stands and delicatessens. “It’s just business. ‘Hello. How are you? What do you want today?’ ”

While the Census Bureau does not break down the population by religion, estimates by community leaders and business owners are that between 5 and 10 percent of the neighborhood’s residents may now be Muslim. A 1993 survey by the Council of Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group of service agencies, found that Jews make up about 80 percent, with more than 67,000. Of that number, more than 90 percent are Orthodox, officials say.

[…] Casual contact between men and women, like kissing or holding hands, is almost never seen, even between husbands and wives. (A controversial proposal to ask business owners to establish separate shopping hours for men and women is being considered by some Orthodox groups.) And even during the hottest days of summer, men wear pants — never shorts — and women wear long skirts and have long sleeves.

[…] When the first Muslims came to the neighborhood, they were able to frequent kosher food shops that met their dietary laws until ritual halal butcher shops opened. “We are cousins that go way back in this,” said Mr. Tabusam, whose store now carries glatt kosher milk alongside three shelves stocked with Middle Eastern fare — cardamom pods, tamarind, kewra water and skinny orange bottles of Rooh Afza (“the summer drink of the East”).

To be sure, the comingling of the groups has not been without its occasional tensions and sidelong glances.

[…]Several blocks away, at the corner of 14th Avenue and 36th Street, the center of a Bangladeshi community that migrated from East New York, Dr. Kabir said a group trying to rent a storefront to start a mosque in the area in 1991 ran into stone-faced opposition from Jewish landlords.

“When they found out that it was wanted for religious purposes, they did not want to rent,” he said. “We were not organized then, so we took their answer and moved on.” The group finally bought a building on Church Avenue at 10th Street, on the outskirts of Borough Park, and founded the mosque.

But the days of the Muslim community meekly accepting such refusals seem numbered as groups from several countries begin to organize and become more adept at pulling political levers.


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