Journalist and filmmaker Ruth Broyde Sharone is an activist and a visionary in what she calls “interfaith engagement,” but she is also a realist, which makes her something of a rarity among those Jews who still hold out hope for rapprochement between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.
“Why do I want to work in these minefields?” she muses in her remarkable book, “Minefields & Miracles: Why God and Allah Need to Talk” (Mixed Media Memoirs: $24.99). “Call me foolhardy. A dreamer. Naïve. I will not argue with you. I come from a long line of dreamers. Perhaps that is why I am willing to enter the minefields of the interfaith world even though I have been forewarned and occasionally burned by the explosions.”
Her book, which is both a memoir and a manifesto, strikes me as especially compelling precisely because of the sense of despair that prevails when we think and talk about the prospects of peace in the Middle East. The best that Zionist progressives can say nowadays is that Israel can tough it out, but Sharone insists that a meaningful and abiding peace can be achieved if only we reach out to each other: “Just as we have prayers for God,” she insists, “God has prayers for us.”
Sharone has much to say about the challenges and rewards of the interfaith movement, but she also explains the journey — both physical and spiritual — by which she reached the remarkable aspiration and commitment that has characterized her life and the self-appointed mission of reconciliation that is her work. As a young journalist, she traveled throughout South America — she returned to her hometown of Chicago with a Spanish accent — and then moved on to Europe and, finally, Israel.
These were formative experiences for a young woman who traveled with eyes and mind wide open. She encountered casual anti-Semitism, and she improvised her own ways of dealing with it. And she discovered within herself a powerful bond to the Jewish state: “We cannot explore the hills of ancient Jerusalem, or pray at the Western Wall without the specter of history and of millennia yearning at our back,” she explains. And yet, characteristically, the experience of her own Jewishness only sharpened her appreciation for other faiths and cultures: “I imagine it must be similar for Muslim pilgrims making their haj to Mecca, or for Christians following the Via Dolorosa, or Sikhs visiting their Golden Temple in India.”
Indeed, it was in Israel that her vision of a life devoted to interfaith activism snapped into focus, and she devoted herself to the goal of bring Jews, Muslims and Christians together. “I intuitively understood that in the end it wasn’t going to be just about boundaries or practical applications of a peace treaty,” she writes. “It would have to be resolved as much in our hearts as on paper.”
No intimate moment, it seems, is omitted from Sharone’s openhearted book. Her romance with a man who was both German and Christian — as a child, he once played on the running board of Hitler’s car — seems like an episode out of a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer: “I can’t remember exactly how or when it began, but in a bizarre reversal of roles, Karl began to bake challah (Jewish braided bread for the Sabbath) every Friday morning, the traditional role of a Jewish woman,” she recalls. “On Friday evening I would go to pray at my synagogue, fulfilling the traditional role of the Jewish man, while Karl would wait for me to return to eat the challah and a Sabbath meal he prepared for us.” As brave as she is, Sharone chose not to tell her mother about the relationship: “That was one minefield I was not willing to step into.”
Otherwise, however, no boundary was too daunting for Sharone to cross. She has attended, conducted and documented interfaith, feminist and prison seders. She has organized journeys and festivals in Egypt and Israel and elsewhere around the world. She once approached the Dalai Lama at an official reception in Jerusalem and invited him to take part in a Universal Freedom Seder that she was co-hosting; he declined with a good-humored chuck under her chin: “Good try,” said the holy man. On a hectic and sometimes hair-raising trip to Cairo, she was approached by a man who offered to purchase her young daughter.
Nor is Sharone merely offering a feel-good message about getting together now and then with someone who isn’t Jewish. Indeed, she conducts a program in what she calls “Interfaith Pilates,” which is designed to confront the participants with the real challenges of reconciliation. “I don’t want you to go home just feeling warm and fuzzy,” she tells the participants. “If I’ve only managed to achieve that, then I haven’t done my work.”
Yet, at the same time, her message is suffused with spirituality, and she offers a line of verse by the Sufi poet Rumi to express the sublime and almost messianic notion of the peacemaking that is her life’s work: “Somewhere beyond the idea of right and wrong, there is a field,” writes Rumi. “I’ll meet you there.”
Sharone will present and discuss “Minefields & Miracles” at Ohr Hatorah, 11827 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90066, at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 28, 2012. For more information, call (310) 915-5200.