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Shadia: A play on perceptions

Surprise, surprise.

I took a Jew to a mosque and no one got hurt.

My friend Meesh and I attended the celebration of the King Fahad-Templ Emanuel Fellowship in Los Angeles, where a group of Jews and Muslims partnered up for a few months and shared stories, food and traditions in hopes of melting down the misconceptions and myths we sometimes believe about each other.

"A Night to Inspire" was held at King Fahad Mosque and attracted Jews, Muslims and anyone else who was interested in the work of Newground, a nonprofit that works to foster relations between the two faiths.

Meesh, a Jew, and I, a Muslim, were curious about the fellowship and the experiences of those who participated. I also thought we should show them how a Jew and a Muslim form a lasting bond in real life.

Because the event was held at a mosque, the email instructed women to dress modestly and, preferably, cover their hair.

Like a hawk, I was on top of things (or so I thought). I brought head covers for Meesh and myself, wore a long skirt, put on my long cardigan and hijab in the car and waited for Meesh. On the phone, Meesh told me she was dressed like an Orthodox Jew going to temple. Perfect, I told her.

Meesh is a conservative Jew.

I was fixing my hijab when Meesh entered the mosque for the first time in her life. Because she's my friend, it was humbling for me to watch it happen. I felt excited and proud — though, rest assured, I'm not interested in converting Meesh to Islam.

(I'm not sure I'd like her as much if she were Muslim ... OK, stop gasping. I'm only kidding.)

I wanted to make sure Meesh had the best and most welcoming time at the mosque. I had no doubts she would, but to be honest, I was a little anxious because I know our people can be a bit too critical at times.

I didn't like it when, the minute she walked in, someone asked her to take off her shoes. (She wasn't even in the prayer hall yet. You see what I'm talking about now?) And I felt really annoyed when a young woman offered to get her a longer skirt to pull over her already Orthodox-acceptable one (the skirt stopped below her knees).

Meesh later told me that she asked if her skirt was too short, which led the woman to offer a longer one.

We stood in the restroom for a few minutes, chatting and laughing about nothing and covering our hair. Meesh, who is Persian, was about to tie the hijab the way Orthodox Jewish women often do it in America when she decided to do it the way many Middle Eastern women do.

And that confused people. Because Meesh looks Middle Eastern, there were those who weren't sure if she was Muslim or Jewish, and she enjoyed watching the uncertain looks on some faces.

Two fellowship members — a Muslim and a Jew who were assigned to each other for the duration of the fellowship — spoke of their experience.

When the Jewish fellow was speaking about his experience, Meesh seemed critical of him and at least once whispered, "That's not true" to something he said.

She later said, "I identify with his emphasis on Judaism as a cultural and a national identity, but I also feared that the tone of his statement would lead to a perception that faith and God does not play as important a role in Judaism."

I didn't get that perception.

At one point, the Muslim woman spoke about an experience she had after 9/11 when a group of people harassed her on a train. In describing the incident, she repeatedly stressed that there are bad people in the world, which I perceived as a veiled statement about Jews. I know that wasn't her intention, but given the many misconceptions some of us already have about each other, I was afraid it would lead to that understanding.

Meesh didn't think the woman was equating her bad experience with Jews and wasn't at all offended.

We were at an event that fosters relations between Jews and Muslims. The two obviously didn't share many misconceptions about the other's faith.

We found ourselves analyzing why we were critical of our own people.

Is it because we're just weird?

You might think so. But, the truth is it's because religion is very personal and very individualistic.

Each Muslim and Jew is not alike. The way I view God and interpret Islam is personal to me. The way Meesh views God and identifies with Judaism is also personal to her.

And because we care about our faiths, we wanted it presented in the perfect light — our standard of perfect, that is.

Lessons? We as humans shouldn't be judging one another. And on a larger scale, we certainly shouldn't be judging others' path in life.

Next, Meesh is taking me to a temple.

Should I be worried?

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

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