Yom Kippur begins Oct. 8. It’s the holiest day of the Jewish year, when Jews engage in self-reckoning and look for ways to fix their flaws. This year someone helped me with this. His name is Mohammed.
I showed up to my book club earlier this month to discuss Mohammed Al Samawi’s book, “The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America.” In front of a coffee table filled with the usual nuts, chocolate and cheese, a smiling, dark-skinned man was sitting on the couch.
“I’m Mohammed,” he said.
And I said, “Wow.”
I had just read his book in a gulp. It is a gripping and true international thriller that, in the end, left me teary-eyed.
His story was miraculous, sure, but what really got to me were the lessons the book offers on how to heal the divisions that plague our country, our world and, ultimately, ourselves.
Al Samawi was raised in a devout Muslim home and trained in an educational system that taught him Western culture was corrupt and Jews were evil.
“The Jews are foxes,” one of his teachers told him. “Even if they seem good, they’re always hiding something.”
But first curiosity, then doubt, crept into Al Samawi’s mind. He began seeking out Christian and Jewish texts to see for himself. This led him to the internet, where Facebook groups brought him in contact with Jewish, Christian and Muslim interfaith activists around the world.
When civil war came to Yemen, Al Samawi, a Shiite, was staying in a neighborhood surrounded by Sunni fighters. He knew if he stayed, he faced certain death. His only hope was to flee his country.
He turned for help to the interfaith friends he had made online. Using all of their collective connections, this improbable group of Jews in America and Israel — Al Samawi calls them his “Avengers” — pulled off the rescue of a Muslim man thousands of miles away.
The twists in Al Samawi’s life didn’t stop there. One of his Avengers led him to producer Marc Platt, which led to a movie deal. Platt urged Al Samawi to write his story, and “The Fox Hunt” has been on international bestseller lists since its 2018 release.
But it all began with that moment, long before the civil war, when Al Samawi decided to challenge his own ingrained beliefs, when something inside nudged him to open his heart and mind.
What was that something?
That’s what I wanted to know. In a world riven with religious and political conflict, we desperately need more of whatever it was.
I asked Al Samawi whether he could define what it was that led him to even want to change.
“My parents,” he said. “It was my parents.”
Even though his mother and father both adhered to a strict interpretation of Islam, they made education a priority for Al Samawi and allowed him to watch Western movies and television and listen to American popular music. These influences began to crack open his worldview. By the extremely conservative and closed standards of Yemeni society, they allowed just enough light in. And Al Samawi bloomed.
Al Samawi’s right side is paralyzed from a childhood illness. I asked him if growing up disabled didn’t play a role as well. As an outsider among his peers, was he more willing to challenge accepted beliefs?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “We are the ones who make ourselves outsiders.”
The discussion moved on, but that insight lingered with me. We are the ones who make ourselves outsiders.
Whether we explore the beliefs of others, or engage those people we are taught to loathe — that’s our choice. It’s one that’s always available to us, no matter our circumstances. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes, in Al Samawi’s case, it was dangerous. But in the end it was what saved his life.
Al Samawi told our group a story from the Talmud about a fox that tries to convince some fish to jump out of the water and climb on his back to save themselves from a fishermen. In the ancient Jewish text, the story is a cautionary tale. But Al Samawi turned the parable on its head. He sees it as daring people to reach out to people they have been taught to hate.
“I learned to trust the foxes,” he said.
Al Samawi, once alone, hungry, thirsty and near death as civil war raged outside his apartment, is now an international human rights activist. He started a nonprofit organization called Abrahamic House, which plans to open at least 50 homes around the world where young Christians, Muslims and Jews can live together and work for change in their communities. The first is slated to open in Los Angeles in 2020.
He has applied the lessons of his own life to combat the anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and prejudice that infects our world: Don’t be afraid to open your mind to the people and ideas that you have learned to fear, distrust, or even hate.
That’s what I’ll be reflecting on during Yom Kippur. Because whether we follow Mohammed’s example can determine our fate — and the world’s.
Rob Eshman is the former publisher and editor in chief of the Jewish Journal.