• Perhaps you missed this story.  A 21-year-old Syrian “man” shot his 45-year-old mother in the head with a rifle and killed her.  He was involved with ISIL, the Muslim terrorist organization. She wanted the two of them to leave the Syrian town of Raqqa, fearing for his safety as US-led troops neared the ISIL stronghold.  He told ISIL leaders of his mother’s request.  They insisted he publicly execute her.  He complied.

    I was telling one of my kids about the execution this weekend, and he asked a simple question. Don’t most world religions command followers to honor their parents?  I told him I thought this to be the case, but I didn’t know about Islam, in particular.

    Lucky for me, we had the good fortune Saturday morning to be invited to a Turkish friend’s home for breakfast.  As we passed plates of delicious Turkish pastries, cheese, and olives around the table, I asked our hosts what the Qur’an and Hadith had to say about relationships between parents and children.  The story goes, my hosts and their other guests told me, that the first three times Muhammed was asked this, the Prophet insisted that followers obey their mothers.  The fourth time, they explained, Muhammed included fathers in the mix.

    I pursued this line of inquiry over email with my host and received from her a comprehensive compilation of suras from the Qur’an and quotes attributed to Muhammed from the Hadiths, all having to do with parenthood.  The teachings demand that children respect their parents.  Even when parents are “infidels” who don’t follow the teachings of Islam, they are to be honored.  My host included the following Hadith, whose meaning could not be more clear:

    It was narrated from Mu’awiyah bin Jahimah As-Sulami, that Jahimah came to the Prophet (PBUH) and said, “O Messenger of Allah! I want to go out and fight (in Jihad) and I have come to ask your advice.” He said, “Do you have a mother?” He said, “Yes.” He said, “Then stay with her, for Paradise is beneath her feet.” (The Book of Jihad, 6)

    “Jihad,” my host explained, can be internal, metaphorical, a struggle with the self to do right — not just an external military battle or fight.  In any case, she wrote, the first responsibility is to care for the mother.

    Though I understand a bit better Islam’s guidance on parent-child relationships, I can’t fathom how a believer, someone claiming to be shaped by God’s word, could shoot his mother in the head.  I felt similarly when a Jew assassinated Yitzhak Rabin and, more recently, when an apparently observant group danced at a wedding and celebrated the burning of a Palestinian toddler.

    I haven’t anything profound to offer, here.  I was relieved to read verses condemning the mother’s killing.  What will it take to get extremists of all stripes to invoke scripture to impose basic rules governing decency?  I don’t intend my question as a naive exercise in hand-wringing.  I’m serious.

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  • We meet every month or two.  We sit around a long table, sometimes in a dark-paneled room in the church downtown where my temple is located, sometimes in a brightly lit conference room in a neighborhood cultural center.  We are middle-aged, Reform Jews.  We are young, ritually observant, Turkish Muslims.  We kvell over babies and share baked treats.  Our conversations focus on favorite passages from our respective books of scripture, the role music plays in our worship services, the “bad women” in our faith traditions, and so on.  We volunteer a few times a year at a food bank or soup kitchen.  We call ourselves “Sisters in Spirit.”

    Our topic this past Sunday was Jewish and Muslim doctrine concerning the environment. Several Sisters had prepared to lead the discussion.  The ten of us never got anywhere near Muslim and Jewish perspectives on animal rights or ecological justice.

    In the wake of the Daesh attacks in Paris, at services and over email, we Jewish Sisters had been worrying about our Muslim Sisters.  At services and over email, we wondered if it would OK to open the meeting by asking “Are you OK?”  We didn’t want to put anyone on the spot. We needn’t have worried.  One after another, our Muslim Sisters told stories of verbal abuse and feelings ranging from isolation to fear.

    One Sister — dark, sweeping eyebrows punctuating a face encircled by a satiny, fuchsia head scarf — described sitting outside in the sun, eating lunch at a Whole Foods market Monday after the Paris attacks.  A man approached her.  He called her an “Arab,” then berated her loudly for covering her head and allying herself with terrorists.  His words, though offensive, didn’t really bother her, she said, since the man seemed “kinda crazy.”  It broke her heart, meanwhile, that her fellow sun seekers heard the words but said and did nothing.  She worried that she’ll be attacked if she drives badly or jaywalks.  She’d heard stories from other women in headscarves being shoved towards oncoming T trains.

    Another Sister — sparkly eyes behind rimless glasses, creamy scarf surrounding a delicate face — fed a toddler perched on her lap.  On Tuesday after the Paris attacks, she went to the weekly parent support group she’s been attending  for more than two years.  She is the only Muslim in the group.  She spoke at the beginning of the meeting, apologizing on behalf of all Muslims everywhere for the actions of a handful of terrorists, explaining that violence in the name of God has no part of the religion she practices.  She wanted someone to tell her that her apology was unnecessary.  She hoped someone might say that they all already knew this about her. But no one said a word. Worse, no one met her gaze.

    A third in the group spoke.  New to Boston and to our group, my Sister — a tall woman whose patterned scarf was pinned expertly to frame her even-featured face — talked about enrolling her daughter in first grade. The classroom teacher in her daughter’s public school is Jewish. She felt the teacher had been reluctant to engage with her, perhaps because of her head scarf. She worried about what this might mean for her daughter’s experiences in the class.  At back to school night, the teacher explained to parents that there would be no birthday celebrations to protect students with food allergies. The teacher said, as a funny aside, that, of course, she really does miss cupcakes.  So, my Sister baked.  She packed one cupcake in a Ziplock bag and wrote a note.  She had heard the teacher missing cupcakes, so she wanted to give her one. No nuts.  The teacher, she said, seemed more comfortable thereafter, looking her in the eye, not “in the head scarf.

    None of these women is from Syria.  None is a refugee.  All are struggling to find ways to connect with Americans who seem primed to view them as scary, other.

    As our conversation continued, we wondered how to identify strategies to diffuse tension and increase acceptance. How to find opportunities to forge common bonds? How to lay the groundwork for hard conversations? How to help one another ask what seem at first to be hard questions but are hard only because they have not  yet been asked? Nothing we came up with was as effective, we decided, as the cupcake, which helped a teacher view a woman in a head scarf as a mother, a parent, and a person.

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  • Just a week left, now, until the winter solstice, and less than twenty-four hours until kids start coming home from college. Mark and I have had a pretty terrific couple of months in our empty nest.

    Highlights of our time together: a day at The Big E (annual regional fair in Springfield, MA) to celebrate Rosh Hashanah; hearing brilliant banjo player Bela Fleck in concert at Berklee School of Music; making new friends at the Indian classical dance recital of the daughter of old friends; and babysitting our two favorite little boys. The humdrum has been terrific, too. We’ve watched TV together, talked over the newspapers at meals, gone out to the Cape for long walks with Amos. Was this what life was like twenty years ago, before we were parents? Maybe it’s even better now.

    I wondered what it would be like to celebrate a holiday without the kids at home. We all gathered for Thanksgiving, and that was a complete treat. But what would Mark and I do when we weren’t doing for the kids? When it’d be just us chickens?

    “What if we give each other a present every night when we light the candles for Chanukah?” I asked.

    Dead silence.

    “You mean, like a pack of gum,” Mark said.

    “Yep, like a pack of gum,” said I.

    “Wrapped?” Mark asked, looking as if he were about to swallow an arsenic capsule.

    “Wrapped!” said I.

    Five nights of candles lit, and no gum, yet. My favorite gift from Mark so far? Two Lotto scratch tickets. I won twenty bucks! Mark’s favorite gift from me? Probably the flannel footie pajamas I found. They actually fit his almost six-and-a-half-foot frame.

    A gift a night. Each night a gift, as we use this minor holiday to reclaim time, space, and each other.

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  • Sam got home from school last Thursday.  I picked him up from South Station.  Max arrived this past Saturday evening on a bus from New York.  Mark and I were at a party for our favorite nonagenarian, so we couldn’t get him. A friend of his ferried him to the house.  And on Monday, after she’d finished her exams, handed in her last essay, and tidied her room, Lily got an extra special lift home from Max and Sam, who had driven out to Western Mass to bring her home from college.  The three of them took a detour on their way back to collect a gorgeous ceramic bowl they’d ordered.

    Each is growing — up and out and away.  At the same time, they are choosing to continue to be a part of each others’ lives.  Perhaps it’s true that we middle class mothers at the beginning of the new millennium have fetishized child rearing to the point that we’ve created an even bigger chasm between rich and poor.  At the moment, I’m glad I’ve been able to give these three a sense that making family takes conscious effort.  Because now, in this first stretch of time away from home, they understand that it takes effort to continue their relationships with one another and with Mark and me.

    And guess what? They gave me that beautiful bowl for Chanukah. I am filling it with new memories, the fruits of my labor.

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  • I was feeling exceptionally sorry for myself this morning.  Sad and dreary.  Low and teary.   I cancelled our Passover seder because Max has been sick.

    Max came home Monday afternoon saying he “felt like shit.”  Pale face.  Glassy eyes.  Wickedly sore throat, he reported.  A quick date with the thermometer revealed a fever of 101.6.   Sixteen year olds don’t generally run those kinds of fevers.  And Max hasn’t had more than an occasional cold all year.  He tucked himself into bed and slept, on and off, until morning.  

    When I woke Max yesterday, he still had the high fever and sore throat.  He’d had his tonsils out when he was 7, but I knew he could still have strep throat.  And given that we were preparing to host a modestly sized seder at which we’d have two guests at opposite ends of the life spectrum, I figured I ought to have him tested.  The receptionist at our pediatrician’s office took pity on me and squeezed in Max so that I could still get to work, albeit a little late.  The pediatrician confirmed the fever, ogled the scarlet throat, and did a quick strep test. It was negative, so she sent out for a long test.  For now, the verdict is that the bug is viral.

    With a heavy heart, I called all of my seder guests and warned them off.  Could not in good faith expose a 3 1/2-week-old baby or an 88-year-old woman to a high fever.  I knew other guests would be visiting elderly relatives over the weekend, and so I alerted them, as well.  

    I look forward to seder with absolutely no ambivalence.  The message of Passover, of freedom, always resonates.  We celebrate spring.  The haggadah offers a chance to retell one of the great stories of the Western world.   We eat the soul of soul food.  And we gather with friends whom I adore.   Since Mark isn’t Jewish, it’s mattered to me to celebrate with others of the tribe who have deep connections to the rituals that make up the chord of my own life.    

    So, to cancel seder brought me a sense of loneliness and loss that I can’t quantify.  I woke early this morning and felt disconnected, dejected.  Mark had tried cheering me last night.  “We’ll have seder just the five of us.  It’s still a seder.”  I couldn’t get there.  The work of getting ready seemed unsatisfying, even insurmountable.

    I sat down to work for a few hours this morning but couldn’t settle. My  mind wandered to mundane tasks.  I sent a text message to Max’s cell phone to remind him to register for orchestra auditions.  At about 10 my cell phone buzzed.  Max had texted back: “ok.  are you at home.”  

    I replied: “Yes.  Are you awake?”  

    “no im asleep but still texting you.”  

    “That’s what I thought.”

    “do you want to go to zaftigs.  i dont have a fever.”

    “Come down and make eye contact, please.”

    Down he came, still pale, but not looking like death.  If he wanted to go out to eat,  would he agree to change over the kitchen for pesach?  Nope.  We sparred for a bit.  Max said he’d help bag all the forbidden foods if I’d do it with him.  We agreed that we would work in tandem after our meal, but that Max would have to come along on a few errands, as well.

    Max has mostly been snarling at me of late.  He and I, we haven’t been able to make it to our regularly scheduled Tuesday morning breakfasts at Zaftig’s, a favorite local deli, for almost a month.  So we started our late breakfast in the restaurant this morning not sure what to say to each other.  Where was the thread of our conversation?  After a few false steps, we settled in. Sports, video games, my teaching, stories of one of the guys in a documentary I worked on last fall, politics and military actions in Africa, and so on.  What a gift to exchange information without emotional charge.  Just to be sitting at the same table, breathing the same air, and not fighting….

    Max came with me as I returned library books.  He strode along, he more than half a foot taller than I, as we stopped by the liquor store for a bottle of Manischewitz.  And when we came home, he pulled out plastic bags and the vacuum cleaner so that we could make quick work of the cupboards.  Without complaint, he walked garbage bags filled with pasta and flour into the basement and brought up grocery bags filled with matzoh, potato chips, toasty coconut marshmallows, and fruit slices.  We finished the job together with nary a cross word.

    I hate to type this, but the glands in my neck are tender, and I’m trying to decide if I have a scratchy throat.  This virus — a plague not on the list afflicting the Egyptians — may be a blessing in disguise.  I can’t say what it will feel like tonight as we sit down with haggadahs.  I’m grateful to have had a few hours with Max today, who, had he been healthy, would have spent his day at school.  

    And I have an idea for the Afikomen tonight.  I’m going to make the kids hide it this year for Mark and me to find.  And everybody — all five of us — will get a prize.

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