Jessica Marglin is a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar. She is studying for a PhD in Judaic Studies at Princeton University. Jessica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This past summer, I spent two months in Morocco studying Arabic. The students lived in close quarters with our Moroccan teachers and I delighted at the opportunity to spend so much time speaking Arabic. My desire to practice Arabic constantly, combined with my limited vocabulary, meant that from the beginning many of my informal conversations with my teachers centered on comparisons between Judaism and Islam. My teacher-friends eventually began asking questions about Jewish belief, law, and Israel. We lamented together over the state of violence prevalent in Israel/Palestine, though by silent consent avoided overly-explicit political discussions.
I found myself in the position of “expert,” often responding to complex questions about practice and theology. (What was the difference between kosher and halal?) I was excited at the opportunity for this sort of cultural exchange, but daunted at the thought that I was representing a religion as complex as Judaism. What if my answers were wrong? Shouldn’t I study more before becoming a teacher?
Though at times torn about the responsibilities I had unwittingly taken on by beginning this dialogue, I found the experience profoundly enriching. I knew this exchange had deeply impacted me and my understanding of Islam. Bushra, with whom I had become closest, confirmed that the friendship had been equally powerful for her. “Jessica,” she said as she was leaving, “I never thought I would have a Jewish friend.” She explained how I had opened her eyes to the world of Judaism beyond the images of violence in Israel/Palestine that she had seen on television.
These friendships taught me that the rewards of dialogue are worth the risk of error and misrepresentation. I left Morocco determined to cultivate both the expertise and the courage to bridge cultures and overcome stereotypes.