Muslim American entrepreneur Mohammad Modarres has a nickname for the kind of interfaith encounter that took place at Berkeley’s Urban Adamah last night: food diplomacy.
Over lamb kebabs, grilled squash, eggplant tajine and saffron rice, nearly 100 Bay Area Jews and Muslims sat shoulder to shoulder for “Planting Seeds in New Lands: A Muslim-Jewish Gathering.” It offered a chance for the two communities to break bread — and baklava — together.
Sponsored by nine Jewish and Muslim organizations, the event centered on food as a tool to foster fellowship.
Modarres was the right keynote speaker to expound on that topic. A former biotech worker, he was born in New Jersey and grew up in a very diverse neighborhood of Paramus, N.J., where he had friends of all faiths. He is the founder of Abe’s Meats, a company that produces foods certified both kosher and halal. For a time, he lived in San Rafael.
In his speech, Modarres joked that making foods that pass muster for both observant Jews and Muslims is “a religious school nightmare.” For two years, he consulted with rabbis, mashgiachs (kosher certifiers), imams and halal experts to find areas of overlap between the two traditions.
The key question driving him, he said, was: “Can I create interfaith meat?”
“When you feed someone, you have face-to-face interaction,” he said. “You deal with a happier person. It turns the negotiating table into the dinner table.”
Hungry attendees turned that notion into reality. The printed menu contained a variety of letters signifying each dish’s certification: V for vegan, K for kosher-certified, HS for halal-certified and GF for gluten-free.
The menu reflected the effort by organizers to plan a meal acceptable to religious Jews and Muslims. Though halal and kashrut have some overlap, they are not the same, which is why they largely went with safe vegetarian fare.
The meal began with the Shehechiyanu prayer, led by Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Oakland’s Temple Sinai, and the Bismillah prayer led by Fatih Ates of the Pacifica Institute, a Muslim public affairs organization.
Organizers suggested that diners get to know each other by sharing their families’ stories of migration and how those journeys shaped identity.
Turkish-born Hatice Yildiz, who holds a Ph.D. in Islamic studies, shared hers. The observant Muslim grew up in Gallipoli, near the Bulgarian border, and came to the United States in part to seek religious freedom. The Turkey of her youth forbade her from wearing a headscarf, whereas America embraced religious diversity.
Now, with Turkey moving toward a more strictly Islamic society, and increased anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, she’s not sure what’s what. “It’s a crazy world,” she said.
The married mother of two was able to take advantage of American free enterprise, opening Simurgh Bakery in Richmond. Specializing in Turkish desserts, her company provided the cookies and baklava at “Planting Seeds.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet people,” she said. “It’s necessary to meet people from different traditions. We can break our misconception and biases.”
Denah Bookstein, a member of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, has enjoyed similar interfaith gatherings in the past at her synagogue, such as interfaith seders and Ramadan meals shared with the local Muslim community.
“Anytime we sit down together, especially around food, is positive,” she said. “Anytime we speak to each other in a nonpolitical setting, you can just be yourself and let people know you.”
As the evening came to end, diners were invited to participate in outdoor evening prayers — Ma’ariv for the Jews, Maghrib for the Muslims. And fittingly, given the name of the event, every guest left with a packet of calendula seeds from Urban Adamah’s flower garden.
Jewish Community Relations Council public affairs and civic engagement director Ilana Kaufman called the evening “an expression of love across our communities. It’s more important than ever to know each other.”
The event was sponsored by Urban Adamah, JCRC, the JCC of the East Bay, Jewish Federation of the East Bay, Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, Bend the Arc, Bay Area Cultural Connections, Islamic Networks Group and Pacifica Institute.