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Religion on the Upper West Side: Connect, Conflict & Coexist

April 13, 2020

As part of the Religious Worlds of New York summer institute we were put into teams as asked to explore a parameter of city blocks in New York City for “religion.” Our directions were left open and fluid to allow each group to make of “religion” what they will and to see what we would find. After our half day scavenger hunt we were to gather images and stories into a presentation. The pictures and text below are from our presentation to the group.

Our trio was unique, all three of our were highly steeped in our own religious backgrounds with deep historical and academic knowledge. Myself, a Catholic school teacher who taught Church History, and a Modern Orthodox Jewish woman who had her Ph.D. in Medieval Judaism. It was fascinating to see what other groups, with ranges of religious and non-religious backgrounds, came up with. This was a fun and different way to spend the morning running around the city!

Read more: 10 Reason to Choose Religious Worlds of NYC Summer Institute

We named our presentation “Connect, Conflict, or Coexist” because we wanted the class, split up into small groups, to discuss each slide we put up if it demonstrated an example of religious connection, conflict, or coexistence. This was not a concept we set out at the beginning of the day but one that organically grew out of our experience of encountering religions on “the street” in unexpected ways.

If you don’t know “halal” signifies food that is made according to Muslim dietary laws (i.e. no pork, no alcohol, etc.). But when we walked up to it we say this “Merry Christmas” card. So we thought it was an interesting (and possible accidental) intersection between Islam and Christianity. And then we had a funny attempt at a conversation with the food cart owner:

Halal food truck vendor runs over from across the street when he sees us standing in front of his truck.

Mary: Oh – we’re not customers, we just wanted to ask you some questions. Would that be all right?

It becomes clear that the vendor does not speak a lot of English

Sara jumps in with her half-broken Arabic: How many people come here that you think eat Halal every day? (Kam ansan Halal kol yom?) 

Vendor: I don’t know – ma ba-aref 

Sara: Is it a lot? Hal kabeer?…she accidentally uses the word kabeer (great) instead of katheer (many))

Vendor: Allah hu Akbar!

Sara, Mary, & Jessica: Allah hu Akbar! (which means “God is the greatest” in Arabic) Shukran! Thank you! And then we pretty much scuttled away.

Now, many people would probably automatically assume here that the food vendor is Muslim (I think he probably was) BUT you cannot assume just because he said “Allah” that he is Muslim. Allah is literally the word “God” in Arabic; and indeed all the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) “share” the same, one God.

Read more: Religious Worlds of New York Curriculum Projects

Have you ever wondered about the art in many Asian-owned nail salons are about? Many are Buddhist but you may also have a mix of Confucianism or Taoism/Daoism. I’m going to be honest, I don’t remember what this particular image was about but the lady in the store said he is a protective talisman for them to help them make money.

When is a bunny just a bunny and when are flowers just flowers? Or is it an Easter Bunny and Easter Lilies? This was an interesting experiment: as the three of our walked through this little garden, Mary (the Catholic school teacher) and myself immediately jumped on these to photograph but Sara didn’t know why. It took me a second to realize that she, with her Jewish background, would not immediately associate bunnies & lilies with Easter like Mary and I did.

If Sara walked through the same garden alone, she would have definitely not seen these images as inherently religious. Symbols and objects only have meaning when we, the beholder, give them meaning.

Read more: Student Series! Catholic Easter

Take a moment to study this photo: anti-Trump propaganda, Coexist bumper sticker, & a “Jesus fish” (Ichthys)/Evolve decal. So are they religious or a-religious?

What you don’t see in this photo is on their back windshield they have a “Society of Friends” sticker which is a symbol of the Quakers, a minority Christian sect that emphasises strict non-violence. So I am guessing they are Quaker, but if you know anything about the Quakers, that first question about their “religiosity” still stands. Does it matter? No. But it’s an interesting intersection.

Last one! This is a Jewish Deli, but not a kosher one. We asked what that meant to be “Jewish” if you were not strictly “Kosher” (meaning abiding by the strict Jewish dietary laws). The guy behind the counter said that they serve food that is associated with Jewish culture without worrying about the religious part. We asked him to speak about things associating with religion and he said: “What do you mean? The people who come here religiously?” He was joking but it was such a beautiful intersection of language, religion, and culture.

*Note: he did say that if someone wanted something kosher, they have a special set of cutting boards, knives, etc. to make something kosher on. But he said if someone was very serious about Jewish law (Hasidic for example) they probably wouldn’t come here. hmmmm, interesting!

JMF

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