• When you come from an orthodox Jewish family who is observant, dating a Sufi Muslim is far from you or your family’s expectations growing up. (Anadolu/Getty Images)
True love is meant to transcend cultures and borders, but can it overcome religious and racial differences? One interfaith couple - a Jewish woman from New York and a Muslim man from Vienna - believe so. This is their love story.
By
Tamar Yocheved*, Presented by
Amie Liebowitz

14 Feb 2017 - 2:23 PM  UPDATED 14 Feb 2017 - 5:07 PM

I can feel the energy passing through each person in the room as all we sit in silence. Our four hour-long mediation session, guided by the traditions of Sufi – a branch of Islam – is almost finished.

As I, a non-Muslim, sit beside my Muslim boyfriend in this very respectful, all-inclusive meditation session, and watch others in the room get lost in a meditative trance, I feel that I am sharing a very deep part of him: his cultural traditions. We’re meditating together and connecting, not just to “his God” or “my God” but to the "God of All Existence".

My boyfriend and I met in August 2014 but only started dating in August 2016. His intellect, warmth and spiritually made our friendship very easy and with that ease, our feelings eventually grew into something more.

What if our cultures clashed so much it tore us apart? Was I setting myself up for heart-break by dating someone from another religion?

But this situation that I’m currently in – dating someone from a different religion to my own Jewish faith – is something I never predicted would happen. I can’t believe that the person I love is from another background, religion and culture to mine.

At first, we were very cautious. I wasn’t sure if religion would get in the way of our future together. What if there were road-blocks from friends who didn’t approve? What if our cultures clashed so much it tore us apart? Was I setting myself up for heart-break by dating someone from another religion?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a narrow-minded person and I didn’t imagine I’d end up with a picture-perfect husband when I started dating men. But when you come from an orthodox Jewish family who is observant, dating a Sufi Muslim is far from you or your family’s expectations growing up.

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How a Jewish girl became a woman who fell for a Muslim man 

I grew up in a very strict school system. I recall always struggling to find an emotional and spiritual attachment to prayer because of the pressure I felt that I was under ‘to believe’. In high school, the whole of 9th, 10th and 11th grade would stand in a hall side-by-side with just enough space to step three spaces forward and three spaces back: we all stood in the direction of Jerusalem and instead of envisioning this holy setting, we faced a teacher.

Although the principles and ideas within our religions texts are said differently or are interpreted a certain way, it all leads to the destination of self-development and contributing to making the world a better place.

Under the florescent lights, I felt the wandering eyes of the teachers and my peers that were present: their unwanted gaze was startling. While standing in an upright position, feet together, bowing in sync whenever God’s name was said; saying Shemoneh Esrei or the Amidah three times a day felt like a school test.

Who could be the quickest, the most well-versed, who understood different interpretations of the texts? The prayer itself is quite meaningful but how could I create a connection to God under these circumstances?

How a Muslim man ended up falling for a Jewish woman

Having later experienced Jewish life in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, I eventually broadened my perspective on religion and as able to see Judaism in a different light. That’s when my interests in interfaith practices grew.

My boyfriend and I met at a conference in Vienna, Austria; in fact, that’s where he’s from. Mustafa’s parents met a Sufi Shaykh who opened their hearts for the love to Islam. They started their journey and then gave birth to him and his sister. As a child, Mustafa stayed with his parents Sufi Shaykh in Jerusalem where he learnt very quickly that “Jerusalem is for everyone”.

He continued to be fascinated by the plurality of religions but ultimately decided to follow on the same path of his parents, walk the way of Sufism and started to study Islam on an academic level.

These days, he tells me, his faith incorporates ideas from the Koran, and Sufi teachings as it is entangled within Islam. Meanwhile, I follow ideas from the Torah and other religious Jewish texts.

Although the principles and ideas within our religions texts are said differently or are interpreted a certain way, it all leads to the destination of self-development and contributing to making the world a better place.

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Absence makes the heart grow fonder

To be honest, the main struggle in our relationship wasn’t entirely due to our different religions – it’s also because we once lived continents apart. I’m from New York City and he lives in Vienna, Austria. 

So we had a long-distance friendship/relationship for two very long years. During that time, our courtship attempted to endure cultural, religious, time and spatial differences.

We used the phone, WhatsApp, FaceTime – but it’s just not the same when you could be side-by-side with that person. But we persisted and recently, I moved to Vienna.

I’m starting to get used to living here. We’re trying to figure out how to combine our rituals, in every sense of the word. We don’t necessarily blend our cultures, but rather choose to participate in them together.

The two main things we have in common are food and prayer. We both say prayers before our meals – in different languages of course.

Mustafa attempts to pray five times a day. Sometimes I’m there around him when he prays and I try to be in the present, pausing to pray to God alongside him. We’ve found that prayers give our day structure and constant reminders of the ideas and principles that we follow.

Our home has become a neutral space for us to pray. And now, instead of blindly following prayers like I used to when I was younger, I’ve really made an effort to connect to Judaism through being conscious of my surroundings. Sometimes focusing on ‘mundane’ things such as thunder, lightning and rainbows help that consciousness and attempt to be living in the moment. So if anything, my boyfriend’s religious Muslim faith has strengthened my own Jewish prayer practices.

So if anything, my boyfriend’s religious Muslim faith has strengthened my own Jewish prayer practices.

Shabbat (or Friday night) dinner is always something we both try to adhere to. We ensure that we plan the meal, and make it extra special – different from all other nights. I like to cook on Fridays to give him a break from cooking during the week. I bake challah or knotted bread and light the candles. I also take this time to say Shemoneh Esrei, which now conjures joy as I recite it on my own terms. Since he knows that Shabbat means a lot to me, when I’m tired he’ll prepare for Shabbat just so I can enjoy it.

Even though I don’t work or use technology on the Sabbath, Mustafa is always respectful and we plan accordingly. He’s always had made an effort to learn about the Jewish holidays and their significance which is something I think not every person is willing to do. 

There's no such thing as perfect 

You’re probably thinking: ‘this interfaith relationship is too perfect. Something has got to give’. Well, I understand that cross-faith marriages are a taboo subject so my immediate family doesn’t yet know about Mustafa.

I’m waiting for the right time to tell all of them. It’s a bit difficult when I don’t have an exact plan and there are probably questions I would find difficult to answer.

However, the family members that do know are happy for me and I trust that my entire family will be okay with it in the end. I hope that they will consider my values, and let me be the best person I can be.

I have met his family and they know about us. They are so thoughtful, welcoming and kind.

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People ask why I persist when I could be dating a Jewish guy? I ask them why would I give up such a bond?

After two years of Judaic studies in Israel, I made a list of traits I would look for in a life partner and showed it to a Rabbi I respect a lot. He told me, “lists with right and wrong character traits don’t make a partner. The hardest thing to find is just a good person. You’ll know when you have met the one’. I think of that conversation when I look at Mustafa.

In my mind, although our issues are faith-based, they don’t just revolve around religion. We have differences in tastes, lifestyles and beliefs but aren’t these issues that normal same faith couples also have: like how Mustafa doesn’t have Wi-Fi in his apartment that may be a deal breaker? We’ll see.  

We’ve still got a long way to go before our relationship is ready for anything more serious.

Maybe everything will align and we will get married and have that happily ever after.

Right now though, as I’m already here, I’m quite content on being in the present.

 

*Name has been changed to protect person’s identity


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Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).

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