“Are you Jewish?”
What happened when 36 male Emirati college students learned their professor was a J E W
By David Eden
With the nascent Israel-UAE peace accord in the news, I’ve been asked what Emiratis think about Jews.
In 2008–09, I was hired as the “journalism expert” by United Arab Emirates University. Yes, the UAE’s major national university hired an American Jew for that job. It was the time when Obama was elected President, the Great Recession brought the world to its knees, and a war raged in Gaza.
UAEU is located in Al Ain, an oasis desert city of about 400,000 residents adjacent to the Oman boarder in the Abu Dhabi emirate, about 170km inland from the coast. It’s called the “most Emirati” city in the UAE because its population, unlike Dubai or Abu Dhabi City, has many fewer foreigners. It’s also the ancestral home of Abu Dhabi’s, and the nation’s, ruling family, the Al Nahyan.
About a month into the semester, after I believed my 36 male students, all Sunni Muslims, hailing from all seven Emirates, as well as Jordan, Syria and Oman, had grown to know me, I revealed in class that their professor was a Jew. Here’s an excerpt about their reaction from my UAE memoir, “My Pashtun Rabbi: A Jew’s Search for Truth, Meaning and Hope in the Muslim World,” which was named a Best Book of 2018 by Kirkus Reviews.
Saif Hamood’s eyes popped out of his head, a la Marty Feldman as “Eye-Gore” in Young Frankenstein. Following class, after nearly all of his colleagues had left the room, the Omani student stood before my desk and asked a simple question: “Doctor, what is your religion?”
Finally, a student with the guts to ask directly. Not quite “Are you Jewish?” but close enough. Hell, I’d dropped enough hints, and at least one student, in addition to Samah, had apparently figured it out. Others probably had, too, but for whatever reason it took an Omani, not an Emirati, to ask.
I asked Saif Hamood to guess but he declined. Spoken words might fade into the din. So I grabbed a green dry-erase pen, turned to the whiteboard and in big block letters wrote: J E W.
He nodded, turned and met two fellow Omanis standing by the doorway. They walked out chattering animatedly in Arabic.
Before leaving the classroom, I erased the three letters. Not a good idea to leave the word J E W floating around out of context on a university whiteboard. I left myself, more than curious as to what the next session of this class might bring.
Two days later on the drive to Falaj Haza, I went back and forth in my thinking. Stick to the syllabus and begin the lesson on nonverbal communication? Nah, that wouldn’t work. Thirty minutes of silence as I had done in the fall with the girls didn’t seem to be in order, or burping either.
“Excuse me, Doctor,” an Omani male student, wearing a bright kummah, might ask. “You are acting strangely. Is this normal behavior for a J E W?!”
At the start of the semester I’d instituted a one-dirham fine for tardiness. The kitty would be used for an end-of-term party, of the students’ choosing, and I promised to match the “contributions” one for one. Arriving fashionably late was a chronic problem in all classes, but I only nicked the boys. Call it chauvinism, sexism or anything you want. The fund, managed by Funny Man and Handsome Ali, was growing quickly. Collecting a total that day of six dirhams, I noted that the classroom was unusually full. Saif Hamood was seated, as always, on the aisle in the third row. As usual, he wore a kandura and kummah. He looked moderately uncomfortable and his classmates started to look his way. So I sidled up.
“What did you ask me after the previous class?”
He squirmed and looked around at his countrymen. Then he fixed his large, dark eyes on me. “I asked about your religion.” He habitually spoke in a soft voice.
“Just so everyone heard what Saif Hamood asked me,” I said, going for broadcast-quality timbre, “he asked me what my religion is. He is, so far, the only person at UAEU who has had the guts.”
The Omanis around him exchanged nods. The rest looked in Saif Hamood’s direction, puzzled. Apparently, the Omanis had kept the news among themselves.
“What did I answer?”
He took a deep breath. “You’re Jewish.”
His answer was just loud enough for the class to hear.
Silence. As in pin-drop.
I moved squarely to the middle of the room. Hands planted on my hips, I cocked my head. “Is that an issue for anyone?!”
A Jebel Hafeet beehive could not have topped the buzz in the classroom. I tried to read the room. My heart pounded and I wondered whether the students could hear it. I wanted to mask even the least unease, and here I was all but vibrating. They had known me long enough not to jump, I hoped, to applying a label. Anyway, the deadline for dropping the course had passed.
In that split second while you read the room and divine whether it will eat you alive, some things become abundantly clear. Not an epiphanic moment, exactly, but something like one. It hit me: I didn’t care. Whichever way my male students reacted to the news that Dr. David was, in fact, a J E W would be fine. If they chose to see me thereafter only as a label, well, many people do look no further than the brand, and these boys had for the most part been raised to be devout consumers.
I’d come to the UAE to teach, a noble-sounding excuse to get away from my old broken life. But that mission was the last thing keeping me here now. I’d lost my zeal for teaching at UAEU because it was obvious that no one in my position could teach there. Sure, I had that three-year contract but that didn’t mean much. Look at what they did to Dr. Beverly. I’d make it through today’s class, but another year, or two? Did I even want to be Dr. David, the J E W, that always being the 800-pound gorilla in the room? At some point, someone wouldn’t like the idea — but I’d probably get sick of the idea myself well before getting put on a plane. I was getting ahead of myself. Chosen by fate from among all the Jews in the world, this Clevistani Yid, who’d played the yarmulke card only when a friend suggested it, had to explain himself and the “Chosen People” to a room filled with young male Sunni Muslims.
Insha’Allah at play? I racked my brain to recall any references I’d heard to God’s will suggesting He had a sense of humor. I watched the class, growing strangely calm, merely curious as to what type of storm would kick up.
The answer: none. I could hardly have asked for a better reaction. Questioning looks. Puzzled expressions. Confusion. Not much else. I told myself that I could hold the room for the hour.
It struck me then that I’d have felt more on edge among a gathering of Haredim than I did in this room. Among the black-clad black-hatter Hassids, I stood out like a goyim in a tan two-piece suit — and sometimes felt like a gentile.They knew, I always surmised, that “he’s not really one of us. He’s not a true believer!” Jews are harder on each other than outsiders could ever fathom. Just ask Yeshua, better known to gentiles as Jesus Christ, the first Reform rabbi. I pictured how things might be in this room had the students’ first Jew been one of those ultra-Orthodox types.
“So, nobody’s got any problems with the professor’s being Jewish?” I tried to intone it not as a provocation, but more like, “Hey, if anyone does, let’s talk about it.”
Abu Dhabi spoke first. “You are Jewish? Really?”
The way he said, with a comic’s high-pitched dramatic lilt, brought a smattering of laughter. Sometimes I thought he would fit right in with Hardy and Hardy, the Falahi comedy team. All three were the same girth and shared a common wit.
“Yes,” I said, with a smile.
“OK with me!” Abu Dhabi yowled.
The class, in its entirety, had the same reaction. What would Bob and my friends back home say now? How would these boys have reacted to a confession that I was Canadian? The married man from Sharjah, who admired Martin Luther King, announced, “You’re the first Jew we have ever met.”
Heads nodded. No surprise there.
Munther, an Emirati with wire-rim glasses, asked the requisite question, “So you’re not Christian?” There was something charming in his question this time.
I laughed, still ruing my non-answer answer to that very question in Samah’s class. “No, I am not Christian. Or Bahá’i. Or anything else. I am a Jew. An American Jew from Cleveland, Ohio. We are different from New York Jews and Beverly Hills Jews and from Israeli Jews.”
The room buzzed again. Was it the Cleveland part? Was my hometown a punchline here, too?
Mohammed Saif, the brightest and most open-minded of the Emiratis present, asked, “That’s why you don’t wear the black clothes and big black hat?”
“I’m not that kind of Jew. Only some Jews wear the black hat. My brother did.”
Noor Aldeen, one of the Jordanians in the back, cut to heart of the matter. “You are Jewish and still came here?” He paused. “Are you crazy?!”
The room erupted in laughter.
I took a few steps toward Noor Aldeen. A strikingly handsome young man with thick black hair parted down the middle, he had, along with his best friend, Qais, distinguished himself as a thoughtful student with a strong command of English. His question was still the right question. Was I crazy?
The young men in this class had gotten to know me, without the Jew label. That had been my choice; I like to think of it as strategic, not cowardly or crazy. First indications were it had worked. I stood near Noor Aldeen. “I came to see your world so I can go back and describe it first hand.”
That’s what I had told others, and it startled me to note that it had turned out to be an honest answer. I hoped it rang true for the young men listening. If it sounded phony, I would lose them. I added with a smile, “But, yes, maybe I’m crazy.”
Noor Aldeen laughed out loud. “No, professor. You are really crazy.”
The uproar that followed filled me with warmth. Why had I expected anything different? They had gotten to know me first as the teacher, not the Jew. To them, I was still the teacher. In an ironic sense, their rabbi. I remembered the hero Handsome Ali had declared, back at the beginning. I strode to the front of the room and stood before him. “You said that Superman is your hero?”
“Do you know who created the Man of Steel? And where?”
He shook his head.
I had the class’s undivided attention. The perfect segue. “Superman was created in the 1930s, in Cleveland, my hometown,” I trumpeted. “By two Jewish guys.”
Handsome Ali cocked his eyebrow in disbelief. “Superman was created by Jews?!”
“When Hitler was on the rise. He was a fictional Superman created to counter the propaganda about a ‘Master Race.’”
Abu Dhabi wondered aloud, “Who created Batman? Jews, too?”
The answer to that, too, was “yes.”
Abu Dhabi smacked his palm to his forehead and the class erupted in laughter. From the back of the room, Noor Aldeen hollered, “So, professor, are you saying that Jews control the world’s greatest superheroes, along with everything else?!”
“Not Spiderman!?” Abu Dhabi roared.
“Yup, him, too.” The class let out a collective hoot. Tears, as I’ve said, don’t come easily, but I could have wept for joy to hear it.
The remainder of the hour felt more like a movie score by John Williams than a planned lesson. One melody flowing into the next sprinkled with moments of tension, and others of clarity and insight. Qais shouted that he had always heard stories about Jews murdering entire villages of Palestinians to steal their land at the time of Israel’s creation. That, understandably, did provoke an uproar. Many others nodded in agreement. I thought again about Samah and that helped shape my answer.
“Both sides have killed innocents and it continues.” Though, yes, today — the latest Gaza conflict may have recently ended but the wounds ran generations deep. “I believe there should be a Palestinian homeland along with a secure Israel. It’s time for that. But how?” I took a deep breath. “Not every American or Israeli Jew agrees with everything the government of Israel does. Does that surprise you?”
“Not all Jews support Israel?” Abu Dhabi asked. “Even in Israel?”
What would normally seem like a wisecrack question coming from an American college student sounded entirely sincere coming from Abu Dhabi. How would he know any different unless he had a reason to go beyond his regional media feed? How often had I done that, prior to coming to the UAE? And, no, BBC World hardly counts as “beyond my regional media feed.”
“Most American Jews support the state of Israel, but some don’t. For many, it’s their biblical homeland, but that doesn’t mean they support the government in power and its policies. Just like I don’t always agree with the American government I also don’t always agree with what the government of Israel does, but I don’t live and vote there. I support the state of Israel and its right to exist as the only Jewish nation in the world. I do because the Holocaust proved that Jews need a homeland as a last safe haven.”
Most of the boys looked skeptical, or at least surprised, at my assertions that not all Jews agree with Israel right down the line. I do support my tribe’s claim to a homeland and always have. That’s part of what belonging to a tribe means. No one, I was sure, had more capacity to grasp that than these young men. Mohammed Saif pushed the discussion back to Dr. David, the Jew. “What kind of Jew are you?”
Tony’s question. The question I had asked myself my whole life now posed by a Muslim student.
“I am a Jew.” I shrugged. “A Jew is a Jew. We don’t all dress alike, and we don’t all think alike, but we’re all Jews, equally.” Time for my bottom-line definition of what a Jew is and why. “I believe if you are born a Jew, you are always a Jew. That’s the way it is in this world. Hitler reminded us of that. If you have an ounce of Jewish blood in your veins, you may be killed because of it.”
The mention of the fuhrer created a new stir. Did they know that his attempt to eradicate the Jews of Europe resulted in the creation of Israel and sixty years of conflict? The first big domino? That was news to Noor when I explained it one evening as I played Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem, on YouTube.
Mohammed Saif took the basic question a step further. “Are you secular?”
I didn’t look like a religious Jew and certainly didn’t act like one. Would a religious Jew dare stand in front of a university class filled with young Muslim men in a country without a minion?
“Some religious Jews would say that I’m secular. I was born to Jewish parents. I’m a Jew. A Jew is a Jew. Jewish law says if your mother is a Jew then you are a Jew. I belong to an Orthodox synagogue. I was circumcised, like you were. I was bar mitzvahed at age thirteen. I’ve read the Torah. But I drive on Saturday and eat bacon. I’m an American Jew. A breed apart.”
Abu Dhabi perked up at the mention of bacon.
Mohammed Saif pressed on. “Do you believe in God?”
“Do you, Professor!?” Qais and Nour Aldeen shouted in unison from the back.
“Do you, Professor!?” Mohammed Saif repeated. “Do you believe in God?!”
It was a chance to answer a question with a question. I believe and don’t. I hope but doubt. But that was not, insha’Allah, what I intended to say here.
“Do you?” Looking at the others, I added, “Do all of you believe in Allah?”
Their answers came fast and unanimous.
“Yes,” Mohammed Saif said. “In Allah and His Prophet.”
“We all do!” Noor Aldeen announced, speaking for the others.
In no American college classroom could this hour ever have happened with such a sincere display of blind faith. Everyone saying they believed in God?! Maybe at a Baptist Bible seminary. Naw. Or Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Not there, either. And certainly not at Ohio State.
“Do you believe in God?” Abu Dhabi asked.
Here’s the answer I gave. “I hope there is a God. I hope there is someone who gives us a higher reason for living. I hope that when things can’t be explained through science or reason that there is something or someone else.”
David Eden, a veteran journalist, is the author of “My Pashtun Rabbi: A Jew’s Search for Truth, Meaning, and Hope in the Muslim World”