I grew up in Brooklyn next door to a mosque. On Friday nights, I would hear the call to prayer and watch as people streamed in through the narrow doors of the converted townhouse. In my Italian class in college, we were asked us to describe the sounds we missed from home. I explained that I missed the sounds of the mosque. Assuming that I had confused “moschea” (mosque) with “mosca,” the Italian word for fly, the professor made a buzzing sound and mimicked with her hand the erratic path a fly takes. “Yes—a mosque,” I explained.
I wasn’t raised with a formal set of religious beliefs or a sense of belonging to a specific religion—only a smattering of holidays that brought family and friends together and involved tons of food, but absolutely no fasting under any circumstances (family rule). I visited churches, synagogues, temples, and later mosques, with a sense of awe (and as a tourist or a guest of a friend), but they were living museums, places to learn about cultures that were not my own.
After college I moved back home and was once again reminded of the shape that different communities can take, when the imam from the mosque around the corner invited the whole block as well as the priests and rabbis from the neighborhood to join and break the fast on Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. My parents and I eagerly went. After taking off our shoes, my mom and I followed the women upstairs and my dad followed the men into the parlor floor of the townhouse. Afterwards we all ate together and shared stories of our different traditions, with the rabbi who had bar mitzvahed many of my childhood friends seated next to the friendly imam.
I think back to this magical scene and recognize how lucky I was to be a part of this shared experience, this outpouring of respect for someone else’s traditions and beliefs. I don’t identify with a specific religion, and I think it makes me even more eager to understand not only how religion can play a positive role in one’s life, but also how a specific religion can be inextricably tied to a language or culture.
I have always been fascinated by how religion is often hidden within languages. In Spanish, “ojalá” (I hope / God willing) is derived from “Allah,” the Arabic word for God, and English-speaking atheists say “bless you” without thinking of it as a wish for God to protect someone. How does religion affect a culture when religious phrases make their way into a language? Do religious tendencies sneak into the culture too?
Last year I taught a course on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Epicurean philosophy. Lucretius connects the ideas of Religio (Religion) and Superstitio (Superstition) and claims that they cannot coexist with Ratio (Reason). His wordplay when he mentions the similar words “Religio” (Religion) and “religata” (bound/tied up) in the same passage reveals his opinion that Religion can be a form of entrapment, binding us from making rational decisions (think of Abraham and Isaac or, as Lucretius mentions, Agamemnon, who is fabled to have sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, for favorable winds for sailing to Troy). But when religion helps us celebrate our differences, it can be liberating. I look forward to exploring this more with you all in Indonesia.