When we encounter systemic racism, we know where our moral obligation lies. We speak out. But what happens when prejudice finds its way into the most intimate setting, the dinner table? “Well, you know how they are. They can’t be reasoned with. Could you please pass the salt?”
Disparaging comments about another group are unfortunately common in many communities. When these kinds of off-hand remarks emerge in our own homes or in the homes of our friends, how are we supposed to respond? Abe’s Babes, a group of six Jewish, Muslim, and Christian women in Sydney, Australia, may have found an answer.
After experiencing this brand of “dinner table prejudice” in Sydney’s Muslim and Jewish communities, the group decided to confront the issue with a creative weapon: theater. Collectively, they wrote a play called The Laden Table, which tells of two meals – a Jewish family breaking their Yom Kippur fast and a Muslim family celebrating Eid. After seven years of hard work, the first professional production will take place in Sydney on the nights of July 30, July 31, and August 1.
After hearing prejudiced remarks about Muslims at a Jewish dinner table, Yvonne Perczuk, one of the founders of the playwriting group, felt deeply disturbed. Realizing that similar conversations were taking place in Muslim homes, she decided something had to be done about misconceptions harbored in both communities.
“The fear of the other, the fear of the unknown – all of those fears come out at the dinner table,” Perczuk said. “They come out in a spontaneous way so that’s where you hear the truths about how people feel.”
Based in part on her family background, Perczuk was particularly unsettled by this form of racism. “The sort of comments I heard at the dinner table really shocked me and upset me because my parents were Holocaust survivors,” said Perczuk. “It’s this kind of prejudice that they were victims of. When I heard it coming from my own community, I found it most distressing.” After some soul-searching, the idea to create The Laden Table emerged – a play that would highlight the problem of dinner table prejudice while involving members of both communities in a creative, collaborative project. Seeking out likeminded people with a theater background, Perczuk found her Muslim co-facilitator and “partner-in-crime” Nur Alam, along with Abe’s Babes’ original core members Raya Gadir, Jumaadi, Chris Hill, Ruth Kliman, and Marian Kernahan. The playwriting group decided on the name “Abe’s Babes,” a reference to its members’ shared Abrahamic religious heritage.
“Our whole project is about making relationships better, fostering understanding,” said Nur Alam. For her and other members of the Abe’s Babes team, the interactions between participants during the process have been just as important as the final production. Every time the group completed a new draft of the script, they invited members from the Jewish and Muslim communities to Alam’s house for workshops, where they could read the script and give feedback over Alam’s own table laden with snacks. The project encouraged members of both communities who “would have never ever in their lives sat with a Jew or a Muslim” to talk and listen to each other’s stories. The process, Alam said, has gotten people to “share and to talk about their cultures and customs, and go, ‘Oh, I do that,’ ‘Oh, really? So do we.’” For some, the experience has been quite powerful. A Muslim contributor, for example, was in tears at one workshop after reading the script aloud. He hadn’t realized some of the experiences underwent by the other community, he explained, and could now better see their perspective. Ultimately, “the play’s been a living thing that’s been nourished by both communities,” Perczuk said.
Now that the play is finished, the team hopes members of Sydney’s Muslim and Jewish communities can connect over the experience of watching the production. “I’m looking forward to seeing members of both communities sitting in the audience and actually rubbing shoulders with people from the other group and experiencing the play together,” said Perczuk.
As the audience watches characters participate in and struggle with dinner table prejudice, the Abe’s Babes team hopes the play will challenge them to confront themselves about their own misconceptions and table talk. Raya Gadir pointed out that the theater may be the best setting for this to happen. “Growing up in an Israeli home, people were never afraid to confront each other with strong opinions,” she said. ” I realize that sometimes with all this confrontation people don’t listen actually to each other. They just say what they want to say. And in theater people are actually listening.”
Gadir went on to joke that, if the audience leaves in the middle of the play, Abe’s Babes can rest assured that the play made them think. “We’re not tiptoeing around things,” she said. “We want them to think about things. We don’t want to resolve anything.” As Alam described it, the goal of The Laden Table is to hold a mirror up to the audience. The play “creates a distance between you and yourself and you actually see how you behave and hopefully that gives you a new way of looking at yourself,” said Perczuk. Alam pointed out that, if even one person can see himself in the characters and, as a result, reexamines his own preconceived notions, the play will have been a success. “That one person is part of a family and, if those children at that table of that one person are not infected by the racism that they would normally be infected by, then it’s not only the one person. It’s all their family and all their children and hopefully their children,” Perczuk added. While the group cannot imagine having a “tsunami effect” they hope to create “a tiny drip,” as Marian Kernahan put it, which can make larger ripples. “This is what we hope will happen, that we can recognize our common humanity and create perhaps just a little bit of friendship and harmony in our society,” Kernahan said.
But how can we – as Jews, Muslims, and members of other communities – create our own ripple effect to confront dinner table prejudice? Alam said that, on a practical level, the first step to combatting prejudice in a communal setting is simply being conscious of it when it happens. “Recognize it for what it is. When you recognize the problem you can start doing something creative,” she said. But before coming up with new, innovative solutions, Alam suggests that a bystander simply disengage. “One of our sayings in the Quran is if you don’t like people sitting there gossiping, either ask them to stop it or just get up and walk away,” she said. Perczuk describes this approach as a form of passive resistance. “I’ve been in that situation and I’ve walked away guilty because I haven’t said anything at the time,” she said. “But I then think about it now and, if I had said something, it would have just created an explosion at the table and that’s not productive.” Perczuk suggests that, when you leave a situation in which another group is put down, the next step is to think of a constructive way to counter the overarching prejudice.
Ultimately, Abe’s Babes encourages other Muslim and Jewish communities to raise awareness about dinner table prejudice by engaging in projects like The Laden Table in their own cities. According to Ruth Kliman, the key is to get communities working together on a project that involves weeks or months of work, culminating in a final product they can take pride in together. “That journey is the essence of the whole thing,” she said. Kliman stressed how this process made the Abe’s Babes team into lasting friends, who meet weekly since the project began. “When we don’t see each other once a week, it’s terrible!” she said. Perczuk explained that an imaginative project like The Laden Table creates new friendships and enables people to engage with each other honestly without sidestepping controversy when talking about dinner table prejudice.
“I think if you actually want to challenge some of those negative stereotypes, if you want to confront the prejudice head-on, you need something where people actually touch one another, are working together, and find out about each other,” Perczuk said, “not simply by dialoguing but actually working on something creative, so there are sparks flying, there are tensions, and the real people come out.”