By Paul Chaffee
An Interfaith Odyssey for Us All
Truth be told, I approached Ruth Broyde Sharone’s Minefields & Miracles – Why God and Allah Need to Talk with trepidation – review a 350-page memoire of her travels interwoven with enough photos to fill one of grandpa’s slide carousels?!
On the other hand, like other readers charmed by Ruth’s TIO articles each month, I knew her ‘story’ would be fascinating. Anyone meeting her quickly learns how much she loves her Jewish tradition and how, from that posture, she has become a promotional force of nature supporting grassroots interfaith engagement around the world.
Little did I guess, though, that Minefields & Miracles would be the best interfaith book published since Acts of Faith (2007) by Eboo Patel. Ruth and Eboo both grew up in Chicago and happen to share a remarkable capacity: their compelling personal stories read like can’t-put-it-down novels, all the while leading us through spiritual, religious questions, provoking us, teaching us, time and again inciting a-ha! moments. Ruth’s odyssey is a feast of extraordinary interfaith encounters resonating long after you leave a page.
Her high-level energy is evident from the start and never lets up. Expelled from college housing when administrators discover her Jewish heritage (the first of many “minefields”), a fierce sense of justice became her spiritual bone marrow. Graduating from college, she turned to journalism, choosing, as a beginner, the daunting route of independent international correspondent. Her goal: to identify, visit, and write about Jewish communities throughout Central and South America.
In preparation, she moved in with her folks for a year to save money, found a job, opened a bank account, and contacted Jewish weeklies across the country, pitching a travel series about the Jewish communities hidden away in the southern half of the Americas. Then, to her mother’s horror, this young blond yanqui woman, bedecked with cameras and a boxy tape-recorder, flew to Mexico with $1200 in travelers’ checks and a few addresses. For the next year and a half, travelling alone by train, plane, horseback, bus, and boat, she visited 54 cities in 19 countries.
On a train in Peru, a vacationing seminarian offers her pork, part of his lunch, and she has to turn it down, explaining, “I’m Jewish.” He responds, “Oh, the Jews are the ones who killed God.” Another minefield, another opportunity to reflect on how to respond to engrained prejudice in your daily life.
Ruth shares her personal quandaries along the way without a whine or excuse – the bumpy, poignant romance with a German Christian, the tug-of-war between living in Israel versus Los Angeles, the marriage that finally came unglued because she is an engaged, observant Jew while he is a cultural, secular Jew, how her children responded, and more. The narrative is never indulgent, and all of the struggles revolve around identity – who you are in the deepest sense, and why, and how you relate to those who are different than you, particularly as you share your passion for an interfaith friendly human race
Tastes and smells keep the text from waxing philosophical. On a Festival of Freedom pilgrimage in Egypt one evening, “we were able to leave officialdom behind and enter the boisterous, colorful exotic central market of Cairo. We were willingly buffeted and jostled about by the huge crowds and by the sounds of animated bargaining coming from every direction… We were hypnotized by the pungent, exotic fragrances wafting out of endless rows of stores offering perfumes and essential oils. Then, in quick succession, our senses were pleasantly assaulted by the aroma of the hot, freshly baked sesame-rings of bread that young men whisked by on huge trays balanced precariously on their heads.”
Returning from her year and a half sojourn in South America, Ruth’s passion for journalism grew to include filmmaking. But then she made a life-changing decision, turning down a chance to work for Federico Fellini in Italy, instead moving to Israel where she spent ten years working for newspapers and film companies and developing a love of documentary films (a story she tells in this month’s TIO).
Through the seventies, eighties, and nineties, Ruth raised a family, honed her writing skills, became a community interfaith organizer throughout the Los Angeles basin, and led three interfaith pilgrimages to the Middle East. The tales continue chock-a-block with minefields and miracles. She became known as the ‘lady who films interfaith Seders,’ a habit that led to her award-winning film, “God and Allah Need to Talk,” a phrase she revisits with this memoire. Passover is the governing theme for the whole book, the oppressed becoming free, and it fuels Sharone’s passion for interfaith friendship and collaboration.
Becoming an international interfaith ambassador
Not until eight years ago did Ruth bump into the interfaith movement that has been organizing institutionally for the past 50 years. In 2004 she heard about the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona and attended. Her focus and care shifted from her lifelong Abrahamic concerns to include all religions.
Since then it would be hard to identify anyone on the planet who has served so well as an interfaith ambassador. She has travelled the world making hundreds of presentations and working on behalf of most of the world’s large interfaith organizations, to say nothing of the local groups she contacts wherever she visits. Her raw chutzpah, indefatigable energy, and overflowing joy have led to friendships with folks like you and me, as well as leaders like Karen Armstrong, Muhammad Yunus, Marcus Braybrooke, Zalman Schachter, the Dalai Lama, Joan Chittister, Bill Lesher, Dirk Ficca, Charles Gibbs, Dadi Janki, Marianne Williamson, Gustav Niebuhr, and a host of others who have made significant contributions to interfaith culture.
Chapter 16 (of 26), “A Taste of Interfaith Paradise,” offers a splendid brief history of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, including a couple of dozen photos from the 1893 Parliament. Ruth’s final chapter, “Weaving the Global Interfaith Web,” is the best survey in print of the interfaith movement as it exists today.
In an introduction that precedes her story, Ruth shares a kind of personal credo. It begins with a jarring tale of a journalistic minefield, then pivots into a reflection on who she and her colleagues have become today:
“I have come to believe that the most important and urgent work being done on the planet today is the work of interfaith engagement… We enter this territory because we must. We are compelled by visions of interfaith harmony no less mesmerizing than the ones that captivated the imaginations of our explorer ancestors: visions of a new world, of unlimited potential, of great opportunity and spiritual wealth…
“We look like everybody else and have no distinguishing body marks. We come in all skin colors, ages and genders, all sizes and shapes. You will recognize us because we are border crossers – not across national and political lines, but across spiritual and religious boundaries. We feel at home both in our own community, and in other people’s communities… We are border crossers because even as we recognize the philosophical and religious borders that separate us, we do not allow them to keep us from honoring our fellow travelers.”
Many of us can identify with this description. Reading Ruth’s book reminds us of the power a single person, without title or high office, can bring to bear on a broken world. It inspires us to bring our own courage, imagination, and energy to bear in moving from ‘the idea to the act’ as the world is transformed into a better place for all.
Minefields & Miracles’publishing date, May 15, 2012, coincides with this posting of TIO. You can purchase the book at Amazon.