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Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2003/4 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Suzanne Fields

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A religious buzz in the Windy City | CHICAGO This town was multicultural before "multicultural" was cool. It's a city of neighborhoods," with Greektown, Chinatown and now "Little Village," where a not-so-little community of immigrants from Mexico thrives.

One guidebook notes that sometimes it seems there are more Irish in Chicago than in Dublin. There are enough Poles in Chicago to make up one of the largest cities in Poland. Italians and Lithuanians are here in abundance, and lately the city has expanded with immigrants from China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Korea. Blacks make up 40 percent of the population. Racial and immigrant prejudice is not unknown. But the buzz in Chicago today is not about race, but religion.

A group of scholars, seizing the moment to be relevant, met the other day at the University of Chicago to find common ground among followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the age of terrorism, and the fear of terrorism, that's easier said than done. Nevertheless, philosophers, theologians, ethicists and the inevitable lawyers met for three days to talk about how each of the three great religions upholds the sanctity and dignity of human life.

Politics bubbled close to the surface. "The Islamic world has never been under such pressure before," said Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington, the keynote speaker. "There's a new political equation and it has changed the Muslim mind."

The professor repudiated acts of anti-Semitism and suicide bombings, but - the "but" seems to be important - blamed the press. "If we knew that not all Jews were proud of (the Israeli response to the Palestinian intifada) - and I know rabbis and have Jewish friends who feel this way - the view would be very different. You don't hear these divergent views on CNN or in the New York Times." (The professor obviously doesn't get his copy of the New York Times every day.)

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A day later in another part of town, in a small synagogue on Michigan Avenue, Jews gathered for their Sabbath service and in private conversations expressed concern, even alarm, at the growing expression of anti-Semitism in public and private discourse.

An exhibition on Albert Einstein at the Field Museum, showing how anti-Semitism played a major role in the life and times of the genius who set out the theory of relativity, illustrates why the Chicago Jews are concerned. Einstein left Nazi Germany in 1932 aware of its menace for Jews. As an American citizen, he was outspoken in his support for a Jewish state and received an enormous volume of hate mail. The FBI suspected him of Communist sympathies.

Although he made discoveries and developed theories that led to the building of the atomic bomb that ended World War II, he was not allowed to work on the Manhattan Project, which sprang from experiments at the University of Chicago.

But that was a long time ago. Today, Jewish congregants are smarting from a political cartoon in the Chicago Tribune depicting Ariel Sharon in the age-old stereotype of the Jew - the hooked nose, the greedy sneer, wearing the six-pointed Star of David, grasping dollar bills from George W. Bush as though Jews were motivated only by money. The editors of the Tribune apologized, conceding that "the cartoon crossed the lines." The cartoonist who drew it did not.

A visitor wanders through the streets on the eve of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, prayer and reflection for Muslims, who make up about 5 percent of the population of Chicago. Muslim grocery stores have stocked up on dates for the faithful who follow the example of the prophet Mohammed, who broke his fast at sundown with milk and dates.

"It's the month of friendship, it's the month of light," Iman Senad Agic of the Islamic Cultural Center of Greater Chicago, told the Chicago Sun-Times. Ramadan is about spiritual devotion, inner reflection and self-control. It's about humility and sympathy for others.

Religious faith is intended to guide us to the highest ideals of humanity, and it demonstrates how we fall short when we indulge what the poet called man's inhumanity to man. The conference of scholars at the University of Chicago confronted just that.

"The academic community can be beholden to tradition, almost like a canon," Peder Jothen, a graduate divinity student told the Maroon, the student newspaper. "Sometimes it takes an event like 9/11 to provoke academics on issues like good and evil."

But not just academics. That's true for the rest of us, too.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS