Open mike sessions at coffee shops don’t usually stop passing pedestrians in their tracks. On July 14, though, people passing Che Cafe at 1058 W. Taylor St. paused to look at the overflow crowd, peppered with a healthy sprinkling of attendees wearing yarmulkes or hijabs.
The people sitting in rows of red folding chairs and standing along the counter top were there to see a roster of Jewish and Muslim performers at the fourth Cafe Finjan interfaith arts exchange.
"I am a proud Filipino-American Jew," said Elena Rubin, a 20-year-old college student who sang a Cuban song and a song in Ladino, a medieval Spanish-Hebrew dialect. "A lot of what I try to show through my music is that we are one of many elements in the Jewish world. Particularly in America there’s this perception that there’s one bagel-and-lox culture ... [but Jews] come in all colors and cultures."
Joe Weiss said the "best thing" that happened to him at Cafe Finjan was that he broke one of his stereotypes. He had wrongly assumed a woman he was speaking with was Jewish because she had blonde hair.
"I know nothing about Islam, and I think something like this is great to be able to talk to people without barriers," Weiss, 29, said. "This is the only organization that I know in Chicago that is doing something like this. If there are two groups on Earth that need to talk the most, it’s us."
Amanda Klonsky, who started the Cafe Finjan series in 2004 when she was the director of the Jewish-Muslim Community-Building Initiative of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, said the event helps the religious groups move beyond their differences.
"Sharing poetry, music, and art at Cafe Finjan is one step toward building a larger sense of shared values and purpose between Jewish and Muslim communities in Chicago," Klonsky said. "... At times, when it might seem that our communities are vastly different, a poem or a song can remind us that, in fact, we have a lot in common."
Klonsky started the community-building initiative after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to show support for Chicago’s Muslim community. The events were solely political in nature before the creation of the Cafe Finjan series. Current initiative director Guy Austrian holds a similar view on the merit of cultural exchanges.
"Some people do find it easier to access contemporary issues through the arts, but it’s not because art is easy or soft," said Austrian, who organized last week’s event as well as the previous exchange, a comedy night held at Jones College Prep in February. "Art is one of the most powerful tools we have to work towards social change."
The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs actively courts Muslim groups throughout the city to participate in the community-building initiative. The other sponsors of last week’s Cafe Finjan were the Chicago chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Council of American Muslim Professionals, and the Muslim Bar Association.
"My closest friends are Jewish," said Safina Ghazi, 29, vice president of Muslim professionals group. "We need to promote the arts. This is the best way to entertain people and approach them in a non-obtrusive manner."
The organizers chose a mix of acts—eight in total—with everything from folk guitar to poetry readings. There were two emcees (one from the Jewish community and one from the Muslim community) who kept everything running smoothly and introduced the various performers.
The next installment in the Cafe Finjan series, tentatively set for late fall, will be an art show.
On the success of Cafe Finjan, Austrian said: "It’s been beyond my expectations. We’re building real partnerships between the sponsoring organizations. We do concrete projects together and the dialogue grows from that."