When people walk by a coffee shop near a university, they are not usually surprised to see an open mike session.
On a recent night however, people passing Cafe Che on Taylor Street -- blocks away from the heart of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus -- paused to look at the 70-person filled-to-capacity crowd. Perhaps more surprising though was the number of men wearing yarmulkes and women wearing hijabs who peppered the audience.
The people sitting in rows of red folding chairs and standing along the countertop were there to see a roster of Jewish and Muslim performers at the fourth "Cafe Finjan" interfaith arts exchange.
"We see cultural exchange as one important way to help facilitate dialogue across lines of difference," said Amanda Klonsky, who started the Cafe Finjan series in 2004 as the then-director of the Jewish-Muslim Commuity-Building Initiative (JMCBI) of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA). "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 ... 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 JMCBI after the 9-11 terrorist attacks as a way to show support for Chicago's Muslim community. The events were solely political in nature before the creation of the Cafe Finjan series. Current JMCBI 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 JCUA actively courts Muslim groups throughout the city to participate in the JMCBI. The other sponsors of last week's Cafe Finjan were the Chicago chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Council of American Muslim Professionals (CAMP), and the Muslim Bar Association.
"My closest friends are Jewish," said Safina Ghazi, 29, vice president of CAMP, which participated for the first time. "We need to promote the arts. This is the best way to entertain people and approach them in a non-obtrusive manner."
All together the participating groups have hundreds of members, so there was no shortage of performers. A program was drawn up before the event, and 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, many of whom touched upon issues important to their respective communities.
"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."
At the end of the show, the emcees encouraged everyone to stick around and to meet new people. Joe Weiss, a JCUA member, said the "best thing" that happened to him at Cafe Finjan was that he broke one of his sterotypes. 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."
The next installment in the Cafe Finjan series will be an art show, which will most likely be held in November or December. Austrian said preparations will start within the next few weeks because of the necessary lead time to secure a venue, gather submissions and plan an opening party.
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."