I was walking down one of my favorite leafy streets in my neighborhood this morning, on my way to the subway, and I saw, about 30 paces in front of me, a man in a suit warmly greet and embrace a boy of about 15 or 16. The boy looked awkwardly friendly in the sort of way that you are around your parents’ friends, when they know you really well but you feel like you don’t know them, and they exchanged words in a language that I could only tell wasn’t English before continuing in their opposite directions.
I continued on behind the man down the block, and he encountered two other gentlemen about his age, also in grey suits, and I could see their smiles even before I caught up to and passed them as they, too, all hugged and exchanged joyous greetings. The first snippet of words I caught sounded like either “salaam-aleikum” or “shalom aleichem” – in my Brooklyn neighborhood, it could easily be either of these. I reflected on the men’s appearances – notably, none were wearing any head coverings or shawls or other signs of religious devotion used in both Islam and Judaism – but the only clue I could discern as to which greeting they’d said was when I remembered that Ramadan just ended today. As I continued onto the next block, I encountered several other groups of men in more traditional Muslim dress, and my conjecture was confirmed.
All the same, I can’t get over how hard it was to tell the two religions apart – and I have studied both in depth – and how similar their celebratory greetings are.