What’s a Nice Jewish Boy Like You Doing at a Mosque Like This?

Inside the life of a Jewish Sufi.

What’s a Nice Jewish Boy Like You Doing at a Mosque Like This?

Jonathan Friedmann is late to the mosque. A slim man with a red beard, green turban, and flowing black vest, he shuffles down a street full of vintage-clad twentysomethings. He had his appendix taken out just two weeks ago, and he’s feeling tired and worried. A bit headachy. But that’s all the more reason to go to dhikr, the Islamic mantra chanting session that he refers to as his “spiritual carwash.”

As he steps in the door at Montreal’s Naqshbandi Sufi Center, Friedmann, 38, sheds his shoes and joins a circle of Muslim men on the floor. Here, nobody calls him by his Jewish name – he’s known as Hassan.

Friedmann isn’t the only Jew at the mosque this evening. He’s one of a surprising number of Jewish men and women becoming active in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Some of the worshippers here say they first heard about the Sufi Center from Jewish friends.

Jonathan Friedmann

The standard-issue prayers get said quickly, about fifty people murmuring and bowing in the sweltering room. Sweet tea is served in tiny white teacups. The sheikh gives a sermon in a mix of English, Arabic, and French; he draws a contrast between lumière and matière, light and matter, the spiritual realm and the physical realm. A three-year-old boy repeats the words in a drawn-out whisper, like he’s casting a magical spell: LumièeeeeereMatièeeeeere.

Then the sheikh kicks off a gentle chant. People sway as they intone, “Ya kareem Allah, ya rahim Allah, ya aziz Allah” (O God, the kind, the merciful, the beloved). Someone turns off the lights; the room grows cooler, the mood mellow, the air full of music.

But soon that music twists, and intensifies. A cloaked man begins to whirl like a dervish in the center of the circle. He spins faster and faster, arms outstretched. The sheikh shouts, “Hu! Hai! Haq!” Worshippers shout after him: “God Himself! The Everliving! Truth!” Each word gets repeated until the room sounds like a Lamaze class: “Hu! Hu! Hu!” The breathing is intense, a technique meant to create an altered state of consciousness.

And for Friedmann, that’s exactly what it does. By the time the dhikr ends, he feels physically better. Lighter. Happier. Energized, he slips out the door.

“I’m a Muslim. And a Jew. It’s simple,” Friedmann tells me the next day. We’re sitting in Rumi Restaurant, the successful Middle Eastern eatery he created with his brother Todd (AKA Husayn). It’s a large, mint-smelling space full of hanging plants, colorful tapestries, golden lanterns, batik cushions, Arabic calligraphy, and paintings of the Persian poet and mystic for whom the restaurant is named.

The outside of Rumi Restaurant, which Friedmann co-created with his brother.

“Ever since high school,” Friedmann says, “I was on a search for truth.” He grew up going to a traditional Jewish school, attending synagogue with his parents, and celebrating the holidays. He learned Hebrew, had a bar mitzvah, the works. But none of that wowed him. Ditto for yoga and meditation retreats.

Then, in 1999, when he was 21, he returned to Montreal for summer break after his first year away at university. Someone invited him to an interfaith conference, where, at lunchtime, he happened to sit down at the Sufi table. By the end of the meal, the Sufis had invited him to visit their mosque.

When Friedmann first entered the Sufi Center, he had no idea whether the Muslims there could tell he was Jewish. But he didn’t feel self-conscious. He saw a few people seated in a dim candlelit room, singing. The darkness and the joyful music made it easy to join them without fear of judgment. Soon, he felt a huge burden lift off him. He’d been unhappy at university. He’d considered studying religion, but despaired at the dry academic approach – intellectual, not experiential. And as he sat in this circle, he knew he wouldn’t go back to school; he’d stay in Montreal for good, with these Muslims, this dhikr, this carwash of the soul.

The next week, he converted.

It was a simple initiation rite: After dhikr, Friedmann sat on a bench and grasped the hand of the sheikh, then recited the shahada, the declaration of belief in God’s oneness and in Muhammad as God’s prophet. Just like that, with the sheikh’s blessing, he became a member of the Naqshbandi Sufi order.

When Friedmann’s parents found out that he had converted to Sufism, they were concerned that he had joined a cult and called a hotline for more information on the Sufis. They asked their therapists, too. Everyone told them not to worry, that Sufis are peaceful, middle-of-the-way people. Still, they were freaked out. Their older son, Todd, had tagged along with his brother to mosque and converted as well, and now, when visiting them, he waved around a book on Sufism, extolling its virtues. Was he trying to lure them into a cult, too? And what was with all these turbans? They questioned him vigorously.

Suddenly, something unexpected happened. “Our father saw that our relationship with him was improving,” Friedmann says. Todd had been prone to frequent arguments with their dad but those were now subsiding, and Friedmann had seemed emotionally distant during his time away at university, but was now growing closer. “We were becoming better, not worse. We were regular, balanced, normal people – but with something more.”

So when the brothers invited their dad, Tom Friedmann, an entrepreneur, on a road trip to Michigan to meet the head sheikh, he said yes. As he walked into Friday prayers and sat on a bench, surrounded by more than a hundred Muslim worshippers, questions swirled in his brain. But before he could sound a single skeptical note, the sheikh began his sermon – and the questions just dissolved. This gentle leader made clear that he wasn’t trying to exclude anyone, or set up his faith in opposition to anyone else’s. Friedmann’s father relaxed. That night the sheikh appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Everything will be okay.”

A painting of Rumi, the Persian mystic and poet for whom Friedmann’s restaurant is named, hangs on the wall.

A few years later, the sheikh appeared to Friedmann’s mom, too – not in a dream, but in the flesh, in Montreal. “She went to his talk and dhikr, and all her worries were vacuumed away,” Friedmann recounts. “From then on, it was like a new chapter. She used to be tired, always going home, lying in bed – that was her general program. Now she had new energy.”

And so it seemed only natural that, last February, when Friedmann wanted to marry a woman he’d met at the Sufi Center, the wedding took place at his parents’ home in Jewish suburbia – and the sheikh officiated. About thirty guests gathered in the living room for the ceremony, which featured traditional Sufi music. Friedmann’s father participated in the singing; his mother listened, beaming.

After all, it’s not like Friedmann spurned his Jewish identity to adopt his Muslim one. He still joins his parents for Jewish holidays. “Some people, their understanding of religion is like you’re on a hockey team. You’re on one side, the other team is on the enemy side,” he says. “We don’t have that understanding.”

It’s five p.m., which means two things: Friedmann needs to pray, and the exterior lights at Rumi Restaurant need to be turned on. The first is no problem: Friedmann disappears into a back room, where he keeps a prayer rug, and spends a few solitary minutes there. The second is tougher: the halogen bulb on the terrace is busted.

On his way out to buy a new one, Friedmann grabs his turban and robe, which he stashes in his car for use at the mosque later. “I usually don’t wear my turban in public – to keep a low profile,” he explains. “Sometimes people look at me funny.” Although he has never been attacked, strangers have buttonholed him in the street to ask, “Where are you really from?” – a loaded question these days. His brother, who sports the turban and a longer beard, has gotten called “Bin Laden.” A stranger once spit on the sidewalk in disgust while passing him by.

Arabic calligraphy adorns the wall above the kitchen.

Once at the hardware store, Friedmann takes a long time in the light bulb aisle. Which halogen option to choose? “This one’s 250 watts, that’s too much, no? Too much light is no good – it can make the thing explode!”

As he grabs a 150-watt bulb instead, I mention that what he just said echoes a mystical idea in Judaism, that it’s dangerous to achieve too much enlightenment at once.

The Sufis also warn against getting too “drunk on God,” he says. “You need to be balanced, with your two wings: sharia [Islamic law] and haqiqa [mystical truth].” The physical and the spiritual. Matière and lumière.

And with that, he rushes back to the restaurant and the broken light.