Hamza Perez looked the part of a coffee house poet this night, sitting on stool before a lonely mic reciting poetry to room of Jack Karouac types in 1950s San Francisco. Goateed, a black short cap sat askew on his head.
Only this was neither the 1950s nor San Francisco. This was the coffee shop at Borders East End in East Liberty, Pittsburgh 2008.
And Perez was pushing a benevolent brand of rebellion — one that brings people together rather setting them apart.
“This is a project that tries to revive the spirit of compassion with one another,” Perez said. “Muslims have been through hardships and Jews have been through hardships. And Muslims are crazy and Jews are crazy.”
Off-color humor aside, Perez was the moderator this night for a poetry reading by the Crossing Limits project, a group that tries to bring Jewish and Muslim together, most notably through, but by education as well.
On this night Jewish poets such as Carol Elkind and Judith Robinson read alongside Muslims poets Rashida Saadiya and others.
At the core of Crossing Limits is its work on a new poetry anthology that will compile works from Jewish and Muslim writers and poets from across the country. Between 500 and 1,000 submissions have already been received.
The group is seeking grants from local state and federal sources to support its work
“It’s taking time because there’s so much [to do],” said Elkind, who along with Saadiya co-directs Crossing Limits, “but it’s going to come out. We have lots of people.”
When it does, it will be the second Crossing Limits anthology. The first showcased Jewish and black poets living in Pittsburgh.
The latest project began four years ago, when Elkind brought the idea to a longtime friend of hers, Rabbi Michael Zedek of Emanuel Congregation in Chicago.
“At dinner, he said, ‘The only thing I want to change is I want to do it with Muslims and Jews,’ ” Elkind recalled. “My job dropped open.”
Today, the Crossing Limits project has six editors — three Jews and three Muslims — from Boston, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Elkind has met with the Sprout Fund in Pittsburgh about a possible grant and it is getting in touch with Illinois and Pennsylvania arts councils as well.
Saadiya, who joined the project a year ago, said the work can touch on all kinds of topics, not just politics. In fact, she would prefer it if politics were not the main thrust of much of the work. She wants it to be an opportunity to learn about both cultures.
“These are two groups that are stereotyped a lot,” said Saadiya, a teacher of Africa literature and creative writing at Westinghouse High School. “That’s the point, if you have something in the book, you want everyone to read it, and you want it to be a learning experience.”
Perez, a musician and artist who also works with gangs through the Homewood Brushton YMCA, said the Crossing Limits project has changed him.
“Throughout history, Jews and Muslims did things together, going back to my heritage — Spain,” the Puerto Rican born Perez said. “This has been a learning process for me working with the Jewish community.”
On the night of the Borders reading, Elkind read not only her own works, but those of her mother who started writing poetry at age 64.
In one of her mother’s poems, “The Album,” reads: “It’s Grand Central Station, so many people litter my living room, so many generations fall at my feet. I must pick them up.”
Elkind also read a vivid poem titled “Gematria” by a former Hillel Academy student, Hannah Rosenberg.
Robinson, who compiled the “Tsunami Poems” anthology, read several Hoocaust themed poems this night, including two she wrote for Israel and Dora Iwler
“I guess I’m a good example of what this collaboration hopes to achieve,” Robinson said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)