“My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece” is this years’ choice for Arlington Reads Together, a community experience during which Robbins Library invites residents to read a selected book and attend a series of conversations on topics related to the book. “ My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece” sparks discussions about family, addiction, grief, culture, and religion.
The latest in this series of events, which was co-sponsored by Arlington Vision 2020’s Diversity Task Group, was a panel discussion about understanding other cultures. It included Rona Fischman, Saadia Husain Baloch, and Maria Wilson-Portuondo, three members of the Daughters of Abraham, an interfaith book group, which meet regularly to learn about each other’s faith through books. Rona Fischman introduced herself as a Jewish woman and a real estate agent from Somerville. “ So, you don’t have to be an expert to be a Daughter of Abraham,” she said. She described the mission of the group and how it was founded in 2001 by Edie Howe. On September 11, 2001, Howe was attending a spontaneous prayer gathering at First Church in Harvard Square in reaction to the terrorist attacks. “She looked to one side and there was a Jewish woman, she looked to the other side and there was a Muslim woman, and she looked over and there was a Hindu woman,” said Fischman.
At approximately the same time, in November 2001, Saadia Husain Baloch, one of the other panelists, was attending a cross-cultural event at the Newton Free Library. “ There was so much anger in that room that day. Having lived in Newton all my life, I did not know that there was that much fear and anger against Muslims that people had come out to vent. It was so much raw emotion, being six weeks after 9/11, ” she said. Husain Baloch joined the Daughters of Abraham over 10 years ago, but this group is not her first interfaith experience. When she was still in high school in Newton, a comparative religion teacher at Solomon Schechter Day School, a Jewish institution, invited her to talk to her class about her faith. Since then, she has had more opportunity to deepen people’s knowledge of Islam.
Maria Wilson-Portuondo has a different life experience. She was born in the Catholic island of Puerto Rico and growing up, she had very few, if any, interactions with people from other religions. She is an early member of the Daughters of Abraham and quoted several examples of unique, rich and meaningful interactions with people from other faiths. Wilson- Portuondo enumerated the ground rules that dictate the structure of the group and other challenges that members face. “ It’s been a task to continue dancing around not getting into politics because there are people who really want to discuss the politics, specifically of the Middle East”, said Husain Baloch.
Fischman mentioned that when selecting a book to read together, the Daughters of Abraham try to get away from books that start with stereotypes. Because “My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece” springs out of the death of one of the main character’s twin sisters in a terrorist attack, it may have not made the bookgroup’s cut. Both the panelists and the audience however, seem to agree that the story is heart-breaking.