Ramy Youssef backstage after his performance at Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle in Royal Oak, Mich. on April 23, 2019. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Ramy is, with one exception, a Jewish story about how faith and heritage can make navigating contemporary American life both humorous and hard. The exception is that Ramy — the 28-year-old comedian and the main character in his eponymous TV show — is Muslim.

Otherwise, though, Jewish. In the gendered expectations of first-generation American parents eager to become grandparents of third-generation Americans. In balancing the work ethic instilled upon us with creative pursuits and work-life balance. In the members of extended family (and “family”) whose outspoken worldviews, while based on their own lived experiences, perpetuate stereotypes of others and of their own community.

The first 10-episode season of Ramy, a Hulu original series, has afforded me three things. First, audible laughter (aka LOL IRL) sufficient to rouse Lola, my geriatric Newfoundland. Second, a new way to think about Jewish journeys of affiliation and assimilation. Third, a safe space to explore my own ignorance and prejudice when it comes to Islam and its adherents.

Ramy is funny. And there’s no way better way to sap something of its humor than to try to explain how or why. Instead, here’s the show’s opening exchange, between Ramy and his doting, would-be-empty-nesting mother:

— “I don’t understand. Why is he getting married before you? Maybe you can find a girl in there.”
— “I’m not gonna flirt with girls at the mosque … What am I supposed to say? Like, ‘Hey, can I get your father’s number?’”
— “Yes, why not?”

Ramy’s belief in God is the source of “observance dissonance.” On the one hand, the deep interconnectedness he observes in his relationships and reflections point decisively toward the Divine. On the other, that same depth and dynamism make it impossible to observe all the rules of his religion.

“And, yeah, I have sex even though I’m not married and I’m probably gonna try mushrooms one day. So what? That means I’m not a good Muslim? ’Cause I don’t follow all the rules and the f***king judgments that are always just being put on us? … And then I do the same thing. I put the same f***ing judgments on everyone around me. I’m just, like, trying to be … good. Do you think God cares if I wash between my toes?”

The spirit or the letter of law? His own moral compass, the precepts of his faith or the norms of his community?

I have never had to negotiate dating apps or head coverings, let alone a combination of the two. Still, Judah is less than three years away from becoming bar mitzvah (and is named Judah) and yet I feel like I’m taking a pop quiz in my underwear when I try to help him sound out and translate Hebrew words.

Like Ramy says in this exchange with a friend’s cousin in town interviewing prospective husbands during Ramadan:
— “I read the Qur’an in English.”
— “I want my kids to read Arabic.”
— “Totally, no, I think they should, I mean, I think that you could, you know, you gotta teach the kids Arabic, and I actually feel like when I have kids, I’ll just, I’ll take the class with them, so this way, it’s like a bonding thing, like me and them and then they’re like, ‘Wow, Dad’s still learning, too,’ I think is a valuable lesson.”
— “The adult brain stops developing at 25, so it’s much harder to learn languages. It’ll never stick.”

Ramy Youssef was a 10-year-old child of Egyptian immigrants living in New Jersey on Sept. 11, 2001. I was a college sophomore in upper Manhattan.

Like you — the thoughtful readers of this column, who think critically, bring your own grocery bags to the store and floss regularly — I consider myself an open-minded and empathetic person.

But I have an implicit bias against Muslims in general and Arabs in particular and you probably do, too.

Planet of the Arabs is a short film made entirely of footage that creator Jaqueline Salloum describes as demonstrating “Hollywood’s relentless vilification and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims.” It’s worth spending nine minutes to watch — and you don’t need a Hulu account. There’s also riztest.com. (Lighter online alternative: Peabody Award-winning Halal in the Family).

Ramy is one in a billion, in that he is exactly one Muslim person out of approximately two billion in the world. And Ramy is nearly as anomalous as a nuanced portrayal of Muslim characters for a secular audience.

Even — especially? — in a region that has engaged, diverse Muslim and Middle-Eastern communities, Islamophobia is a sociological reality. And there’s self-work for each of us to do. I, for one, had to look online to learn the meaning of “habibi” and then train my ear to hear it as a term of endearment and not some kind of ominous other.

Yes, it is purposeful and powerful for Jews and Muslims to volunteer together on Mitzvah Day and to advocate for Christians who would face religious persecution if deported to Iraq. More of that.

But just like we are more than our mitzvot, Ramy reminds us that there is honor — and humor — in hearing our neighbors’ stories and sharing our own.

 

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