Muslim, Jews and a New Song: Interfaith event blends books, music and personal stories

After the horror of 9/11, a shaken Tricia Hellman Gibbs decided the time had come to delve into her Jewish roots, learn Hebrew and study Torah.

But she didn’t stop there.

The Mill Valley resident also took up Arabic and began studying the Koran. The twin endeavors led her to a new understanding of faith and humanity.

They also led Gibbs, 53, to write her 2011 debut novel, “New Song,” set in part in the Middle East and featuring as its protagonists Jews and Muslims.

Tricia Hellman Gibbs

Gibbs will read selections from her novel at an event titled “Muslims, Jews and a New Song,” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 23 at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center.

She’ll be joined onstage by Marin-based Muslim writer Nafisa Haji, who will read from her latest novel, “The Sweetness of Tears.” Linking the two speakers will be the Yuval Ron Trio performing Jewish, Muslim and Christian music from the Middle East. Readings and musical performances will be followed by a panel discussion with Gibbs, Haji and Ron.

Gibbs is not new to Jewish life. Her late father, Warren Hellman, was one of the Bay Area Jewish community’s most visible leaders and philanthropists. Though culturally Jewish, the Hellman household did lack religious content.

“Our upbringing was completely secular,” remembers Gibbs, a former member of the U.S. Ski Team. “We were focused on sports, school and nothing to do with religion at the time. So I didn’t know anything about Torah, the Bible or the Koran before 9/11.”

She says that momentous September day “focused our [collective] attention on religion as a source of conflict and confusion. I decided I was going to read these books. I realized I wanted to know what they actually said.”

As a wife, mother of five and a busy physician (she co-founded with her husband the San Francisco Free Clinic, where she still works as director), Gibbs did not have much free time to devote to Torah study or writing. So, like her father (who would rise at 3 a.m. to get in a 10-mile run before heading to the office), she, too, became an early riser.

Pre-dawn Torah and Koran study became part of her daily routine, though she initially approached the texts with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“I was expecting to debunk [the texts],” she says. “It seemed like science had it all figured out. I was a doctor, so what place could religion have in that? As I studied, I realized there was a lot more I could know to help another human being, grounded in higher ethics.”

She joined Torah study sessions at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, under the tutelage of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. To learn Arabic, she took courses online and classes in Islam at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union.

Gibbs found Arabic daunting, but as she pushed forward the richness of the language revealed itself. Likewise, she found the Koran to be “a puzzle I am still working on.”

Part of the puzzle was determining what the Koran has to say about Jews and Judaism. Though much of it, like the Torah, is subject to interpretation, Gibbs found positive signs.

She points to one passage that has Allah speaking directly to the Jews. “The message is that we should remember the miracle  of what [God] did,” she says. “It reminds us that [the Jews] have been favored over all the worlds.”

Gibbs’ dedication to study culminated in an adult bat mitzvah in August 2009. She shared the bimah with her father, a longtime Torah scholar who similarly had not had a bar mitzvah early in life.

Gibbs’ novel, which spans three continents and contrasts Jewish and Muslim points of view, was a labor of love. The plot — which centers on a lost Arabic poem that offers redemption to the world — grew out of parallels Gibbs perceived between Sufism and Kabbalah, the mystical traditions of Islam and Judaism.

She calls the book “a Jewish-Muslim Da Vinci Code.”

Over the course of writing the novel, Gibbs has grown more hopeful about reconciliation between Muslims and Jews. She’s experienced glimmers of that in her study sessions, and she sees it in the Koran itself.

“There is a statement that says ‘Ask the children of Israel about the signs and wonders,’ ” she says, quoting a passage in the Koran. “That means Muslims should continue the dialogue with us.”


“Muslims, Jews and a New Song,” 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 23, Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. $12-$15.