Ruth Ebenstein, an American-Israeli journalist, public speaker and peace activist, is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered an Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide.  Find her online at RuthEbenstein.com, on Facebook at Laugh Through Breast Cancer – Ruth Ebenstein, and on twitter @ruthebenstein.

 

Picture a cross between Seder Night and a celebratory Yom Kippur Break-the-Fast.

That’s what my first comm­unal Iftar—the evening meal in which Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast— felt like: surprisingly Jewish. A festive blend of food, custom, ritual and prayer.

Iftar is traditionally meant to be eaten in congregation with family members and the greater collective, in mosques and in homes. In late May, my husband and I and our three tween boys went to Kids4Peace’s Neighborhood Iftar, a communal gathering of 350 Muslims, Jews and Christians, at Beit Safafa elementary school, which is in Beit Safafa, an Arab town on the green line. There I got to do something that I had never done before: gather together with Muslims to break their fast at sunset. As the muezzin recited the adhan or Call to Prayer, I watched Omar, 14, bite into a date and take a small sip of water, emulating the traditional way of breaking the fast modeled after the Prophet Muhammad.

Kids4Peace is a grassroots interfaith youth movement dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope in Jerusalem and other divided cities. Our son, Yuval, 12, is in the sixth grade group, and our whole family is part of the Kids4Peace community.

Although I’m an American-Israeli observant Jew, one of my closest friends is a Muslim Palestinian woman. Still, I have not had the chance to partake in an iftar. I keep kosher, and Ibtisam Erekat lives in Abu Dis, on the other side of the Separation Barrier. The last thing I would want to do is to burden her and her family with my kosher culinary needs after 15 hours of fasting. Ibtisam has regaled me with tales of hopping between the houses of her brothers, aunts, uncles, and her husband’s family. I’ve learned about other aspects of the holiday, such as the importance of giving charity and doing good deeds. Generosity colors the month of Ramadan.

Yet it was clear to me that I would better understand Ramadan and perhaps Islam if I had an actual place at the table. Food is not just a source of body nourishment, and meals are not just food served and eaten at one sitting; they are an entry into a different world. The Passover Seder ritual meal retells the story of Israelites being liberated from slavery in ancient Egypt, replete with symbolic components of foods and beverages, reclining, and customary text and song. A central part of the Seder is opening one’s home to others—”anyone who so desires can come and dine with us”.  It is an invitation to join the table and partake in the spiritual festivities: the reliving of the exodus from Egypt and the creation of a new nation.  A non-Jewish guest at a Seder gains a window into an integral component of Jewish faith and identity. I had hoped that I would feel more connected to all of my Muslim neighbors, to their traditions, and even to Ibtisam if I understood their religious practice from the inside.

“At Kids4Peace, we seek to expose each side to the reality of the other, and learning about the holidays and religions connected to Jerusalem is a huge part of that,” explained Meredith Rothbart, the Jewish Israeli co-director of Kids4Peace Jerusalem. “Having the opportunity to see, ask, taste, and observe the holiday firsthand makes the other feel more approachable and less ‘scary’. It infuses respect and mutual understanding.”

As the muezzin continued his melodious recitation of Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest), fasting Muslims around me grabbed glasses of classic Ramadan beverages: Tamar Hindi, a tangy brown-orange drink made of Tamarind, and Sharab al-kharoub, carob juice. Others got up to serve themselves soup, another common break-the-fast staple. It’s best to break the fast while he recites Call to Prayer, explained a smiling woman dressed traditionally in a hijab and an abaya (long flowing caftan).

Naturally, we let the Muslims, who had just finished fasting, eat first. Then the Christians and Jews, some even with kippot (skullcaps) on their heads, walked over to the food tables. Spread atop a red checkered tablecloth that could have been taken from a church picnic were food items laid out in sections marked halal, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and kosher. (Catered kosher breaded chicken, rice and other food items had been ordered.) Muslim, Christian and Jewish Kids4Peace families had also prepared home-cooked main dishes, salads, and deserts. Traditional Palestinian foods like maqluba, a one-pot meal of layered chicken, vegetables and rice, graced the tables. But missing were katayef, sweet dumplings, and namoura, semolina cake, because they needed to be prepared fresh. An aesthetically arranged gamut of dietary options communicated a message: at Kids4peace, there is place for everyone. Having my dietary restrictions accommodated really made me feel welcome; my presence was truly wanted.

“Muslims wait all year for the holy month of Ramadan,” explained Tareq Samman, 36, the Palestinian co-director of Kids4Peace Jerusalem. “Even though you’re supposed to eat as a community, it’s hard to fit everyone in one place. For me, it’s particularly meaningful to share this important event with my Jewish and Christian friends, and with the whole Kids4Peace community.”

In the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, Ramadan is ever palpable. Street signs are decorated with strings of flashing lights that I typically associate with Christmas. Canons boom to mark the end of the fast. All night long, streets bustle with shoppers buying copious quantities of meat, produce, pastries and candy to feed their families. Some homes place a framed crescent moon glittering in the window.

But living on the Jewish Israeli side of the city, I barely see or sense the holiday. Some lectures and cultural events are held to mark the holy month, but save a small announcement in the newspaper noting the start and end of the fast just atop the weather forecast, residents hardly feel the presence of Ramadan.

For Tareq, who grew up in Wadi El Joz, the gathering of Jews, Christians and Muslims is a heartwarming resonance of the historic days of Jerusalem. Prior to 1948, Jews and Muslims lived together in pre-state Palestine, and Jews frequented Iftar tables. “My grandmother’s best friend was Jewish, and she was always invited for iftar,” reminisced Tareq.

The greatest challenge in organizing this event is not bringing everyone together and caring for their culinary concerns. It’s that people don’t bother to RSVP! “Every year, we’re scared that nobody will show up,” acknowledged Meredith. “But it always ends up being full!”

There is a cultural component to the lack of RSVPs, explained Tareq. Communal tradition makes it hard for Muslims to commit to our event, when they get invited to family iftars at the last minute. “I don’t expect someone to blow off his brother for Kids4Peace,” he said with a smile.

The school gym, where the iftar was held, bustled with activity. In one corner, guests danced to traditional Palestinian music. In an arts and crafts nook, young children made traditional paper lanterns. On the grass, parents studied interfaith texts on fasting. Myself, I opted to tour Beit Safafa and Givat Hamatos, a Jewish neighborhood with a complicated history that hosted Ethiopian Jewish and Russian immigrants in caravans, with Kids4Peace teens, who taught me about the connections between the two communities.

My three school-age sons also got to see quotidian Muslim customs. When a group of Muslim men prostrated in prayer, my children’s faces lit up with curiosity. Oh, so that’s how you pray.

One wall of the gym was decorated with a painted picture of the Al-Aqsa mosque next to a Hebrew sign that said, “You need a little luck,” referring to the lottery that funded the building.

In honor of the spirit of giving, Kids4Peace had collected second-hand clothing, toys and school supplies from the community to deliver to Palestinian and Israeli families in need around Jerusalem.

That inclusion and caring for everyone stands as a counterpoint to the complexity of Jerusalem, which often divides Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.

“Our message is that we are one city for all religions. You politicians can have your political wars. But at Kids4Peace, we’re just going to keep on going with our togetherness,” affirmed Tareq.

Now Ramadan is gone, and so Eid Al Fitr, the religious three-day holiday that marks it end. The next holiday, Eid Al-Adha, isn’t until late August. But lingering for me is a welcoming message of community and a greater connection to Islam.