Alan Abrams

Two sides to Ramadan when you’re living on the edge of the world

Sometimes you want to teach things to your kids and sometimes you desperately want to hide things from them. 

This time I was so excited by what I had noticed that I immediately wanted to show it to my 6-year old daughter. The workers in the pizza place across the street had all gathered around a table at dusk, the same time that our little family was gathered outside on our mirpeset enjoying the last few minutes of Shabbat in the dying light. “They’re breaking their daily Ramadan month fast together!” I told her. 

One of the things I love about living in Jerusalem alongside so many Muslims is a daily chance to feel the beautiful tension between how much Islam has in common with Judaism, yet how the specific details of how the faith is lived out are different and unique. Time is so central. And it was time that brought us together in this moment, the shared universal element that it was sundown time for us all. But for them, marking this time meant ending their fast while for us it meant preparing  to leave the holy time of the Shabbat rest and reenter the regular six-days-a-week time when we can do things like work and use our computers.

I wanted to teach my daughter about this, just this little piece of the little I understand about Islam and how clearly beautiful it was and how powerfully parallel it was to our own ways of honoring God and our traditions. I especially loved how relaxed and informal this religious sharing we were witnessing was. If you didn’t know it was Ramadan — and that the people working at this non-kosher pizza place were likely to be Muslim — you might think it was nothing more than people eating a meal at dinnertime. It was so great to be able to witness their observance from the height of our mirpeset there at our shared dusk and tell my daughter about it.

But I couldn’t help but think of another time not long ago looking from up high at beautiful things in the dying light with my daughter. My wife and I were spending a late afternoon with her as part of celebrating her sixth birthday. We walked past the Begin Center to a footbridge that crosses Derekh Hebron and boasts beautiful, commanding views of the Old City. 

As we approached the footbridge, my wife and I started to notice clearly heightened security. We had the same thoughts every Israeli has in such a situation. Has there been a pigua — a terrorist attack? Is it still safe to be here, can we (should we!) just go on with our lives as normal?

On the middle of the bridge, I looked up at a young female soldier looking at me with a gaze I found hard to interpret. She looked angry. Did her anger have anything to do with me? Was she trying to say, “What are you thinking bringing a young child here now?”

Then I looked down at my daughter who had run ahead. She was clearly running with joy. This was exactly what I wanted to give her for her birthday — not something material, but just the experience of having some special time together simply hanging out with her Abba and Imma. She was happy. I wasn’t going to break that. I wasn’t going to share with her my anxiety about our safety. I was just going to gently direct our progress away from where we were to places I considered more safe, to the less contested places in this holy city that so much blood has spilled over throughout the centuries. In this moment, I wasn’t going to share with her what I noticed about what the people we live alongside were doing.

It wasn’t yet Ramadan in that moment, but we were already in the zone where many Israelis start worrying if Ramadan will mean more terror. It deeply pains me to think of other people’s religious observance in this way. I would rather always feel about it like I did when I was watching those pizza workers this past Shabbat — the Shabbat that ended our own week-long holiday time, the time of my favorite of all Jewish holidays, Pesach. But living here in Jerusalem — on this fault line, this edge, between the developed and developing world, between the Western and the Muslim worlds — means living with a tension in how I feel about Ramadan.

This Ramadan and the run-up to it had indeed brought with it a bloody uptick in attacks. Among the more minor ones, the ones that involved knives and not guns and that did not result in death, were a stabbing attack in the hours before we walked over that footbridge. And, ironically, some days later there was another stabbing attack in exactly the ‘safer’ spot I was leading us to, the busy corner where Derekh Hebron meets David Remez st.

As bad as this terror wave has been, including the shooting attack on a Tel Aviv bar that left three dead, I am always conscious of how much worse it could be. Not far in the back of my mind is the memory of the terror from the suicide bombing attacks of the Second Intifada, as well as the possibility of yet another war with Hamas in Gaza and having to fear rocket attacks on our home from there.

So, I expect to feel a sense of relief when Ramadan ends later this week (as well as maybe a sense that some level of peace can be maintained for a while). A part of me feels ashamed to say that, but I also feel a pride that I live in this special place, a place where every day we take on the challenging task of what it means for Jews and Muslims to live side by side, a task that the whole world needs to learn to do better if we are to have any hope of a peaceful future for this planet.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that we will all learn how to treasure what we have in common with others, while also treasuring the myriad, diverse and very different ways we find to express our common love of the Holy. And may there be peace, here, for you wherever you are and for all people everywhere (especially the people of Ukraine!).

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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