I’m Jewish, but the Ramadan fast deepens my connection to God
The hunger that comes with Ramadan teaches lessons about poverty and charity. It also reminds us that we should put our faith in God
On the fourth day of Ramadan, late in the afternoon, I half-sit, half-lie in a hammock, my bare feet touching the hot concrete patio. Flattened by hunger and dehydration and exhaustion and the South Florida heat, I feel something well in my chest: indignation.
I’m Jewish and I’m suffering while fasting for Islam’s holy month while my husband, who is Muslim, is not. Anger flashes up my throat, my brow furrows as my face closes in on itself, jaw clenching.
In effort to calm down, I remind myself that anger is discouraged during Ramadan. I remind myself that it’s me who has chosen to fast, that I am doing this for the sake of our two children, so they can feel the rhythm of the Islamic calendar just like they do the Jewish one.
I want our children to feel how Ramadan breaks the cycle of day-to-day life, shifting our attention to more spiritual concerns, and feel also the excitement of Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast, which wouldn’t feel celebratory without the contrast, without the month of fasting that comes before it.
The hot flame of anger subsides and is replaced by guilt as I realize that I have no right to be upset with my husband for something I decided to do. Then, in rapid succession, it’s replaced again by embarrassment. Why am I doing this? What would a real Muslim think of me, an impostor, who allows herself a cup of coffee in the morning and sips of water throughout the day while fasting? Finally, I feel shame. Does fasting for Ramadan make me a bad Jew?
The sounds of my children pitching toy cars down a ramp punctures the swirl of thoughts and emotions. It’s rare for them to play together without me. Moments ago, my 3-year-old son brought a stack of books to the hammock where I sat wilting; after piling the books in, he’d climbed onto my lap. My 5-year-old daughter followed, wriggling her long, lean body into the space next to me. Throat dry, tongue thick, voice hoarse, I read one book then another, trying to fake my usual energy and enthusiasm. Unconvinced, my son climbed down, gave me a hard look, and announced, “I don’t want to read anymore.” My daughter — equally unimpressed — moved on to something more exciting, too.
But now they return, asking if we can go to “the hypothesis tree” — a large banyan tree that sits in the back of the neighborhood, between a cul de sac and a canal. Last year, during the lockdown, we found refuge there by tying sticks of all different sizes to the shoots that hang down, string-like, from the banyan’s branches and by busying ourselves with predictions about which would swing the highest and which would swing the longest and which we’d tied tightly enough so that they would remain until we returned the next day. The name “hypothesis tree” stuck.
It’s hot today and, from my position in the hammock, I imagine the short trip to the cul de sac. I see myself racing to keep up with their bikes — my son’s with training wheels still, my daughter’s bike without — sprinting to get out in front of them before they roll into an intersection, failing and then yelling “red light” in a bid to get them to stop.
Feeling bad about how poorly my attempt to read went, wanting to redeem myself, I push my concerns aside and stand. I tuck my daughter’s blonde ringlets behind her ears and buckle her helmet; a click and my son’s Spiderman helmet is also fastened to his head.
Off we go.
As I run between the two of them — my son ahead of me, my daughter behind — I see my legs but don’t feel them. My head pounds in rhythm with my heart. Twice, the sidewalk appears to sway before me. But I — we — make it to the hypothesis tree, with its branches of guesses and wonders. We walk along the thick roots like tightropes, holding our arms out for balance, and I think of how my short run to the cul de sac was nothing short of a leap of faith. I trusted God to get me and the children here and he, she — whatever God is — did.
I know that the Ramadan fast is about feeling the pain of those who are poor and are always hungry. But in this moment, I think that maybe Ramadan is about something else, too. Maybe it’s about showing God that you will turn away from the corporeal, that you will put your trust not in yourself, not in your body, but in faith.
That you can — and will — rely on God alone to nourish you.
Something shifts and I feel the breeze coming off the canal. The strings of the hypothesis tree sway. I hear the rustle of palm fronds and birds singing. I look up and see how, as the sun lowers itself in the sky, it casts gold upon the banyan tree’s leaves.
The churn of emotions I felt on the hammock isn’t real. Indignation, embarrassment, worry, fear. Happiness. It all passes. The trees and the air and the birds and the light pass, too. Only God remains.
As the kids ride and I run home, I still can’t feel my legs. But I feel grateful for the gnaw of hunger in my stomach, for the burn in my lungs, for the heaviness of my tongue, for the ache in my head. Because, ironically, feeling my body in such a minute way puts me outside myself, connecting me to something larger.
Sundown comes. The first words of the call to prayer stream out from an app on my phone: allahu akhbar, God is greater.
Greater than my body, greater than my hunger.
As the children and I set the patio table for iftar, the meal that will break my fast, I don’t rush. I’m hungry, but my husband still hasn’t returned from work. We won’t start without him. And, with God, I can wait.