Confrontation (with apologies to the Rav)
I attended my second Iftar a few weeks ago, more than 30 years after the first and only one I had been to before.
I’ve already written about the earlier one (“Sharing Similarities and Celebrating Differences,” June 23, 2022), and I’m sure my regular readers remember all the details as clearly as I do. (If I did emojis in columns, there would be a smiley face here.) But for any new readers who are seeing this in hard copy, with no hyperlink, let me briefly quote myself to bring you up to date:
“Amal [Aly] and I shared a secretary. On the day that we really met — Amal had been at the firm only a few weeks and our previous meetings had been quite brief — I wasn’t eating because it was a minor Jewish fast day. I guess my hunger made me testier than usual, and my secretary murmured, after an irritable (on my part) exchange, ‘Oh, just my luck to work for two fasting attorneys.’ I was momentarily perplexed, though I quickly realized it was Ramadan and (duh) Amal, a Muslim, was the other person fasting.
“I immediately went to her office, said I just realized we were both fasting (abashedly explaining how I found out), and asked if she’d like to break her fast with me later that day. Although her fast ended a bit earlier than mine, she graciously agreed to wait. And so, over a meal of Kosher Delight southern fried chicken and fries, an Orthodox Jew and his Muslim colleague broke bread, and their fasts, together.”
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My more recent Iftar was a very different experience. Unlike Amal’s and my personal, private, serendipitous, and spontaneous two-person, two-religion fast-breaking in a law office conference room, this 2023 Ramadan community iftar was planned in advance, sponsored by the Teaneck Municipal Council and the town manager in partnership with eight Teaneck and Bergen County Muslim groups, open to the entire Teaneck community, and held in one of the gymnasiums in Teaneck’s Richard Rodda Community Center. And that gym was overflowing with more than 500 people that evening.
Another difference was programming. The 1990s iftar had none other than Amal privately reciting whatever prayer was appropriate at the end of her fast, me davening Ma’ariv at the end of mine, and both of us chatting over dinner about this and that — this probably being getting to know each other better and that most likely being some case we were working on together. The 2023 iftar had a 13-part program lasting over an hour, including (just a partial listing), an Arabic Quran recitation followed by its English translation, (wisely brief) remarks and greetings delivered by various public officials and attending dignitaries, a keynote speech by one imam and the recitation of the Duaa (supplication) by another, and the Athan (call for prayer) followed by the actual Iftar (breaking of the fast) itself.
Prayer too was different. While Amal and I prayed in private, once the call to prayer was completed this year, many of the men and some of the women gathered publicly in a second Rodda gymnasium for the post-sunset Maghrib prayer. This was taking place while many other attendees were already beginning to fill up their plates and sit down to enjoy the delicious repast that was available for all. Note that even after a full day’s fasting, those praying chose to eat before that prayer service only a date, some fruit, and a samosa (a fried South Asian pastry with a savory filling) that had been set before each attendee during the program. I had always been impressed with the dedication of those who fast day after day during the entire month of Ramadan. But my admiration only increased when I observed this additional demonstration of will power by those who delayed the break-fast (not breakfast) meal even after sunset in order to first join in prayer.
And as long as I mentioned the food, let me really talk about the food. Think wedding smorgasbord, but instead of a carving table, sushi platters, hot beef and chicken dishes with rice and other sides, American, pasta, and Chinese stations, and various additional assorted goodies (my favorite being sweetbreads). Imagine tables set up against the length of three of the gym’s walls laden with many delicacies from Morocco, Egypt, and other home countries of Teaneck’s diverse Muslim population, including the following: chebakia, sellou, harira/beef, msammen, kefta (ground meat) briouat, chicken pastilla (skillet chicken pie), baghrir (pancakes), beef shawarma, eggs, coffee, mint tea, and orange juice. It all looked delectable. (Thank you, Yassine, for helping me out with that mouth-watering list.)
Of course, as delicious as Kosher Delight’s southern fried chicken and fries were to me and Amal (and on empty stomachs they were quite delicious), my guess is that they don’t compare to the sumptuous menu provided at Teaneck’s iftar. I don’t know that for a fact, though, since I keep kosher and thus wasn’t able to join my tablemates in partaking in the feast I just described. But don’t think that meant I went home hungry. Rather, the organizers, having welcomed the entire community, made sure that there was a kosher table stocked with yummy Chinese food from Chopstix (thank you, Elie), allowing me and others who observe kashrut to fully participate in the fast-breaking — even though we didn’t fast.
I likely would have missed attending the iftar, except that as a member of Teaneck’s advisory board on community relations, I received invitations to attend from two Muslim advisory board members who were involved in planning it. And I’m truly happy I was there. Not only did I learn more about the meaning and details of Ramadan and iftar, but I also realized, as I had not before, how vibrant, diverse, and welcoming Teaneck’s valuable Muslim community is.
There was much that was new and different to me. And yet some of those differences felt familiar in certain ways. For example, waiting to break the Ramadan fast until prayer is completed reminded me of reading the megillah on Purim night before we break our Ta’anit Esther fast; the recitation of the Quran and Duaa reminded me of divrei Torah (Torah homilies) delivered at Jewish rituals and festive meals; my participation in this religious rite with friends and neighbors of a different religion reminded me of the many Pesach sedarim just a short time ago to which non-Jewish friends and neighbors were invited; and piles upon piles of delicious food at a Muslim religious celebration reminded me of, well, piles upon piles of delicious food at a Jewish religious celebration.
We live, sadly, in an era of siloing, whether based on geography, politics, ideology, class, or religion. I sometimes try to break out of my silo, but I admit that it’s difficult to do so, and notwithstanding my good intentions, I’m often not as successful as I would wish to be. But one of the many things I learned from attending Teaneck’s 2023 community iftar is that I should try harder, since it makes my world both larger and smaller at the same time — no easy trick.
Although I’m writing this column during Ramadan, it will be published after it’s over. Nonetheless, to all my Muslim friends, and especially to those I broke bread with — they with their halal meal and me with my kosher one — I wish you, retroactively of course, Ramadan Mubarak, Ramadan Kareem.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.