I don’t consider myself devoutly religious in any sense, but I do believe I am in a very limited pool of people who have celebrated both Yom Kippur and Ramadan in the same year. I was raised in a Jewish household and have always fasted for Yom Kippur but I chose to celebrate Ramadan with my village to learn more about the holiday and Islam.
Both holidays require fasting – no food, no water, no sex. Yom Kippur lasts 25 hours, from sunset to sunset. Ramadan lasts 30 days, fasting from sunrise to sunset.
During the month of Ramadan my alarm always jerked me too quickly from the respite of sleep. I would groggily pull back my mosquito net, stumble out of bed, aluminate my flashlight and waddle to my desk. It’s 4:00am – ready for breakfast? Half a baguette, sliced open, slathered with mayonnaise, topped with sardines. Even now I can taste that delicious medley. Enough time, enough fasting, enough of a protein deficiency and anything can become gourmet. I would inhale my daily bread, pray with my family, and go back to bed. No food, no water – not a drop — not until 7:30pm.
This morning, this Yom Kippur 5775, I awoke at 8:30am neither full nor hungry, just pleasantly prepared for the day. There was no rush out of the bed; I’d opted to sleep as long as possible to avoid thoughts of food. I threw on my outfit and was out the door to services by 8:50am. The last drop of drink and morsel of food had hit my tongue the prior evening at a local Chinese restaurant. I would have to wait until sundown at 7:00pm for the next meal.
The atmospheres of the two holidays are very different. Yom Kippur goes out as quickly as it comes in. This year it fell on a Saturday, but Jews around the world always take off work and spend the majority of the holiday in synagogue praying. The day is devoted to thinking of all the sins and wrongs you committed in the past year, reflecting on the changes you need to make in the upcoming year, and praying for the strength to be a better person.
The best thing about Yom Kippur is that it only lasts one day. In this way, it’s truly incomparable. Yom Kippur requires 25 hours of fasting; Ramadan requires 435.
The month of Ramadan transforms an entire village, an entire nation. Women who make their living selling rice on the street have to go without for 30 days. Girls who walk up and down the road advertising their delicious fried goods are suddenly absent, gone without a trace. Street food is a thing of the past. It’s seen as incredibly rude to eat in public or in front of another if you are not fasting. Unlike its 1-day cousin, Ramadan doesn’t provide a month-free of work; you must still plow your fields, go into the office, drive your taxi.
Both holidays claim to bring people closer to God. Both holidays are an exercise in self-control and will. Both holidays lead to compassion, a greater understanding of world hunger. Both holidays offer the religious a relief from their past sins.
The thirst, the hunger grumbling in to greet you mid-day, the anticipation of the nighttime meal, the physical enjoyment and savoring of whatever it is you break the fast with, and the likely fate that you’ll eat too much and go to bed with an extended belly – these, too, are shared.
Allahu akbar — Elohim gadol – God is great
Ramadan was perhaps one of the most difficult things I’ve ever attempted to do. The first day or two of no food is painful but the body quickly adjusts. More difficult is no water in 110 degree, 100% humidity weather – when you have to bike 5 miles to work and your work is outside. In comparison, Yom Kippur was a breeze. It’s a chilly autumn, I didn’t have to bike anywhere, and to nap and not work was encouraged. It was the first year in a very long time that I actually did not cheat – not a drop of water, not a mint, not a cup of black coffee.
I felt spiritually connected as I prayed before the break-the-fast meal with a group of 70 year old Guinean women; as the Arabic chanting filled the tiny mosque, the sunset backlit the evening, and we kneeled up and down silently thanking God for another day. Just as I felt spiritually connected as my entire synagogue sang a heart-wrenching rendition of Avinu Malkeinu, holding the draped-in-white torahs and looking up to God for forgiveness. Both holidays brought me closer to my own personal religion.
I’m not sure I’ll fast again for Ramadan – perhaps if I find myself living in a Muslim community next calendar year I will try again. It was a painful experience, but also very rewarding. And for any Jews who have always had trouble making it the 25 hour fast, Ramadan is a sure-fire cure – you’ll be fasting like Abraham in no time.