From Ramadan to Yom Kippur: Temptation and Redemption

Perhaps the most profound religious experience of my life took place in the produce aisle of a Carrefour supermarket.

It was my second Ramadan in Morocco. The first time around I had no intention of fasting. I was a lapsed orthodox Jew, a confirmed (if confused) atheist with a degree in Islamic theology. In short, I was a poster child of perplexed, pseudo intellectual millennial religious angst. You know, the kind of person who tells you that they are “spiritual, but don’t believe in God.”

But Morocco changed me. Islam changed me. It is one of the great ironies of my spiritual life: loving Islam (and falling in love with a religious Muslim) taught me how to become Jewish once again.

The first few days of the fast were a nightmare of low blood sugar, raised tempers, and domestic disputes. In Morocco they have a special word for the national anger that sours the first week of Ramadan: Tremdin, “to become ‘Ramadan mad.” Tremdin causes death-by-swordfight in Fez, deprives the cab-drivers of their cigarettes and atay, and fills the empty city streets with foulness. I was mutaramadiniya, Ramadan mad, for the first two hot and hungry weeks. But somewhere in the third week, my spirit awoke.

I was shopping for a big futur (the Ramadan break-fast meal) dinner in my local Carrefour grocery store. Food, tempting and luscious, was everywhere. The smell of fresh-picked apples teased me, ripe and moist. Cheese burst its rinds, glistening fat, beckoning cream. Rotisserie chicken crisped under ever-burning fires, dripping juices, golden thighs. I could have popped a grape–nobody would have seen. I’m not Muslim. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had broken my fast, just a tiny bit, just so the rumbling in my stomach would cease for a minute. Its not my holiday! This isn’t my religion! Eat! Eat!

As though out of a burning bush, a long unheard voice in me said “No.” No. I made a promise to myself, my own highest power, that I would fast. The grapes, the apples, the cheeses, the chickens: they are the flesh, the temptations of the temporal. They pass. The spirit is eternal. The promise is what matters. Ramadan is NOT about the fast itself, not primarily, maybe not at all. The fast is a conduit to a spiritual accord, a covenant made between the body and the soul. “No,” says the soul. “No, my darling earthly in-carn(e)-ation. I will not give in. I refuse your sweet blandishments. I have made a sacred accord with you, and I must keep it, for both our sakes.”

I walked in the aisles of the shadow of temptation, but I feared no hunger. For my spirit was with me, for the first time in two decades, my will and my self-made covenant comforted me.

This Yom Kippur marked my first fast as a believing Jew (though I’m not sure what I believe in yet, so for now I’ll call it Yahweh) It was a hungry and cold Boston day, and I was struggling through a vicious bout of bronchitis. I had no synagogue, because I have lived outside of the US for so long and I don’t yet have a home base in the States. So I spent the day walking the forests of New England, praying, meditating, and thanking a God I thought I had lost forever for Morocco, for Islam, for Ramadan, and for my body-encased spirit. What a joy to be a Jew on the day of at-one-ment. What a miracle, after twenty years in the desert, to be at one.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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4 thoughts on “From Ramadan to Yom Kippur: Temptation and Redemption

  1. Beautiful to read that you’ve found your Jewish roots through Islam. That’s how religion is supposed to be: to bring you closer to yourself.

  2. My dear Rajae, first of all sending you so much love. I miss you! Second of all, thank you so much! Its really been a pleasure to discover religion in Morocco–I feel bless that I got to experience that

  3. Ilona, what a beautifully written post! I can completely understand the “tremdin” even though its the first time I’ve heard that word! I love the fact that different Muslim societies have different traditions for even a religiously unified ritual such as fasting!

    In my own interfaith interactions, the similarities between Ramadan and Yom Kippur inevitably come up. We hold interfaith iftars at my mosque, to bring people of different faiths together to talk about fasting, and I am always energized by the stories of my Jewish friends… their fast for Yom Kippur is such a blessing to them, as is our fast for Ramadan. More than that, as you say, the message of sacrifice, prayer, endurance and redemption is the same.

  4. Dear Saadia,

    Thank you for your kind words! Yes, Tremdin is really a special (sometimes terrible) thing in Morocco, and after fasting I understand it too. I get angry when I’m hungry!

    I am always, always struck by the ways in which shared ritual bring people of different faiths together. Fasting can be such a terrible and yet holy thing, and I love that both of our faiths value that.

    Wishing you salam and hub from al-quds,


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