Ramadan, High Holidays, and women’s community roles: A Muslim and Orthodox Jew exchange notes
It was late on a Sunday evening and I was scrolling through Buzzfeed, as one does.
The month of Ramadan had just started and Buzzfeed writers and community members were sharing tweets and TikTok videos from people observing the 30 days of fasting. Reading and watching the posts, I kept thinking: While the words are different, so many aspects of Ramadan observance seemed so similar to Jewish holidays and fasts.
I could almost see myself in the short clip of an excited animated character waking up at 3:00am and eating a hamburger accompanied with the caption, “Every Muslim for the next 30 days” — it was just like waking up early before a Jewish minor fast, to grab a quick breakfast before sunrise. And when a young woman aptly described,”When you realize you wont be able to shoot your shot by praying next to his mom during taraweh this year,” with a TikTok video of her slamming the door to her room, I laughed, thinking of my younger sister and how her shidduch efforts have suffered because she can’t mingle in shul due to COVID-19.
So I reached out to my friend Noor, a fellow member of a local government association — curious about these similarities, around ritual fasting, praying and eating, between our religions. And while Ramadan provided a context for the conversation, we learned our broader communal norms are also more similar than we had thought.
Noor: So, do you guys drink water on fast days?
Hannah: We don’t! But one thing that we don’t do- that I think would be really great- is to allow women to refrain from fasting during their time of the month. That sounds like such a great custom!
Noor: Yeah, it’s nice. But, when you’re younger, it’s so mortifying. Because I think in general people are uncomfortable with the idea of people knowing they are at that stage in the month, and when you can eat, it becomes so obvious. As you get older, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
Hannah: Oh, I totally understand that! Even though women do fast on those days, most rabbis will allow a woman to take a few sips of water to swallow a pain reliever but I can’t even tell you how embarrassed I was when, at 16, I had to fast during one of my worst days and I asked a Rabbi if I could take a sip of water. I tried to make it vague, something like, “Oh, I’m just not feeling great,” but I ended up telling him when he suggested I just take a short rest.
Noor: Religiously you do have the option of making up the fasts after the month and people do end up doing that. Part of it is nostalgic, the month is over but people want something to hold on to. Also the fitness community has sort of tapped into this as well, so some people might want to keep fasting for health reasons.
Hannah: Isn’t it interesting to see how common fasting has become in Western wellness culture? Jewish holy fasts aren’t about health or dieting per se, they’re about introspection and moments of detaching from physical needs but I don’t think the fasts would have that much meaning if I chose to do them as a diet regimen.
Noor: People are trying to get the same state we’re in. Clear-headed because you’re not thinking about food, focused on the tasks you have to get done rather than thinking about what your next task will be.
Hannah: I think if I chose to do it though, I wouldn’t be able to get to that state. The fact that there’s something compelling me to fast, and a reasoning behind it, is what really takes the day to a more spiritual place.
Noor: And with Ramadan, you can go online and see all of these people posting about the fast and you feel that solidarity with them. So it’s not just about the fasting, there is a huge communal element there too. Social media has made that so much stronger. Especially this year because we’re not around other people. In a lot of mosques, at least every one I’ve been to so far, they will spend these thirty days feeding the community. Like, you do not break the fast at home. Instead, people cook at home and then bring it to the mosque to eat together. So you have an entire month of eating with your community, every day. This year we don’t have that, and it’s really difficult.
Hannah: Yes, after Yom Kippur, it’s very common for a lot of synagogues and temples to have communal breakfasts, too. People won’t necessarily bring their own food but they will donate money to have a meal for the community. Yom Kippur is the end of these ten days of a more solemn and serious state, so ending it by breaking bread with your community is a really great way to transition out of that state. Do you find that sometimes, too?
Noor: Yeah, we do! You start Eid with this community prayer- everyone comes out even if you don’t usually go to the mosque, that’s the one day that everyone shows up. Usually the morning of Eid, after the prayer, the Imam gives an inspiring sermon which allows you to sort of process everything. To understand that it’s okay to be where you are, and it’s okay to be a little sad that the month is over, and to use those feelings to channel a higher purpose.
Hannah: Wow, it’s just so similar to our High Holidays. The first ten days, like I said, are more somber but then we transition into this big harvest festival where one of the mitzvahs of the holiday- I kid you not- is to be happy. It’s this really amazing holiday and at the end of it, a lot of people experience this drop. Like, ‘now, what do we do?’ Many people, similar to what you were mentioning, try to take on more spiritual endeavors and hold onto those when the three and a half weeks are over. So we say goodbye to the outdoor dwelling we eat our meals in, we celebrate the joy tied to the Torah, and when it’s all over many people wish each other a good winter and additional strength to get through the difficult months ahead.
Noor: Yeah, it’s hard to hold onto it. Some people keep a journal to actually dissect what you just went through before you go out into the world.
Hannah: For Jews, some people celebrate an additional day called Isru Chag to do exactly that – to transition from the holiday to normal life. For me, that’s not usually a totally viable option because I’ve often already taken off too many days from work or school. Which reminds me, what’s it like for kids observing Ramadan in school?
Noor: So for me, I remember feeling very weird and being asked silly questions and needing to explain a lot of things. But over the years I’ve noticed that kids have gotten a lot better at explaining and non-Muslim kids seem more interested in learning and being culturally aware. Like on campus, some students have “fastathons” where your non-Muslim friends fast with you and go to the mosque with you. But I think even with that, it still depends on the general makeup of your community. Which I think would be pretty common no matter what group you’re a part of.
Hannah: Oh, for sure.
Noor: And it can be a difficult balance when you don’t think that you want to be the person to represent an entire community. So one thing that was helpful for me when I was growing up, was when there was someone in my high school who was a practicing Muslim, who could really eloquently speak about our practices and customs. He was really involved in the mosque and also really popular and it made things so much easier.
Hannah: We definitely have that too, but I always see gender as being such an important part of that. I know that for me, even within my community, I get pushback when I become a person who speaks on their behalf to others. It’s seen as immodest and my intelligence is questioned. Outside of the community, I always worry that I’m not being taken seriously or that I’m opening myself up for critique because I’m a woman. I’ve noticed that when my husband speaks about religion, he doesn’t get nearly as much pushback as when I do — probably because he isn’t expected to critique the systems of oppression related to religion, because they don’t tend to impact his gender.
Noor: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I couldn’t imagine anyone could have been as popular as my former classmate while wearing a hijab. There’s no way she would be in the same room, having the same conversations. Even physically, if Omar had been as religious as a woman, he would stand out in a totally different way. And if you’re a guy, you’re totally unaware of that aspect of things. So they don’t see it at all.
Hannah: And I think that even once they do, they don’t understand the nuance. The ways that single gender spaces can be empowering when women really have control and a right to their own privacy. Or the potential that women have to tap into deeper relationships with the religious materials and practices.
Noor: Yes, the ability to be in those spaces is really enjoyable. But the problem is that leadership in those ways tends to be unofficial. At the mosque, a woman cannot lead prayers or the congregation, even when she is a teacher and an active community member. Boards don’t have gender parity, either. And when you’re younger, it really limits your ability as a woman to find role models in the mosque, and you start to look for them elsewhere. So it comes with good sides and bad ones. Because it’s nice to have those spaces specifically for women — but then they can’t lead in the broader communal space.
Hannah: It’s so interesting that you say that, I see so many similarities with the Orthodox community and women’s education. We now have these very rigorous schools for women where they are exposed to a tremendous amount of Jewish and secular knowledge. And in some ways they have a larger breadth than men’s yeshivas. But the problem is that if a woman wants a leadership role, which she’s fully capable of acquiring based on her knowledge, there really isn’t a space for her within the mainstream circles. So we’ve been given these tools to learn, to think, to be intellectual- but after you leave school, you don’t really have a way to translate that into broader communal work. I think women just end up falling back on these very domestic roles and community volunteering. Even women who do teach or become speakers are always second to the rabbis, even when their intellect is far superior.
Noor: Very similarly, we have women who will engage with the religion in ways where they are sort of commenting and critiquing but can’t actually lead a sermon because within the mosque, there’s really no place for them. You can follow them and learn from them but never really be led by them in that way.
Hannah: And the community can never really be wholly shaped by them. They have to react to the active work of the male leadership, rather than be able to fully take on that role themselves. That’s what I see in my community.
Noor: Yes. I think that people are starting to test out a few different things. I know that my mom has a few friends with whom she speaks to about these things, and I’ve been pulled into a few WhatsApp groups, as well. But, people in my mom’s generation are having a hard time even recruiting their own kids to be a part of these conversations. I do know that there are some women who are trying to think about this in a broader way. Asking things like, ‘will we create new channels outside of the mosque for women?’ But for the younger people who have grown up in the broader world outside, we see the value of institutionalizing it. Because if it’s not institutionalized, it’s just going to end once we stop doing it.