Iftar in Cairo, Iftar in Tigard

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 19, 2017 / 23 Iyyar 5777

Summary: Rabbi Kosak talks of a trip to Egypt when he was still a teenager and extends an invitation to a free meal at a Muslim Break the Fast on May 27th, 28th and 29.

I was 19 when I first visited Egypt. I had taken a leave of absence from college to live in Israel. While at yeshivah earlier that year, I had met a Scandinavian Jew by choice, Dan Yerushalmi. We wanted to see the pyramids and I had saved enough money from my job as a waiter. After arranging for some vacation time, we were off.

In those days, if you wanted to enter Egypt from Israel, or travel to any other Muslim country, you got a special visa page so that your passport wouldn’t be stamped with Israel as the entry point. The peace between the two countries was a cold one. Given those conditions in a pre-internet world, we were fortunate when a stalwart traveler  suggested we should enter at a smaller check point to minimize potential difficulties. It was a tense moment at the crossing, but successfully navigated, we clambered on to a bus stuffed well past capacity; several Egyptian men hung on out the door as we careened through dusty roads to the big city. Yet as full as the buses were, people always yielded their seats to us. Tourists are guests in your home.

After a couple of days spent wandering in Cairo, our next attraction was the Great Pyramid of Giza, a short day trip away. Families gathered and sat by colorful blankets as one might expect of picnickers, but without food. Apparently, Ramadan that year coincided with a traditional Egyptian holiday usually spent with food and friends at the foot of the last standing wonder of the ancient world. People came but fasted.

Nearby, in front of the sphinx, boys played soccer and pestered us for “baksheesh,” for pocket money. The proximity to these pharaonic marvels with no protective fences or merchants hawking wares heightened the impact their scale made on our small human size. Either we had traveled backwards in time, or these edifices had unmoored themselves to visit our age. The pyramids are not of our world, yet they have lingered on into modernity.

It was startling how much detail the winds of time had eroded.The Great Pyramid was also receiving a little TLC. After 4400 years, it finally was getting some much needed attention. Apparently they just didn’t build things for the long term back then…In any case, we were permitted to climb to the very top, past the King’s Chamber via a series of rickety scaffolding. Reaching that uppermost room was rather anticlimactic. It had been aeons since it’s glorious treasures and decorations had been stripped out and all that remained was a sweltering and confined space that smelled of sweat and urea. But still, it was the great pyramid and there I was at nineteen, checking something off the bucket list.

Lists and attractions only go so far. It’s the serendipitous moment which grabs us by its very unexpectedness. The crowded bus returned us to Cairo and simple lodgings. As the sun dropped slowly below the cityscape, I ventured on my own to the food carts and stalls behind the train station. Men were gathered en masse. They grew increasingly excited, and volubly welcomed me, although we did not speak one another’s tongue. Then as the muzzein’s chants drifted down from the minaret, platters of food were piled up on ramshackle tables. And we ate. We ate. Joy and camaraderie and steaming bowls of ful medames, of stewed fava beans served with green onions, blistered pita and countless other dishes.

That was my first Iftar, the first time I sat as Muslims broke their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan. There have been others since (last year a number of us enjoyed an evening at Bilal Mosque), but its the way an unknown custom confronted me far from home and all that was familiar.

Then a few months ago, a young Muslim woman entered my office. Sadaf Assadi is in her last year of dental school, and last year put on a Ramadan Tent Project with an open iftar meal. Her original target was to provide an interfaith opportunity to twenty and thirty year olds. In the end, far more people of a wider age range showed up.

This year, she is repeating the event for people of all faiths and races and ages on May 27th, 28th and 29th. It will be held at MET, 10330 Scholl’s Ferry Road in Tigard. I’ll be speaking on the 29th. It may not be as exotic a setting as Egypt, but it is another opportunity to forge relationships across difference. In these days, there’s something heroic in that.

May we all increase our understanding,

Rav D

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