Monday, September 17, 2007

The Holiday Season

French Hill, Jerusalem – This last week was full of religious observance, and a little time travel too. Rosh Hashanah started Wednesday night, and Ramadan began Thursday.

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the ten days of repentance before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews’ prayers include hearing the blowing of the Shofar, a ram’s horn. The sound of the Shofar is meant to remind Jews to wake up and repent. The holiday isn’t all gloom and preparation for judgment, though. It is a family holiday (lots of food) and dinner is preceded by eating apples and honey, which symbolize the hope for a sweet new year.

Ramadan is a month of heightened religious observance and one of the five pillars of Islam. The month marks the revealing of the Koran to the prophet Mohammed and is a time for self-reflection, increased prayer, and spiritual cleansing. During daylight hours, observant Muslims don’t eat, drink, smoke, or have sex. The evenings though, are full of social events like breaking the fast with family and friends and staying up late playing cards. The month of Ramadan begins with the first crescent of the new moon, so sometimes the holiday starts or ends earlier in Morocco than in Kuwait or Indonesia.

This year, the stars – or actually the moon – aligned and Jews and Muslims in Israel began their holy days together.

To accommodate Ramadan fasting, the Palestinian government decided to “fall back” early. Iftar, or break-fast, begins with the sunset, so to make the sun set sooner, Palestinians turned their clocks back an hour. In Israel, the government decided to wait until yesterday before “falling back.” I’m not sure whether this was because Yom Kippur (a fast day) isn’t until next week or whether sunrise at 5AM is a bit early.

Personally, I’m thrilled with the change. I’m now only six hours ahead of Pittsburgh so when I wake up at 6:15AM, the Post-Gazette sports page has already been loaded on to the PG’s website. I no longer have to wait 46 minutes to read about the Steelers.

Though it only lasted for four days this year, I was fascinated by the hour time difference between Israel and Palestine. Let’s say you were in Jerusalem and had a 1PM meeting in Ramallah. You leave your office at noon, drive 30-45 minutes (assuming you don’t wait at checkpoints) and arrive in Ramallah at 11:45AM! You’re an hour early and you arrived before you left! To a liberal arts major, that’s time travel.

With the joys of time travel, though, comes confusion. To learn how locals deal with time travel logistics, I stopped in at the American Colony, a graceful hotel with an Arabesque style and a wonderful collection of old Jerusalem photographs. The Colony has been a fixture of Jerusalem life for more than a hundred years; today it is where Palestinian elites sip tea and meet with $16-hamburger-eating gringos like myself.

It was the first Friday of Ramadan and I passed hundreds of Palestinians, on foot and in buses, on their way to the Old City for Friday prayer. Local stores and restaurants were shut (for Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah) but the Colony is a secular oasis that bends to no doctrine. So after a coffee, I stopped at the front desk and asked the time. The answer was Israel time so I replied, “what if I had called from Ramallah?”

The time remained the same.

“What if I wanted to make a dinner reservation?” I pestered.

The receptionist smiled and said, “we’d have to ask you whether you’d changed your clock yet.”

Most interesting to me in this time vortex are the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, like Beit Hanina and Shufat or the Muslim Quarter in the Old City. I live in French Hill, a mixed Palestinian and Israeli neighborhood that Palestinians consider a settlement and occupied land. Prior to the 1967 war, French Hill was under Jordanian control. Israelis, consider French Hill, home to Hebrew University, as no different than any neighborhood in the western part of the city.

My apartment is Palestinian owned and the landlord lives across the way. I was dying to know, however, whether he was an hour behind me. Or in the Muslim Quarter, does the time depend on your religion? Does it change when you enter the Christian or Armenian Quarter?

Besides my fascination with holy land time travel, the best part about the start of the holidays was the feeling of entire communities coming together to do something spiritual and meaningful. Somewhere between 40,000 and 90,000 Palestinians prayed at al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City on Friday. It was a sight to see, the hoards of older men in white khaffiyehs and muhajiba women in traditional dress walking through East Jerusalem to Damascus Gate.

In West Jerusalem, Friday evenings are special. Downtown’s usually crowded streets are empty, as people are already at home preparing for Shabbat. On Rosh Hashanah, it was even better, somehow quieter and more serene. Everyone was at home, at synagogue, or with family, starting the New Year together.

Shana Tova and Ramadan Karim –

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