A few hours into the 10th day of Ramadan, Rabbi Natan Levy was swapping fasting tips with a Muslim fellow passenger aboard the London Northern train line.
Specifically, they were debating the merits of having a very large meal before sunrise — a technique adopted by many observant Muslims who are trying to cope with a whole month of daytime fasts on a continent whose summers afford more than 14 hours of sunlight every day.
“We agreed better to eat less,” said Levy, 40, who is the interfaith and social action consultant of Britain’s Jewish Board of Deputies.
Like the Muslim passenger, Levy was speaking out of experience: This year, Levy joined Muslims around the world in their fast.
Levy told JTA that he decided to “engage Ramadan as a committed Jew” to promote “a deeper conversation within the Jewish community on how we move beyond demonization of Islam.”
The decision to fast, he said, was partly born of frustration at how “the Anglo-Jewish community appears to live in a state I could only call deeply distrustful of anything Islamic.”
Last week, a congregant in Levy’s local shul ran home in fear because she found herself sitting next to a Muslim guest for the Kabbalat Shabbat service, he recalled.
“This was a shameful moment for us, but not a surprising one,” he said. “My daughter has not been taught a single fact about Ramadan at her Jewish School. The fasting is simply a touchstone toward a deeper conversation.”
But at a time when Islamist militants are emerging as a serious threat to the physical safety of European Jews, Levy says that he does not want to appear naïve.
“There are elephants in the room between Jews and Muslim, scary ones,” he said. “But I don’t think that we can start discussing elephants, until we realize there is more that unites Jews and Muslims than divides us.”
Some of the fear, however, is rooted in reality, Levy wrote in an email answering JTA’s questions.
“Rockets are now falling upon my family in Israel as I write this, launched by a terrorist organization whose manifesto justifies its actions with hateful and violent quotes from the Quran,” Levy wrote. “But the more time I spend in conversation with Muslims, and the deeper I engage with Ramadan, the clearer it becomes that Islam cannot be reduced to the twisted form espoused by Hamas: That it contains a deeper truth and a grander vision of compassion and peace.”
Still, in immigrant neighborhoods across Europe, Ramadan is an especially tense period in summer, when the heat compounds some fasters’ general irritability and resentment toward the establishment.
On the sixth day of Ramadan, dozens of Muslims gathered in the Schilderswijk, one of Holland’s largest immigrant neighborhoods in The Hague, to chant menacing cries about Jews and rail against police’s crackdown on Islamists — part of an annual increase in confrontations between Muslim youths and police during Ramadan.
Aware of this volatility, police in cities from Bradford, England, to Amsterdam increase patrols and train their officers on how to diffuse conflicts.
Levy says he gained some personal insight as to the process that leads to these confrontations.
“Fasting seems to strip out a lot of the extraneous elements of my daily routine, leaving a certain focus, a certain single-minded quality of thought,” he said.
And while the Muslims Levy knows are “using it towards wise and compassionate action,” he speculates that “perhaps, if someone who was fasting honed in on anger, resentment, righteous injustice,” then fasting could reduce these feelings “into a singular, white hot beam of reactive force.”
“Ramadan, like any religious practice is a powerful and effective tool, but what we do with such a tool lies entirely in our hands,” Levy said.