Sacred and subdued

BY CHARITY GORDON

Daily Journal

They won't see advertisements for an “After Ramadan Sale” or hear “The 10 Days of Rosh Hashanah” playing on the radio.

Nonetheless, this weekend local followers of Islam and Judaism will start observing their most sacred seasons. And unlike their Christian counterparts at Christmastime, these two faith communities in Northeast Mississippi are accustomed to marking their holy days quietly.

This year the holiest of Jewish seasons will converge with the holiest period of the Islamic year, an overlap that will not come again for 30 years. Today at sundown the Jewish congregation at Temple B'nai Israel in Tupelo will begin its 10-day observance of the High Holy Days, the group's most significant religious season.

“It's a very personal thing,” said Jack Cristil, one of the lay leaders at the temple and the announcer for Mississippi State University sports. “Individuals examine their lives about how to better themselves for the coming year. It's a very solemn time.”

More than fasting

On Sunday, Muslims will begin observance of Ramadan, 30 days of reflection and abstaining from things that separate them from God.

“To a Muslim, Ramadan is more than prayer and fasting,” said Wael Obaid, a network and systems administrator at Mississippi University for Women. “It's a month when you get close to God and get in touch with your own self. It's about controlling yourself from anger and sharing your wealth with the needy.”

In predominantly Muslim nations, schools and government offices will close for the religious holiday, just like predominantly Christian nations close for Christmas. But the Muslim community here takes the lack of attention to Ramadan in stride.

“Being a Muslim is a deep commitment I have with God, not with the rest of the world,” said Dr. Rani Sullivan, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at Mississippi State University. “It is for me very discreet.”

Getting right with God

The Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, begins the High Holy Days. Throughout the 10-day season, the Jewish community will meditate on how to renew right relationships with their fellow humans and with God, culminating Oct. 1 on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

Marc Perler, a lay leader at Temple B'nai Israel and owner of MAP Sound & Video in Tupelo, says that while most Jewish holidays represent historic or family events, the High Holy Days are purely religious. The time is set apart for prayer, study and introspection about life.

“It forces us to step back from our material lives and ask, What have I done?'” he said.

During the self-study, Perler says, it is customary for the person to ask family, friends and business associates for their forgiveness for any slights he or she has committed.

“Then your prayers have meaning,” he said. “Until you get right with your fellow man, you can't get right with God.”

In Islam, Ramadan has a similar purpose of reflection and purification. For 30 days Muslims will awaken before dawn – this year, close to 4 a.m. – eat breakfast and pray before beginning their daylong fast during which they will abstain from even a sip of water.

The physical rituals have a spiritual purpose. Especially during the early morning hours, before the rush of the typical day begins, followers of Islam will use the set-apart time to look inside their spirits.

“These rituals are a means of reaching higher goals,” said Masoud Rais-Rohani, professor of aerospace engineering at MSU. These goals include “becoming more committed to Islam and practicing self-restraint, whether physically or emotionally. We give our thoughts and actions greater reflection.”

The Jewish community also will fast on the final day of its holy season, Yom Kippur. On this Day of Atonement, the Congregation B'nai Israel will hold a service during which the names of thousands of people – both Jew and Gentile – will be read aloud as a memorial.

On this solemn holiday the Jewish people seek God's forgiveness.

“It's for absolution,” said Al Cohen, a retired business owner. “It's to get the ills out of our system and start fresh.”

Identity affirmation

Sullivan says the time of fasting helps her to identify with those often forgotten in the world.

“There's nothing like hunger to get us down to the level of those impoverished around us,” she said. And in remembering the poor, the holy days remind Sullivan of her own identity as well.

Ramadan helps Muslims “find our place,” she said. “It reaffirms our place on this earth.”

Perler says the High Holy Days do the same for the Jewish community.

“It's important we remember where we come from,” he said, “so we can have a better understanding of ourselves.”

Sullivan, whose father also taught at MSU, moved to the United States from India when she was 7 years old. Over the last few years, she said, her Christian neighbors in Starkville have learned a lot more about Islam and are very respectful of her faith.

“They may not be doing as I'm doing, but they understand,” she said. “This is a wonderfully supportive community.”

Perler has experienced the same support.

“Northeast Mississippi has a warm acceptance and a genuine curiosity about roots,” he said. In regard to faith “with those observant, we're more similar than different – except I don't go to church on Sunday; I go to temple on Friday night.”

Obaid, who came to the United States from Syria 20 years ago, says being in a religious minority has been an asset to his faith. In a primarily Muslim culture, everyone would be observing Ramadan and holding each other accountable to the fast.

“When you're not in the majority,” he said, “it gives you more strength. You could easily cheat here. It gives the opportunity to know that I'm really fasting for God.”

Contact Daily Journal Religion Editor
Charity Gordon at 678-1586
or charity.gordon@djournal.com