• Ibrahim Insights

Keeping it Kosher: An Orthodox Jew in the Heart of Arabia

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

I knew this trip was going to be a challenge. I was the only Orthodox Jew and while I was coming to learn about my “other,” I was the “other” for many people. But aside from the questions and interest in my customs, I had to learn to fit my practices into the foreign itinerary. I’ve traveled before and kept kosher, kept Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), prayed three times a day, etc. But these things take on a whole different character when you’re in a group of “others.” And so, my journey began in Washington D.C. with our first meals. In my understanding of keeping kosher and for the sake of this trip, I had to become not vegetarian, but actually vegan. That was the best way I found to explain to restaurants what I could and could not eat. Obviously within that categorization there were other things I needed to explain, but most of the waitresses caught on and by dessert-time they would serve me fruit without even asking.

Even though the waitresses didn’t care to ask what or why, my peers were curious. I’ve learned the laws and was happy to explain them but I never knew when I was getting into too much of the nitty gritty and when I had explained just the right amount. (Contrary to popular belief, the laws of kashrut don’t begin and end with “no pork.”) As I said things out loud, I also had to select my words appropriately. Vocabulary like halacha, gemara, and chazal which are part of my everyday speech were transformed into the simplified (and, I know, not always accurate) laws, Talmud (scholarly understanding of the Torah), and scholars. In the process of my explanations, I also realized how ludicrous these concepts must seem, yet however bizarre I thought they sounded, my friends didn’t laugh at them or express boredom.


By the time we got to Oman, everyone knew to look for the salads on the menus. I generally don’t like the attention but I appreciated that people were looking out for me. When I travel, I don’t usually eat out, so my protein bars and tuna packets don’t seem so out of place. As I discovered on the trip, however, non-Orthodox Jews eat out in foreign countries (because they can…) and so my bars weren’t so appropriate at the table.


When we got to Israel, I (and almost everyone else) made sure we only ate at kosher restaurants. More than being excited that I’d be eating real meals, I was excited that my friends would see that keeping kosher doesn’t mean you’re strictly vegan. More so, I’m always curious how kosher food compares to non-kosher food. For that reason, when at the first restaurant in Israel, I got really excited that someone complimented the food and said it was good. But even with this “good” food I had to explain at every restaurant that if meat was being served, there would be no cheese and that all coffee would be served black.


But being Orthodox came into play with Shabbat as well. My struggle began even before I met the rest of the Project members. When Professor Rosenblum informed me that we would be traveling from Saudi Arabia to Israel on Shabbat, I didn’t know what to do. There was just no way I could violate the restriction of travel, not to mention all the electricity that I would be required to use in the process. So Professor Rosenblum (with some help) arranged for a flight for him and myself the following Sunday. That meant I would miss the “tech day” in Tel Aviv, but to me, faith comes first. And so, I was probably the only person in all of Saudi Arabia celebrating Shabbat. My prayers weren’t as accurate as usual as I was saying them by heart (out of fear that my bags would be searched, I didn’t bring a hard copy of a siddur, prayer book, but rather relied on my iPhone app which I couldn’t access on Shabbat) and kiddush was said on bread (rather than wine) and havdalah on juice (again, rather than wine).


The whole Shabbat experience was a learning process even outside the realms of the individual practices. No one else was acknowledging the significance of the day: that the sun was setting on Friday, marking the beginning of Shabbat, or that three stars had come out on Saturday night, signaling the end of Shabbat. I am so used to being in a community that marks this day of the week and is always conscious of these specific times. That was the real struggle in my Shabbat experience: being the one-person aware of the sanctity of this day, among others who didn’t care and didn’t need to be conscious of it. It was all up to me. I really felt like I was sanctifying an otherwise regular day- the true commandment and meaning of Shabbat.

My markings and practices did, however, influence my friends. They noticed when I went to pray and was saying certain blessings on the food. My roommate even knew to sign for our dinner buffet under my name (for which the room was reserved) without even approaching me. By the time we got to Israel, she also noted on her own how “Shabbat-proof” the hotel was. My mishagaas, or craziness, was spilling over and it was nice to know that my peers accepted and respected me for that and didn’t write it off as fanaticism.


Unlike Shabbat, I found keeping to my schedule of praying three times a day fairly easy. I merely left myself a half hour in the morning to pray shacharit, the morning prayer, and completed the day with ma’ariv, the nighttime prayer. Mincha is always a challenge, even outside the context of the Project, as it is recited from midday to sunset. However, because I was in a Muslim country and accompanied by a peer who prays five times a day, mincha wasn’t so difficult to remember. My religious Muslim friend and I would check in with each other to make sure we remembered this easily forgotten prayer time. So the real difficulty with prayers came on Shabbat, like I mentioned before, when I had no text to which to refer.


But I knew this trip was going to be a challenge. It taught me so much about the cultures of the Middle East because reading can never replace hands-on experiences. Like so, the trip has taught me so much about my own faith and practices because learning hypothetical cases can never replace living those circumstances. It was a real and enjoyable learning experience for myself and I hope the same serves true for my peers. It’s an unparalleled adventure to define yourself in the process of discovering the “other.”


Dalya Arussy is a member of the 2013 Ibrahim Cohort.

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