This is my Ramadan story, and the one of my grandfather and my family. We are Jews.
I grew up listening to stories about my grandfather. He was quite a character my grandpa!
He arrived to Northern France after the Algerian Independence war in the early 1960s. Algeria was his home, Arabic his language, and most of his friends were Algerian, like him. They were Algerian and Muslim, they shared the same culture and the same story. Moving to France had never been part of his plan before the war.
Muslim and Jews who arrived there en mass from Northern Africa found themselves in unwelcoming neighborhoods on the outskirts of the cities. Those neighborhoods of tall, ugly buildings became their home, even their village. My grandfather was very well known in his new neighborhood; people called him “Jo”, for Joseph.
He would spend most of the day outside, sitting in a chair on the sidewalk. The tiny family apartment was, apparently, my grandmother’s territory. My grandfather’s task in his village-neighborhood was to watch the youth. This was a serious deal for him! Every single day of the year, my grandpa sat on that chair and made sure the neighborhood kids behaved well. His weapon was his wooden cane; and he was a master at using it on people’s heads (including mine and my cousins’, especially when we were late to come and sit at the Shabbat table on Friday evening). No matter if you were Jewish, Christian or Muslim; if you were living in this neighborhood you were part of his community, and therefore he felt responsible for your education. It was a community matter. As I said, this ugly neighborhood was his home, his community, a community with its own stories, its own identity, its own gossip and events.
Ramadan was one of these events. During the Muslim holy month my grandpa took his duty to a different and higher level: he had to make sure the Muslim youth were keeping the fast! Any Muslim who was caught sneaking to the bakery to eat a sandwich, or hiding to drink a coke, would get a taste ( gentle but memorable)of the wooden cane! Ramadan was a holy event to him.
My grandfather was a believer and he believed in the importance of traditions more than anything else. To him, respecting Ramadan was part of a culture he respected and knew very well. As much as Yom Kipur or Pessach, Ramadan was part of his community heritage.
Until today, when I visit this city in Northern France, I hear stories about my grandfather and his wooden cane…and most of these stories are told by Muslims who grew up in this very neighborhood. I can hear in their words and see in their eyes how much they loved and respected my old, tiny grandfather sitting in his chair.
This is Ramadan to me, a story that makes me think of my family, of our story. A story that reminds me that we are one big community and we have so many beautiful things we can share and learn to respect and appreciate about one another.
And one last thing, don’t think that this story is special or unique. Muslims and Jews have lived together in peace in many countries; for decades and sometimes centuries we were brothers and sisters. I am sad to see how easy it is for everyone to forget. There were many grandpas Jo out there, we must remember them.
From the bottom of my heart, Ramadan Kareem to all my Muslim friends, may this holy month bring us peace.
YaLa Young Leaders