Yom Kippur Helps Muslim Woman Rediscover Her Jewish Roots
It was a few years ago that Reima Yosif, a devout Muslim, discovered a surprising family secret: she was Jewish — kind of.
The revelation came while Yosif, who lives in North Brunswick, N.J., was mourning her grandfather’s death. A cousin who had inherited his belongings came upon old identification papers for their grandmother, who had died many years before.
The woman, who was raised in colonial Italian North Africa, was of Jewish decent. She had hidden her background to protect her safety as Jews in Italian colonies were sent to concentration camps during World War II and fled Arab states after Israel was established. Two generations of Muslim children just like Reima grew up unaware of their Jewish side.
As Jews begin to observe Yom Kippur, the holiest time on the Jewish calendar, at sundown Friday with Kol Nidre prayers and a day of fasting, Yosif will be joining the spiritual journey for the first time.
“I don’t see any contradiction in taking part in Yom Kippur. It heightens my own devotion to my own faith,” said Yosif, who likens it to the Islamic month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daylight hours.
“The idea of dedicating a day for repentance. The idea of the rights of God and of human beings. God will forgive what you have done against him but you won’t be forgiven for your transgression of others until they forgive you. That God renews your contract. This is also what Ramadan is about,” she said.
Yosif, who founded Al-Rawiya, a nonprofit that works on Muslim women’s empowerment, admits she isn’t the first person one would expect to take part in Yom Kippur — or in Rosh Hashanah celebrations, as she did last week.
“I dress in full Islamic garb, with my head covered, arms covered,” she said. “People sometimes have fear or curiosity. There’s always an ice-breaker moment.”
One such moment came in July, when Yosif went on a two-week trip in the United Kingdom as part of the Ariane de Rothschild fellowship, a cross-cultural and social entrepreneurship program for Jewish and Muslim professionals. On the flight to the London and the subsequent bus ride to Cambridge University, she struck up a conversation with a woman who was also coming from the United States for the program.
“It was just two of us in a car for two-and-a-half hours. It was very obvious because she wears a headscarf that she is a Muslim. And then she told me about her grandmother, and I thought it was so interesting,” said that woman, Sara Green, who founded Art for Refugees in Transition, a New York-based nonprofit.
>> Continue reading: Yom Kippur Helps Muslim Woman Rediscover Her Jewish Roots