Israel's Hottest New Tradition: Ramadan Tours

For Jewish Israelis yearning to get to know their neighbors, activities surrounding this month’s fasting and feasting are becoming a thriving business.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Sweets for sale at a Ramadan Market in Kafr Qasem. All Photos by Ofer Vaknin.
Sweets for sale at a Ramadan Market in Kafr Qasem. All Photos by Ofer Vaknin.
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

KAFR QASEM – It’s the wrong time of year and definitely the wrong religion. But visitors passing through this colorfully lit town square could easily think they had stumbled upon a Christmas market. That is to say, had they not realized this was the beginning of summer and the holiday being celebrated was Ramadan.

Granted, there’s no mulled wine at any of the numerous outdoor stands here (after all, drinking alcohol is prohibited in Islam). But there are many other culinary delights on offer at this pop-up market that springs to life several hours a day during one month every year – whenever this Muslim holiday happens to fall.

A few hours before the end of the daily fast, the market is packed with locals shopping for freshly prepared falafel balls, sticky, deep-fried pastries and pickled everything to serve at their iftar, the end-of-fast meal.

But there are clearly others here who don’t observe Ramadan – Jewish Israelis. These visitors from neighboring towns, clearly visible in the crowd, are taking part in a new tradition catching on in parts of the country where this religious holiday is widely observed: Ramadan tours.

They’ve come to experience the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Ramadan without the burden of fasting – all the fun parts of the holiday. These tours offer them an opportunity to explore towns and villages they would not ordinarily frequent, and at a special time of year.

A woman prepares salads for the iftar meal to break the Ramadan Fast.

Ramadan tours are available a few times a week during this Muslim holy month, which this year starts on June 18 and ends on July 17. They are offered in different locations, formats and price ranges. Some focus on just one town, while others pop around to a few. Some are exclusively Ramadan-themed, while others also cover local history and nearby attractions. Some include just nibbles, while others offer full-course meals. Some end with the big feast, while others carry on into the night with outdoor prayer services and late-night coffee.

The “bare-bones” Ramadan tour, which costs about NIS 50-60, typically includes a late-afternoon walk around town, allowing participants to taste some of the holiday specialties (and contrary to popular belief, it’s fine for non-Muslims to eat in front of those fasting) while observing the big pre-iftar shopping rush. They then get to hear the muezzin announcing the end of the fast, and witness the streets empty out within a flash, as ravished locals rush home to eat. Some of these low-budget tours even offer an opportunity to join a local family for a break-fast ceremony, but not the full meal.

The more elaborate ones, such as the Ramadan tour in Kafr Qasem – a town of more than 20,000 located in the “triangle” region of Arab municipalities about 12 miles east of Tel Aviv – begins in the late afternoon with a visit to some nearby archeological attractions. It ends with a full buffet dinner hosted by a local family, which includes, along with an assortment of salads and main dishes, the traditional qatayef dessert – a pancake folded in half and stuffed with nuts or cheese, before being deep-fried and doused in syrup. The added attraction of this particular tour is that dinner takes place in the same three-story house that served as the set for "Fauda" – a new popular TV series that focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A vendor sells qatayif pastries in Kafr Qasem during Ramadan.

Also included in this particular tour is a visit to the memorial where 49 innocent civilians, all residents of this town, were killed by the Israeli army in October 1959.

On the high end of the Ramadan tours is a NIS 390 extravaganza held further north in the town of Baka al-Garbiyye. The reason for the heavy price tag is that participants in this ultimate-foodie tour get to dine at the home of Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, the 32-year-old microbiologist who last year won Israel’s televised “Master Chef” cooking contest. As an added treat, the celebrity cook, as the program advertises, promises to follow up the meal with a discussion on gastronomy.

Ramadan tours began on a small scale about seven years ago in the Wadi Ara region of the country, which is mainly populated by Arabs, but have since spread to the Galilee and the “triangle.” The driving spirit behind this initiative is Sikkuy, a non-profit organization that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence. In recent years, Sikkuy has put considerable emphasis on the role of tourism in building bridges, with the Ramadan tours one of its flagship projects.

In the spirit of coexistence, all Ramadan tours organized by Sikkuy have two guides, one Muslim and one Jewish.

The government has also recently jumped on the bandwagon, this year launching a major advertising campaign to promote Ramadan tours in the Galilee, in the hoping of bringing more local tourists up there. In addition, some Arab towns, like the seaside village of Jisr a-Zarka, run their own Ramadan tours.

While Ramadan tours are relatively new, they are part of a larger phenomenon: local travel activities that target culturally curious Israelis interested in observing and experiencing religious rites of all kinds. That would include, for example, the throngs of Jewish Israelis who show up annually for Christmas Mass tours in the Old City of Jerusalem and the many who flock to midnight “Selichot” tours in the autumn where they observe the penitential prayers recited by Orthodox Jews during the month preceding the Jewish high holy days.

Falafel of all shapes and sizes, including onion-stuffed falafel, at a Ramadan market.

At the outdoor market in Kafr Qasem, the falafel balls come in all different shapes are sizes at this time of year. There are large deep-fried patties stuffed with fried onions and hot peppers, others stuffed with just fried onions, as well as the classic, little round balls that are not stuffed with anything. Beautiful large wheels of nuts mixed with honey are on display at a stand on one side of the square, while rows upon rows of awami – a marble-sized version of the deep fried sufgayinot eaten by Jews on Chanukah – beckon visitors on the other. The longest lines, however, are beside the stand where qatayef is being sold.

Like many overworked Muslim mothers, the woman hosting the Ramadan dinner at her home in Kafr Qasem admits she no longer makes the qatayef pancakes from scratch. Instead, she buys them prepared at the market, and then does the stuffing and frying at home.

“It’s difficult,” she says, as she takes a break from serving her family and her two dozen Jewish guests. “I wake up at 3 in the morning to prepare breakfast for everyone before the fast begins. Then I need to go out to my job, and when I come home, it’s back to cooking again for iftar.”

“What about the men?” one of her guests asks. “Don’t they help?

“No,” she smiles, shaking her head. “They just sit around and complain about having to fast.”

Sweets for sale at a Ramadan Market in Kafr Qasem.

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