Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Eid al-Fitr was the main holiday for Mona Aslam. So, when she moved here, she made it her mission to instill the excitement for Eid that she grew up with in her kids, who were more familiar with the holiday cheer of Christmas and Thanksgiving.
“Slowly and slowly, my kids grew up – teaching them what Eid is and how you get excited — and making sure that we had Eid decorations at home and talking to them about why we celebrate Eid, what the value of Eid is,” Aslam said. “And now … we all make sure that we clean the house, we cook good food and I plan an open house every year.”
Eid al-Fitr, which will tentatively land on May 13 this year, is one of two Eids observed by Muslims: The second is Eid al-Adha. This Eid marks the end of Ramadan and is celebrated on the first day of Shawwal (the 10th month of the lunar Islamic calendar). The holiday’s date is hard to pin down in advance as it is determined by the sighting of the moon, which religious authorities in various countries rely upon.
Muslims around the world celebrate by attending Eid prayers; gathering with the community, family and friends; giving gifts; dressing up, and eating lots of food.
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A few days before the holiday, Muslims are obligated to provide Zakat al-Fitr, or a small charitable donation, to ensure those in need can feast.
Last year, many including the Cherry Hill resident and her family observed prayers at home and adapted to virtual gatherings and distanced gift-giving.
This year, Muslims in South Jersey are planning to have a hybrid of modified celebrations and a return to some semblance of normalcy as COVID-19 continues to spread and vaccines are distributed.
Continuing traditions as the world reopens
Aslam and her family are vaccinated, so she plans to return to normal celebrations but keep COVID-19 precautions.
For the influencer and travel blogger, this Eid is special as Aslam launches a community web-based channel called Mango Prime, which focuses on empowering the South Asian community through various topics. She plans to celebrate the holiday with her usual open house, inviting and cooking for 100 rather than her usual 300 people. Among them are the channel’s team, family and friends.
“We’re making sure that they’re coming on their [time]slots and packing our foods in different boxes so nobody’s touching the same spoon or same glass or bottle,” Aslam said. “We are doing individually packed goodies … when we sent out invitations, we said that only people who are vaccinated [could come].”
Aslam also will host and sponsor a chand raat mela, or the eve of Eid festival, with Voorhees restaurant Karachi Kafe’s owner Anny Khan. Normally, these festivals are held indoors with as many as 200 vendors, but this year Aslam and Khan are limiting it to about 15 vendors or so. The festival will be held in the vacant space next door to the restaurant.
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“So people can still have that feel, but not as crowded as it used to be,” Aslam said. “It will be a fun event – not as big as it used to be but still anybody who wants to have henna and have last-minute kusa (traditional South Asian shoes) or clothes you can, of course, come there and feel free to shop.”
Aslam plans to have Eid prayers at her home like last year, although mosques have arranged for timeslots and outdoor prayers. She’ll also continue last year’s gift-giving with dessert basket drop-offs.
Togetherness — and barbecue
Dr. Jubril Oyeyemi, a primary care physician in Cherry Hill, said last year’s Eid was “a bit of a bummer” and paled in comparison to past celebrations, though he said it was still a time to be grateful for being alive during a pandemic.
This year, with most of his family vaccinated, Oyeyemi’s looking forward to some normalcy returning.
“We’ll be able to come out [to the mosque] this time, which we couldn’t do last year. And then following the communal physically distant gathering, looking forward to going home and gathering with the extended family and everyone that’s vaccinated – probably going to be outdoors also.”
Oyeyemi and his family will be chowing down on some barbecue, potato salad, plantains and mac and cheese, a tradition.
Oyeyemi believes returning to normal celebrations and observances will be based on how quickly herd immunity is reached.
“I think the biggest threat to normalcy right now are those things – how quickly we can get vaccinated and how we’re able to prevent the spread of the variants,” Oyeyemi said. “That’s what I think is going to help decide what next year is like. So, if there are more variants, hopefully not, then that means that all of these restrictions maintain in some form. But if we are able to successfully eradicate this, then hopefully next year it’ll be even closer to normal for all of us.”
Mosque celebrations ‘a really big deal for us this year’
Like many mosques, the Gracious Center of Learning and Enrichment Activities or GCLEA in Cherry Hill passed an unprecedented Eid where communal prayer was eliminated, and the mosque was shuttered.
But this year, Imam John Starling has a more robust plan that adheres to COVID-19 precautions. Eid prayer, the sermon and collection of Zakat (donations) will be performed outside (if the weather permits), but community members will be required to wear masks, stay socially distanced and are asked to avoid hugs and handshakes.
“Whatever little that we have is something, it’s huge,” Starling said. “It’s a really big deal for us this year, and certainly looking forward to a time, hopefully in the near future, when we can get back to a more normal Eid celebration. So, we have been as a community, encouraging everyone to not only follow the basic safety guidelines but also to get vaccinated.”
There will be no community celebration, unlike in previous years. So, once the services are over, members are encouraged to celebrate with family and their circle of friends elsewhere.
For Starling, who has been with the mosque for 10 years, those celebrations will be with those who have converted to the faith, as his wife and kids are spending their holiday abroad with extended family.
“Typically, the convert community doesn’t have the family experience and so they’re kind of left on their own,” Starling said. “I may try and organize something for converts to kind of maybe have a coffee together or do something just to have like an outlet for that type of experience.”
Usually, Starling and his family go to local restaurants like Silver Diner in Cherry Hill for brunch. So, he may keep that tradition going and take out his “convert crew.”
Eid for Starling has a more religious significance than a cultural one as he converted when he was 19 years old and didn’t grow up with the holiday.
“The feelings that I associate with Eid have a lot to do with the fast of Ramadan itself and the religious significance of the Muslim community, asserting its independence and its uniqueness, as opposed to adopting the ways of other faith traditions,” Starling said.
“We were given the two Eids to stand out and be our own people, so that’s kind of like my personal strongest associations with the holiday.”
Sweetness of the feast
Osama “Sam” Jadalla, owner of Blue Fig Cafe in Moorestown, takes a day off from the restaurant for the holiday to spend time with his family.
“If I want to go there, I go there as a guest,” Jadalla said.
Jadalla came to the United States from Jordan in 2011, bringing his skills as a restaurateur to Moorestown and opening Blue Fig Cafe.
The Cinnaminson resident usually spends the holiday going to the mosque for prayer and getting breakfast with his immediate and extended family.
“I just like to spend the day all together because in Ramadan, it’s a lot about praying and asking God for forgiveness, [empathizing] with the poor people – not eating at all,” Jadalla said.
“That’s the tradition of Ramadan, like make you feel with other people. So, once you break it [fasting], it’s like a holiday. You can eat anything, drink anything. So usually we buy new clothes for the kids and like have them feel the celebration.”
For Jadalla, desserts are a big part of the holiday – “has to be dessert like maamoul,” filled semolina butter cookies.
He plans to spend this Eid at his brother’s backyard to start. He will end it with dinner at his restaurant, eating Middle Eastern classics like grilled meat, dolma (stuffed grape leaves), hummus and baba ghanouj.
“I love the gathering, that’s the most important because you see the kids – the happiness, the smiles on the kids … and when you see your parents and all that,” Jadalla said.
If you go
Blue Fig Cafe: 200 Young Ave, Moorestown, 856-638-5186; http://bluefigcafe.com/
Karachi Kafe: 2999 E Evesham Rd Unit 12, Voorhees Township, 856-676-7728; http://www.karachikafe.com/
Hira Qureshi covers food and drink for the Courier Post, Burlington County Times, Daily Journal, Bucks County Times and Intelligencer. She can be reached at [email protected] or 856-287-8106. Help support local journalism with a digital subscription.