Spicy Lentils and Basmati Rice for Shabbat

By Esther Meyers


I can hardly believe that in November, I will have been with my Pakistani-Muslim partner Abdul for a number of years.

Abdul comes from a very traditional Muslim family. His father died when he was very young, and his mother is the matriarch of the family. She makes all the decisions and has arranged the marriages of all her other sons. In Pakistan, the whole family lives together under one roof: the mother, Abdul’s three brothers, their wives, and all their children.

While very conservative Muslims, they are not bigots. They have no negative feelings towards Christians or Jews. Abdul and his brothers all went to Catholic school, as do all of Abdul’s nieces and nephews.

Because there were no daughters, and Abdul was the youngest, his mother taught him to cook, and he helped her in the kitchen and with the household chores.

Pakistan has a family-based culture, where individual desires and potential are subordinated to the needs of the family. Independence is discouraged. While patriarchal, women sometimes take on leadership positions if this benefits the family. Islam infuses the entire culture.

Our differences are the greatest strength of our relationship. I started my own law practice in 1997, and Abdul joined me as my office manager. I enjoy law: research; writing; counseling clients; appearing in court. However, I am not good at business. Abdul is an excellent businessman, and he handles all the administrative/business aspects of my practice. I came from a family that never saved money, while Abdul is the typical immigrant who watches every dime. At home, Abdul does all the cooking, as he is an excellent cook. I, however, never learned to cook.

On the downside, I come from a demonstrative, affectionate family, while Abdul does not outwardly show affection for me. This is typical of South Asian men, as you just don’t see them holding hands with or kissing their wives. Our differences can also lead to a lot of yelling. At times, I have asked if both of us could go for counseling, and he has adamantly refused. Pakistani men do not go for counseling!

Our biggest problem has been his family’s insistence that he go through with an arranged marriage to a Pakistani woman. His family just did not take no for an answer and continued to re-visit this issue again and again for about seven years.

I met his mother and two of his elder brothers in 1997 and 1998, when they came to visit. They were very polite, and his mother was warm, although she could not speak English. She sent me several beautiful, brightly colored scarves, which she sewed herself. In 1998, they sent me a Qu’ran (Islam’s holy book). They never told me directly that they were hoping I would convert.

When I turned 37, I told Abdul that I could no longer wait to have a child. He agreed, and he also agreed that our child would be Jewish. The birth of our son Isaac has been the greatest blessing for both of us. Abdul is an adoring father, and is totally devoted to Isaac. He takes off one weekday per week to spend with Isaac. Since I work on Sundays, he watches Isaac on Sundays also.

We eat both halal and kosher meat. The halal and kosher methods of slaughtering an animal are basically the same, as the animal must be killed by a single swipe of the knife to incur as little pain as possible, and all the blood must be drained out. Muslims and Jews have their own respective prayers that go along with the slaughtering. Muslims, like Jews, do not eat pork. We also do not eat shrimp, lobster, shellfish, etc., which are not kosher in Judaism. There is no ban on them in Islam, but Abdul was never in the habit of eating shellfish anyway.

Abdul no longer practices the rituals of Islam. Like many immigrants, he is very eager to be an American. Now that he has freedom in America, he is happy to flop on the couch, with his Bud Light in hand, and watch Seinfeld. Drinking alcohol, of course, is haram (forbidden) in Islam.

For Abdul, Islam stands for equality, against racism, and for the abolition of the caste system. He loves to talk about Prophet Mohammad, about how modest and humble he was, how he didn’t care about money or material things. In Islam, as in Judaism, each individual is made in God’s image, and each is equal before God.

My son Isaac and I spend Shabbat (the Sabbath) together. On Shabbat, I don’t work, and we don’t watch TV, don’t take transportation, don’t go shopping, and don’t travel. We enjoy walking to the library or the park and reading books together. Abdul usually leaves on Friday and returns on Sunday morning. He cannot be parted from his beloved TV set for 24 hours, and does not like all the restrictions of Shabbat. Also, this is a chance for him to have some time to himself and to see friends. Sometimes, Abdul stays home with us on Friday evening for candle lighting and he makes dinner, usually spicy beans with Basmati rice and yogurt. He reads aloud to me articles from the Pakistani newspaper, translating them into English. Isaac loves candle lighting. I often take Isaac to Friday evening family services.

I say the Sh’ma (basic prayer in Judaism) every evening before putting Isaac to bed bed, and then Isaac and I pray for our relatives and friends, and we tell God about the good things for which we are grateful. I have also started praying in the mornings.

I love Judaism and I hope that Isaac will love it, too. Since he is only 3 years old, I don’t know how he will view our different religions when he grows up, although I hope he will be a committed Jew.

About Esther Meyers

Esther Meyers is a pseudonym for a woman who holds a J.D. and an M.A. in International Relations, has her own law practice, and is admitted in both state and federal courts.