Faith, Fasting and Family: Local Arab American Catholics recall Lenten memories, traditions

By Christina Gray

Lead writer, Catholic San Francisco

[email protected]

Juliette Totah, now 93 and living at St. Anne’s Home in San Francisco, was born in the Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah. Like other Arab-speaking Catholics, her Easter memories and traditions remain rooted in the Holy Land.

“They are used to celebrating Holy Week in the ways they did,” said Father Rick Van de Water, administrator of St. Thomas More Parish in San Francisco and chaplain to Arab-speaking Catholics in the archdiocese. “It means so much to them.”

American-born Father Van de Water found his vocation in the Holy Land as a young schoolteacher and remained there for decades. He returned stateside and was invited to assume the responsibilities of longtime pastor, Msgr. Labib Kobti, now also in residence at St. Anne’s Home.

Parishioners Argen Totah, Elias Totah, Juliette Totah and Huda Mogannam, all from Ramallah, and Vera Araj, from Bethlehem, talked with Father Van de Water about Lent and Easter in the Holy Land.


“The earliest history of the Holy Land was marked by the robust asceticism of the Desert Fathers, early Christian hermits and ascetics,” said Father Van de Water. “It generated among all Christians of the Holy Land a central tradition of Lenten fasting.”

Argen Totah said the Lenten fasts of her childhood meant total abstinence from animal products. “We took no meat, dairy, eggs, butter or animal fat for the entire period of 46 days,” she said.


The Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked through the old city of Jerusalem on his way to Calvary, was packed on Fridays during Lent with students from nearby schools there to pray the Stations of the Cross.


As Holy Week approached, families gathered palm branches and wove them together with flowers for the Palm Sunday Mass and procession, said Mogannam.

The procession would begin in the village of Bethany on the far side of the Mount of Olives. Carrying olive and palm branches, everyone sang traditional hymns as they processed down the Mount of Olives and through the gate of the Old City to the Church of St. Anne. It ended with a picnic under the olive trees.


Mass was celebrated every night of Holy Week in parishes in the towns and villages of the Holy Land. On Holy Thursday, some would travel to the Old City of Jerusalem to attend the chrism Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, presided by the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. The Holy Sepulcher was built on the sites where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Others living in the immediate vicinity might attend the memorial of the Lord’s Supper at the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane. Everyone else would gather at their parish churches for a Mass that included washing of the feet.


The celebration of Christ’s passion traditionally included a procession of men carrying a bier decorated with flowers commemorating how Christ was taken from the cross and carried to the tomb.

“An important culinary tradition for Holy Week that survives to this day is baking cookies in the shape of the crown of thorns and the sponge,” said Argen Totah.

Some families would gather at the local bakery to make the delicate, date- and nut-filled Ka’ak bi Ajwa and Ma’amoul Easter cookies.

The dough would have been prepared during the week because it was customary to wait until after the Good Friday prayers to take it to the bakery because families in the old days did not have their own ovens. The bakery became a warm and memorable gathering place for local families.


Crowds gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem for the lighting of a fire symbolizing the Resurrection. The flame is brought out from inside the tomb of Jesus and shared with the crowd. Representatives from surrounding towns and villages would carry the flame back to their communities, where it would light the candles in the local parish churches.

The Easter Vigil begins in the late evening, usually shortly before midnight, with the lighting of the Easter candle. The midnight vigil, called the Hajmeh, would be followed by a breakfast.

Easter Sunday would traditionally be spent sharing a family meal and visiting the homes of relatives and friends to offer Easter greetings. On Easter Monday, families liked to travel to the village of Emmaus for a picnic in memory of the two disciples who encountered the risen Jesus on the roads there.

Ka’ak bi Ajwa and Ma’amoul

(Palestinian Easter Cookies)

Longtime St. Thomas More parishioner Vera Araj said she spent years refining her family recipe for these date- and nut-filled cookies made only at Easter by Holy Land Christians. She and her daughter, Blanche Araj Shaheen, provide the recipe and demonstrate how to make them on her “Feast in the Middle East” YouTube cooking show, https://youtu.be/cm4iTtXrRgY.

This is a pastry with huge significance to Christians in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, said Araj, who portrays Mary in the St. Thomas More Parish annual Passion play. The cookies are said to symbolize the crown of thorns Jesus wore and the sponge that was filled with water and squeezed over his face at the crucifixion. They are eaten at the end of the Lenten fast.

“The dough is sugarless, symbolizing the sadness of Christ’s death, and the sweet date filling refers to the Resurrection,” Araj Shaheen said.