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THE STRAIN OF BEING ON FAST TRACK.

Byline: Lisa Lytle Orange County Register

David Pernas remembers every moment of his most torturous bout with hunger and thirst as if it happened only last year.

It was 1980, and Pernas, who had just become a Muslim, was amid his first fast to observe Ramadan. Under this Islamic practice, Muslims consume no food or drink in the period from 1-1/2 hours before sunrise until sunset, for 29 to 30 consecutive days during the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar.

``I had to drive across Morocco from Meknes to Rabat,'' recalls Pernas, 47, of Cowan Heights. ``I was fantasizing about eating. I was very hungry. `I've gotta get to that food,' I thought. ``When I arrived at the Rabat Hilton at sundown, I ordered a filet mignon and a big meal. I ate everything in sight and promptly threw up,'' he says.

Most religions that involve fasting - whether Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism or Christianity - have built-in safeguards to help people cope with hunger and thirst and minimize damage to health, says Dr. C. Wayne Callaway, a specialist in endocrinology, metabolism and clinical nutrition, and associate professor at George Washington University Medical School.

People usually learn these practices over time. Since that evening in Rabat, Pernas has found a way to observe Ramadan without jeopardizing his physical well-being. He knows that trying to focus on the spiritual aspects is one way - and having a steak on an empty stomach is definitely not.

On Wednesday, the beginning of Ramadan this year, Pernas will gently break his fast by eating dates or drinking water, as do most Muslims. But what he especially anticipates at sundown is harira, a special Moroccan soup his wife, Saida, makes just for the occasion. And that alone is worth the wait, he says.

``When you fast all day, it's hard to digest solid food such as meat right away,'' says Saida Pernas, 43. The slow-cooked soup of lentils, flour, onions and tomatoes is purposefully light, she says, to ease the digestive system into processing food and drink again.

``Whosoever fasts experiences two joys. He is joyful when he breaks his fast, and is joyful because of his fasting when he meets his Lord.''

- the Prophet Mohammed

Fasting has become easier for Pernas for other reasons. In depriving himself of nourishment for the body, he feels that he is somehow feeding his spirit.

``After the first time, you look forward to it - why, I don't know,'' he says. ``We feel we have something to atone for. We have to make up for a lot of things. There is a leveling aspect to it. No matter how much money you have, if you are doing it (fasting) right, you are at every man and every woman's level. It's a humbling experience.''

Practice has taken the sting out of hunger and thirst. ``I'm so used to it now that I make no special preparation for it,'' he says. ``In the beginning, I used to brace myself for it. Mentally, you don't dwell on the physical torture. You don't let it overtake you.''

As he approaches the middle of the month, he notices changes. ``My stomach feels tighter and tighter and smaller and smaller as I progress through the fast,'' he says. ``I have less of an appetite - it's as if the stomach can hold less and less food as the month goes on.''

This year, the daily period of fasting is shorter because in winter daylight hours are much shorter. A summer Ramadan is more difficult, he says.

The absence of food and drink does take its toll after a while, Pernas says. ``I'm more forgetful than usual,'' he says. ``I'm more irritable than usual. I'm more prone to anger. And I feel lightheaded.''

And that, perhaps, is one of the most difficult aspects of Ramadan, which requires of believers the utmost tolerance and patience during the month.

``When I wept and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to me reproach.''

- David, in Psalms 69:10

It helps to start learning to fast early in life.

As a child, Leah Kohn, 14, observed her sister and parents fast during Hebrew holy days several times a year, as required by Orthodox Jewish tradition.

``They wouldn't eat the whole day, and at night, my mother would make a special meal,'' she says.

The daylong ordeal worried her. ``What if I broke the fast?'' she remembers wondering.

But when she turned 12, the year a girl becomes a woman in the Jewish religion, she prepared herself to join the fasting ritual.

``I did not have any special techniques, yet I did fine. Once the fast is over, I might have a headache or feel out of it. We set the table, take a drink of water and say the blessing. At the meal, my father will try to encourage me to eat in moderation, but sometimes that's hard to do.

``This year, before the fast day of Yom Kippur, I finally found the ultimate solution. My father supplied me with a tip: Take 2 tablespoons of pure bee honey from Israel about half an hour before the fast. I did. I felt astonishingly marvelous. For 25 hours, although I did not eat or drink, I had no headache, stomach ache or anything painful. As each hour passed, my spirits lifted. This is not to say I wasn't hungry. I was, but the hunger didn't bother me. After the fast, I ate plenty.

``Just ask my mother - she is still trying to find out how the whitefish disappeared so fast.''

For Barry Koff, 40, director of education at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine, which subscribes to Reform Jewish practices, fasting occurs once a year on Yom Kippur. Because his body is not used to it, it can be difficult, he says.

``I'm very religious about my eating habits - pardon the pun,'' he says, laughing. ``I don't skip meals - I take my eating seriously.''

But when the Torah commands fasting, he abides by it.

``I'm fine for a long time. Even after breakfast time I'm OK. I go to the morning service and I'm still OK at 1 in the afternoon. Sometime around 2 to 3 o'clock, I think, `Some food will be good at this point.' When you're in the synagogue and hopefully trying to get in touch with God, you tend to block out the baser thoughts, but when that service is over, natural human behavior takes over.''

The last few hours are the most challenging, as his most recent observation of Yom Kippur showed.

Koff was asked to read the Book of Jonah during the final service, called Neilah. ``For me, it was a test of which would become the focal point of my appearance: the storm that cast Jonah into the sea, or the violent rumblings inside of me that a sensitive microphone was about to broadcast to 500 people. `Quiet

' I shouted to myself. But then a miracle occurred. For the next 10 minutes, while standing to read the longest of all the High Holy Days readings, I never heard a sound from within (me) or in the synagogue. In the same way that God provided a large fish to swallow Jonah while the storm raged, I felt a quiet peace throughout my body.''

As it was with Pernas and Kohn, breaking the fast was, in and of itself, a gratifying and uplifting experience. Where there was emptiness, there is fullness.

``I looked at the buffet table of breads, lox, spreads, noodle kugel, blintzes and desserts. My stomach exploded with a roar. That first bite of egg bagel never tasted so special, so spiritual.''

Putting emphasis on safety

It's important to undertake fasts carefully to mitigate potential health risks, experts say.

Here are tips from medical experts:

Check with your doctor before beginning a fast of 12 hours or longer. Parents should bring their child for a medical checkup before the son or daughter fasts for the first time. This enables physicians to determine whether a child has any medical condition that could be exacerbated by fasting.

Know the rules of fasting as prescribed by your religion and consult your doctor on adequate nutrition before beginning a fast.

Do not fast if you are ill.

Drink plenty of water before fasting to avoid becoming dehydrated.

Just before a day of fasting, your diet should contain no less than 100 to 150 grams of sugar a day for adequate brain functioning.

Break the fast slowly with liquids - juices, light soup, custards and puddings. Choose food that is low in fat and protein. Breaking a fast with hard-to-digest foods can result in vomiting, cramps and bloating. Eat slowly even if you are tempted to pack it in to assuage hunger. Do not overeat.

Sources: Dr. William Daughaday, clinical professor of medicine at University of California, Irvine, and Dr. C. Wayne Callaway, associate professor of medicine at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos, box

PHOTO (1) Muslims pray, some of them after breaking their fast, at the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove.

Mark Avery/Orange County Register

(2 -- color -- cover) Body and soul

Gene Blevins/Special to the Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1997 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 29, 1997
Words:1536
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