After a quick bracha, Dr. Jim Lando and his lunch companion — this reporter — each dug into a not so heaping helping of wheat berries, garnished with a dab of yellow split pea mush.
This reporter polished off his portion within a couple minutes, but Lando took his time, making each mouthful last — and for good reason. He would have little else to eat that day.
“I like to eat the wheat first and save the middle (the mush) as a treat,” said Lando, a locally based public health physician for the Centers for Disease Control.
This isn’t how he normally eats. Lando is one of many people across the country taking part in the Darfur Fast for Life, following the example of actress Mia Farrow, who undertook a 12-day hunger strike to call attention to the plight of Darfur refugees.
Others, like Lando, have opted to eat exactly what Dafuris in refugee camps eat. So last week, he bought what would be one month’s worth of rations for a refugee in the camps. Daily, it works out to 7 ounces of wheat, 1.17 ounces of farina, one-sixth of a cup yellow split peas, 2.4 teaspoons of oil, two teaspoons of sugar, one-tenth teaspoon of salt.
After six days on this diet, he lost nine pounds. Doctors typically say individuals shouldn’t lose more than 1 to 2 pounds a week on a weight loss plan.
By Lando’s own admission, he’s a stocky guy. The Darfuris fleeing persecution in their home province in western Sudan are often thin and more susceptible to malnutrition.
Despite a similar diet, Lando has it easier than the Darfuris. He can cook his grain on a gas stove at home, while Darfuris must range long distances at the edge of the Sahara Desert to gather wood for fuel. Many women have reportedly been raped while away from camp on these gathering trips.
Lando also has clean water to drink. Dafuris must draw from communal wells.
As part of his commitment, Lando is also organizing a Darfur Dinner on Sunday, July 12, where guests will eat the same food he is eating. He hopes to raise money for the Save Darfur Coalition. (Write to email@example.com for details.)
Lando’s aim is to publicize the lack of humanitarian aid available for the victims of genocide. Three months ago, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir expelled humanitarian aid groups from the country, where more than 1 million people are at risk of dying.
Lando, a member of Beth Shalom and Or L’Simcha, first learned of the fast through a listserv by Rabbi Shawn Zevit, a Reconstructionist rabbi who formerly served Dor Hadash Congregation.
Whether he can make it a full 30 days is not certain. If the low-sodium, low-potassium, low-calorie, low-nutrition diet takes its toll on his health, Lando said he would stop.
But for now, he’s sticking with it. Even during his family’s Fathers Day picnic on Sunday, he ate his meager rations while the rest of his family chowed down on hot dogs, baked beans and dessert.
Jews have been highly active in the campaign to draw world attention to Darfur. Among dignitaries joining Farrow in the fast was Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service.
Eighty rabbis from five countries joined Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, on a three-day fast Monday evening. Saperstein invited rabbis from the four major streams of Judaism to join him.
As meager as his diet is, Lando at least knows it won’t last forever.
“I’m choosing to do this, and they (the Darfuris) are not choosing to do this,” he said. “That’s a big difference.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)