You'd Make a Great Israeli

Trip Start Apr 11, 2009
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Trip End Aug 06, 2009


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Thursday, July 2, 2009

"I will be speaking English.  If you do not speak English, there is no tour for you.  Step this way.  We are guests here, so please, don’t leave me.  Ever.  Stay on the path.  There will be another guide behind us, and please don’t get behind him.  Or in front of me.  Never stray.  Do not touch the grass.  Or the water.  Or, God help us, drink the water.  We’re descending a lot of steps and its hot, so please don’t start the tour if you are pregnant or have a heart condition, since you will not be allowed to stop.  Thank you.”  

 You would think we were entering Jurassic Park.  Or at least something minimally dangerous.  But in reality, the unattractive, officious tour guide was leading me and a group of somewhat startled tourists onto the path leading to the eight hundred steps that cascade down Mount Carmel leading to the Bahai Temple and World Faith Center in Haifa.   

This particular stop on my tour of world religions was not planned in advance.  In fact, I didn’t even know that the administrative center of the Bahai faith was even in Haifa until Maya stopped her car and had me climb out to look at it.  We had just finished a coffee in Carmel Center, the leafy area at the top of Haifa, during which Maya chain-smoked and caught me up on her life since I had last seen her – in 1999.  We swapped stories laughed at how incredible it was to see one another again, and found that a decade later, after my seven years back in the states and college, and her stint in the Navy, we still had lots to talk about.  That Maya was in Haifa was itself a surprise – while I had contacted her on my way to Israel to try and see her again, she had only told me she was in Haifa after I had agreed to come to the Mediterranean city.  I was really in Haifa not for Maya, nor for the Bahai, but for Oryan.  

 I last saw Oryan Gaynor when we were eleven-year-old girls in Vienna.  She was in Mr. Van Egren’s class for fourth grade, but we were put together in Mr Johnk’s for the fifth, and we were inseparable.   She left Vienna that summer, and while she visited once in sixth grade, it has been over twelve years – over half our lives – since we lost touch.   

None of that stopped me from recognizing her face immediately as she and her boyfriend Ido came to fetch me at a busy intersection near the Jaffa Gate on my first day in Israel.  They were at Ido’s parents’ house near Jerusalem for the weekend, and Oryan and my enthusiasm for reuniting after so long meant that Ido was dragged out again and again in the next two days.  We ate sushi that night and stayed up well past midnight.  The next day she took me to lunch (she slapped my hand, “are you trying to make me angry?” when I tried to pay) at a Jerusalem institution, feasting on kibbe and babaganush before going around the corner for the delicious waffles she discovered while serving in Jerusalem.  She suggested that I come to Haifa to stay with them, get their favorite Chinese, eat the best middle-eastern sweet and go to a food festival that was being held on the beach (food is a bit of a thing with Israelis – I have never seen another culture so single-mindedly in love with it, with the possible exception of the fine citizens of Berkeley.)  My plans for my time in Israel at this point consisted of “stay in Jerusalem until I think I should leave Jerusalem.” I agreed immediately.    

*****

If the Baha'i, one of the worlds’ youngest religious groups, are trying to shake the sense that they are, in fact, a cult, then the temple and administrative center does little to help.  For starters, non-Bahai can only come in one gate, and can only come in if escorted.  They can only walk down the steps from top  to bottom.  Then, as you pass it, something called the Universal House of Justice is pointed out to you, before you are told that you cannot, actually, enter this building.  Unless you are Baha'i.  Same with the archives and administrative centers.  And the temple itself, for that matter.  And the lower parts of the gardens, though that is only because the tour, which you cannot, for any reason, leave, does not cover those bits of the gardens (though it hardly matters since the Baha'i believe in equality means that the gardens are essentially the same garden, repeated over, and over and over again on different levels.)  Finally, the cap off the tour with a video, whose main attraction to the tourist is that its shown in an air-conditioned chamber.  The video is strangely convincing - the Baha'i believe in little more than equality, for races, genders and nations, and, at least in the footage we were shown, they seem a peaceful and extremely diverse group. 

I left smiling, and thinking about possible courses of study, and perhaps the ways in which I could tell the world about this grandly egalitarian new religion.  It wasn't until days later, when talking about what a lovely, open, kind faith it is, that I remembered the part where I was not allowed to leave the path under any circumstances or enter a single building.  Combine this with my tears at the western wall, sudden admiration for nuns at Christ's tomb and the serene feeling I always get in mosques and it becomes fairly clear that I'm a danger to myself.  It's a wonder I managed to walk by the Scientologist's building in DC for years without telling you about the space men, and how I just invested another million dollars in my own salvation.  

I left the gardens and wandered through the sweltering heat of a Mediteranian afternoon, visiting the science museum, and climbing several of the long, shady stairways that climb Mt Carmel, cutting pedestrian paths between streets.  Eventually Oryan got out of class, we swung back by her apartment to pick up Ido and a friend of theirs from University before we headed down to the beech to lie in the fading sunlight, eating tapas sized portions from some of the best restaurants in Haifa.  They switched in and out of Hebrew, making fun of Ido for waiting too patiently in lines instead of cutting (“He’s not a very good Israeli,” they pronounced, “he does love food, but he’s not loud.  And he’s too nice."  "You’re loud, Willa," Oryan chimed in, "and you love to eat.  You’d make a great Israeli.”) 

Eventually Oryan walked me to the train station, helped me buy a ticket and waited for the train with me.  She hugged me goodbye, and I promised to come back.  It’s been thirteen years since we were friends, but in her apartment and around her friends, I felt completely at home, and glad of it.  After Oryan left, the train rolled into the platform on time.  I climbed on, sat down next to a soldier - the first time that day I remembered I was not, in fact, in a Hebrew-speaking section of California. 

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