Embracing It All

This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, June 17, 2009 was originally posted on June 19, 2009.

DAY 4:  “So what are you doing in Israel?” asked Sarit, a young Jewish American from Albany, NY I met that morning outside the not-yet-open gates for the famous Baha’i Gardens atop Mount Carmel (of Elijah and Carmelites fame).  She had recently graduated from her undergrad years and was avoiding the “real world” by wandering around Israel for nine months thus far, a couple of those working in a kibbutz. 

“I’m here to uh, do stuff,” I answered.

“So where are you from?”

“Teaneck,” I told her (after telling her my current whereabouts in Brooklyn).

“Oh, I have cousins there!” the Jew replied with a tad of excitement.

“Of course you do.”

“Are you Jewish?” Sarit asked.

“No, but I’m sort of… Jewish by association.”

“Ah, J.B.A.”

“Ha, yeah. J.B.A.”  Is that even a well-known acronym? I wondered.

“Guess that’s better than being a J.A.P.”

“Ha, I grew up with a lot of those.”

“Yeah me too,” she said.  “I like to think I’m not one of them.”  (She didn’t seem to be.)

With us was Anna, a skinny blonde from Finland, and my one-day-bonded-thus-far travel buddy Lily, who had befriended the two new faces in front of me the night before.  We were in the queue for the first-come-first-serve, once-per-day English-speaking tour for the Baha’i Gardens (picture above) — the most obvious place to visit in Haifa — a meticulously planted, 17-tiered garden of plants, grass, flowers and fountains spanning a big section of the imposing Mt. Carmel from base to summit.  The gardens surround and beautify the domed Shrine of the Bab, a structure Lily and I had tried to see earlier that morning from a different entrance that we went to and from with a couple of taxi rides and on ride on the Carmelit, Israel’s only underground railroad.  There wasn’t much they would allow us to see in the holy shrine without being a member of the Baha’i faith; most of it was covered with scaffolding, and inside we were only allowed to see a guarded sliver of a room with some sort of alter on the floor. 

“They only give you a sliver, so they can keep it mysterious,” I told Lily.

“Yeah, I was looking for a pamphlet or something,” she said.  “Like how do I want to know if I should convert?”

Our anti-climactic reports of the shrine’s insides satisfied the curiosities of Anna and Sarit, as we were finally let into the gardens from the upper gate.

THE BAHA’I GARDENS were completely impressive beyond the gates, with perfectly manicured lawns and flower and plant arrangements that would give any floral designer an O face.  As hot as it can be in Haifa, the terraces are watered through an Israeli drip irrigation system.  We learned this from our Tony Shaloub-looking tour guide, an Israeli guy who exemplified the brash attitude that most Brisith and American Jews I know can’t stand, including Sarit.  “Now I am going to tell you a little bit about the gardens and the Baha’i faith,” said our guide.  “If you want to listen, please do, if not, please be quiet.”  (It sounds more humorously arrogant in the Israeli accent.)

With him, and the movie presentation that concluded the tour, we learned that the Baha’i faith was founded by a Ali-Muhammed in 1844, calling himself The Bab (gate) to the manifestation of God.  While this fairly new religion sounds like an old school Biblical tale, it is a quite progressive thinkers’ religion that believes:

  • its mission is to end the Holy Wars
  • that Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha and all the key deities of the major world religions are not different “competing gods,” but actually prophets sent by one universal god that bonds everyone on earth
  • that violence will be eliminated if we get rid of our borders
  • in the advancement of women
  • in the harmony of science and religion
  • that “the earth is one country and mankind its citizens”

Walking down the 700 odd steps, I said to Sarit, “What if I said I couldn’t do the 700 steps [when the guide asked]?”

“He would have said goodbye.

By this rationale, we learned that the Baha’i, as progressive as they are, don’t believe in:

  • hanidcap accessibility
  • elevators

We also joked that vampires are actually the groundskeepers of the gardens since no one ever really sees people working on them in the day.  That, or robots.  But all joking aside, the Baha’i faith is an attractive, growing and expanding faith around the world — in fact, I had first learned about the Baha’i at their temple in Delhi, India.  And if you’re not convinced, just look up their involvement with the United Nations or, better yet, read what member Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute from NBC’s The Office) has to say about it, in his essay on CNN.com.

“SO WHERE’S THE BEST HUMMUS IN ISRAEL?” Lily and I asked our new friend Sarit who continued to wander the city with us after the fact.  (Anna the Finn had to go.)  Sarit had been in Israel for months and was more of an authority than we were.

“Personally, I think the Arabs make the better hummus and falafel here,” she admitted.  With that said, we walked over to the Arab market in the Arab quarter to find a place listed in the the Lonely Planet guide, a.k.a. “The Other Bible” in the Israel-travel circuit.  We couldn’t find it, but lucked out on a place whose name I don’t recall (it was in Hebrew), but was run by a nice Arab guy who, for whatever reason, kept two African statues and a “Merry Christmas” sign on his mantle.  We agreed his hummus and grape leaves were good — I put it at the 2nd best after the one in Tel Aviv — while we bonded as a newly-formed trio for the day.  Not surprisingly, the conversation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict came up.  Sarit told us a tale of when she was in a school in southern Israel, where young Israelis and Palestinians studied and played in harmony, and the Gaza War broke out. 

“People were crazy,” she recalled. 

“There was anger?” I asked.

“No.  Crying,” she said.  “They were hysterical,” continuing with how everyone was confused, and “we are all friends,” and “why is it like this out there,” etc. etc. 

“I think we’re still a generation away from any kind of real peace,” I said.  “The people in power now are still holding onto old values.  It won’t come until [the next] generation grows up.”  Although, from my two-day experience in Israel thus far, I was amazed at the seemingly peaceful co-existence of Israelis and Arabs within the country; most of the fighting you see in the media only involves the extremists on both sides, which only ignites tension in apathetic moderates.  I spat out a simple logic equation to my new friends, which reasoned the underlying absurdity of the conflict:


If A comes from C, and B comes from C, then A and B come from C.

(This equation spawned in my head after an IM conversation with a friend about the reason why Jewish girls are hot, and Palestinian girls are hot: because, duh, they both come from the same place.)

“Wow, you should be a mediator,” Lily said.

“You should go to the U.N. with that.”

If only it could be that simple; I can see arguments from both sides, but I’ll get into that in a different blog entry.

AFTER LUNCH the three of us head out to Elijah’s Cave, the holy cave where Elijah did something, we weren’t sure.  “What did he do there?” Sarit asked.

“He drank your wine in the middle of the night,” I answered with a smirk.

But it was the cave in Mt. Carmel where he stayed on his way to battle the 450 priests of Ba’al (Book of Kings, 1:17-19).  Jesus, Mary, and Joseph also stayed there once too.  I’m pretty sure in their day, the cave wasn’t separated to a women and men side (for the Orthos visiting today). 

Just above the cave atop Mt. Carmel, accessible via three balls on a cable, was the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery — not to be confused with the church across the street bearing a cross and surrounded by Israeli army flags and barbed wire. (That one was an Israeli Navy lookout post.)  The church of the Catholic monastery rounded out three religious groups of the day.  “We went to a Jewish site, then a Christian… and we went to the Arab Quarter,” Sarit noticed.  “We’re like the Baha’i!  We’re embracing it all!”

“All” included embracing ice cream near the beach afterwards, from an ice cream store of the kibbutz known to produce the best dairy in the country.

“I’m so glad I met you guys!” Sarit said, who was new to traveling solo and wasn’t sure if she’d get to meet any cool people.  She was particularly keen on Lily and me.  “It’s funny,” she said.  “I never thought I’d be traveling in Israel with two non-Jews who know so much about being Jewish.”

THAT EVENING, OUR TRIO WAS HEAVIER by one more, making it a quartet.  New on the roster was a native Israeli man, Zvi, father of Hadar, one of Lily’s med school classmates in New York.  Zvi was an incredibly friendly and gracious man who volunteered to take Lily around — an ultimately invited Sarit and me since we were her new “New York friends.”

“This is Erik, and this is Sarit,” Lily made with the introductions as we entered his four-door sedan when Zvi picked us up after work.  “Sarit knows Hebrew.”  (Sarit was an incredible help that day in translation; Lily’s and my vocabulary only included simple words like shalom (hello), ken (yes), lo (no), tova (thanks), and bevakasha (please) which we put emphasis on the wrong syllable.) 

“But I want to practice my English,” Zvi told us.

“That’s okay,” Sarit said.  “I also speak English.”

Zvi was a godsend (pick a god, any god) because he drove us out to places and views not easy to get to without a car — we were embracing it all after all.  “This is exactly what I wanted to see,” raved Sarit.  “I’m so glad I came; you can sort of see the cities solo, but this, you need a car.  Thank you!”  He took us out to Daliyat al-Karmel, a Druze village on the outskirts of Haifa, which was a modernized town of the Druze people (they had a McDonald’s), peacekeeping Arabs practicing a secret sect of Islam with secret ceremonies every Thursday evening.  (We didn’t see any that Thursday.  That secret.) 

“The Druze are good people,” Zvi explained in his Israeli accent.  “They believe their loyalty is to their country, not their people.”  Trusted by the Israeli Jews, Druze serve in the army and even have their own specialty division.  Good to know, but I asked about something else to my new guide.

“So where’s the best hummus in Israel?”

“Hmmm… I don’t know.  There are good ones in Nazareth,” he answered.  The Arabic one is the better one.

We also went to the other big Elijah site in the area, a Catholic Carmelite Monastery built on the site where the prophet did battle with the 450 “bad guys.”  More impressive than the monastery was the view.

“Hey look, someone left a bottle of Coke out for Elijah,” I said, pointing out a half-full bottle.

“Yeah, but it’s not open,” Lily pointed out.

That sort of Jewish banter between goys continued later that night in the grocery store when we grabbed provisions.  Skipping the huge hummus section, we opted for tomatoes, goat cheese, lamb cheese, and some sort of fish.

“Is anyone opposed to tuna fish?” Lily asked.

“How about whitefish?” I suggested, something from my childhood.

“Man, are you sure you’re not Jewish?” Sarit wondered about me.

“It’s funny, I always grew up thinking it was a Filipino thing since my parents used to get it all the time [with a salad of tomatoes and scallions],” I said.  “I didn’t realize it was a Jewish thing until my brother told me, ‘Don’t you know mom and dad got that from the kosher section?’”

We stuck with tuna fish, which was problematic with the lack of a can opener; I managed to jimmy it open with my Swiss Army Knife.  Our new trio dined that night on light fare in the backyard, but it wasn’t necessarily our Last Supper, since my travels with them (at least Lily) would continue the next day with Zvi.

“I tell my friends I can’t do anything Friday, Saturday,” Zvi said in the car.  “That belongs to Lily!”  He extended the invite out to me, so it would belong to me too.  Naturally, I graciously accepted; if the opportunity strikes, you might as well embrace it all.


DELETED SCENE: On the ride up the cable car “balls” to the top of Mt. Carmel, there was a loud screech just as we were about midway up, above the highway.  Sarit’s life flash before her eyes, thinking the cable had broken, but the screech had come from an almost-synchronized car accident that happened just below us.

Next entry: War of the Salads

Previous entry: Conversations of Conversion

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  • I’m about a day behind, but I will be posting another one soon, before the WHMMR…  Stay tuned…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/19  at  10:43 PM

  • P.S. The next entries might come in piecemeal since I really need to dedicate some time to the freelance project I’m working on here, that is mostly funding this trip…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/19  at  10:49 PM

  • got your text… thanks, b… some pics up on my flickr…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/20  at  05:48 AM

  • Great stuff. I really like your writing style.
    . Enjoyed reading it.

    Posted by Aubrey blog  on  01/07  at  08:12 AM

  • Great blog, this could be the best blog I ever visited this month. Never stop to write something useful dude!

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  • Thank you so much for your sweet and even humorous sharing of your adventures in Israel!  I’ve just returned from my first Baha’i pilgrimage and it was so heavenly especially in Bahji, where Baha’u'llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith spent the last years of His Life and where He is buried. (BY the way if you go again you can go visit inside His home and into His Shrine!)
    God Bless dear heart!  Joyce

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This blog post is one of sixteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Holla! In The Holy Land," which chronicled a two-week journey through Israel, with jaunts into Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank.

Next entry:
War of the Salads

Previous entry:
Conversations of Conversion


Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

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The Trinidad Show: a nickname of The Global Trip blog, used particularly by travelers that have been written about, who are self-aware that they have become "characters" in a long-running story — like characters in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

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