Bahai News - The 19 days leading up to their New Year give Baha'is a sense of worldwide communion
Published Saturday, March 8, 1997, in the San Jose Mercury News
The 19 days leading up to their New Year
give Baha'is a sense of worldwide communion
BY RICHARD SCHEININ
Mercury News Religion and Ethics Writer
Five teenagers hike up a hilly drive through the Bonny Doon redwoods.
It's dusk. It's cold. They haven't eaten since dawn.
``Hope it's not rice again,'' says 18 year-old Jonneke Koomen. ``I'm way
At the top of the hill, there's a large redwood cabin where they are
greeted by a crowd of friends who settle a few moments later into a
prayer circle. There's deep silence after every statement of thanks to
God. At last everyone sits down to bountiful plates of salad, chips and
enchiladas. Another day of sun-up to sundown fasting has ended for this
roomful of friends, and for the estimated 5 million members of the
worldwide Baha'i community.
Christians fast at Lent, Jews at Yom Kippur, Muslims at Ramadan. Prayer
and fasting are twin pillars of most religious traditions. Likewise for
the Baha'is, who fast for 19 days as part of their annual cycle of holy
days, which began Feb. 26 and concludes with the Baha'i New Year's
celebration on March 21.
It's said that the body fasts to nourish the soul. As thoughts turn away
from daily routines, they settle on the big picture and God. In this way,
a time of deprivation becomes one of enrichment.
``The first couple of days, all I kept thinking about was cheesecake,''
admits Koomen, a visiting student from Oxford, England, setting off
laughter around the table.
``You think, `What if I quietly had a candy bar?''' says Zack Heern,
from Oregon. ``And then, real quick, you think about God.''
``Because he's the one who's going to catch you,'' says Alasdair Rhind,
18, from South Africa. What Rhind likes about the fast is that it gives
him a sense of connection to Baha'is worldwide: ``As you're ending your
fast at night, you know there's someone, somewhere else in the world,
who's starting their own. It's like God's going in a big circle around
The students are members of the Baha'i Youth Service Corps, which sends
college-age volunteers around the world to work on humanitarian and
educational projects. These young people have volunteered to spend a
year at the Bosch Baha'i School in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Every year,
about 6,000 people visit the center for conferences and retreats, and
the students help maintain it by working in the kitchen, in the classroom,
in the fields, cutting wood. Such work is supposed to instill a spirit
of service without expectation of reward. The Baha'i prophet, known as
Baha'u'llah, taught that good work is a form of worship. Here the
students are expected to learn that lesson first-hand.
They are fed and cared for this evening by Linda and Mark Bedford, the
school's directors, who function almost as a summer camp mom and dad.
The Bedfords, who have three children, have decorated their home by
setting out candles and wrapping stairway banisters with vines of small,
silk roses. The crowd inside the house grows to about 20 as the night
moves on -- typical during the annual holy days, which are a time for
gatherings of family and friends, of sharing, and service to the larger
The Baha'i year consists of 361 days -- 19 months of 19 days apiece. To
bring it into conjunction with the 365-day Roman calendar, a four-day
period is set aside in late February and early March. These four days,
referred to as ``the time outside of time,'' stand apart from the rest
of the Baha'i calendar and commence the holy day cycle.
Known as Ayyam-i-Ha (pronounced: Ah-YAHM-ee-hah), the four days are
traditionally a time of gift-giving for Baha'is, ever since Baha'u'llah
founded the faith in the 1840s in Iran. American Baha'i children often
await Ayyam-i-Ha the way Christian and Jewish children anticipate
Christmas or Hanukkah.
Bestowed with gifts
As with those holidays, Ayyam-i-Ha has another dimension: ``The Baha'is
view the world as a place where people have been bestowed with enormous
gifts -- the gifts of love and generosity, kindness and forbearance,''
says Suheil Bushrui, a Baha'i scholar at the University of Maryland who
was born in Nazareth. ``Baha'u'llah speaks of the human being as a
treasure house -- as a mine of treasures. And as you go about your life,
you begin to dig out the diamonds and rubies and pearls. And the days
of Ayyam-i-Ha are days of giving love and generosity. Perhaps the world
needs a little sharing.''
American Baha'i families typically visit nursing homes or clean up
neighborhood parks during Ayyam-i-Ha. ``We're supposed to do all those
things all year-round,'' says Jean Quinn, a former Catholic who converted
to the Baha'i faith with her husband, Mike, about three years ago. ``But
it's like Christmas -- we finally bring the toys over to the homeless
It is a period of spiritual preparation for the 19-day fast, which flows
into the New Year's celebration of Naw Ruz. That feast day -- ``Naw Ruz''
means ``New Day'' in Persian -- has roots in the ancient Persian
celebration of the vernal equinox and the coming of spring. The holiday
symbolizes new life and spiritual renewal, much like Passover and Easter.
Baha'is claim about 130,000 followers of the faith in the U.S., including
21,000 in California, with about 3,000 in the Bay Area. Bahai's believe
that humanity's spiritual faculties have been progressively nurtured
through history by a succession of prophets -- Krishna, Moses, Buddha,
Jesus, and Muhammad among them. In 1852, Baha'u'llah, born into a Shi'a
Muslim family, is said to have had a divine vision and declared himself
to be the divine manifestation for the modern era.
Inspired by his vision, he commenced writing the Baha'i scriptures, which
are voluminous, encompassing 15,000 books and tablets. Regarded as
revelation, their myriad spiritual and social teachings are diligently
studied and interpreted by many Baha'is. The visiting Bonny Doon students
participate in regular study sessions, known as ``deepenings.''
That's not widely known outside the Baha'i community, where the faith is
often perceived as a syncretic philosophy that simply honors all the
great religions. That view arose in the 1960s, when the Baha'i faith
became attractive to civil rights activists and others who admired its
emphasis on the essential oneness of humankind, its rejection of racism,
and promotion of world peace.
Living as a Baha'i means honoring those tenets. But it also means
upholding certain rules: performing ablutions, beginning and ending each
day with the praise of God, praying while facing the ``point of adoration''
in Akka, Israel, where Baha'u'llah is buried.
The Baha'i prophet said the holy days' fasting period would help Baha'is
to consciously identify with the poorest and most underprivileged of all
people, those without bread or water. As the fast ended, he said, they
could turn a new page in their lives, inspired to right action and
The fast ``brings families together,'' says Derek Cockshut, a Baha'i
scholar who runs the bookshop at the center in Bonny Doon. ``My daughters
are grown now. But both say their fondest memories are of waking up early
with mom and dad -- they felt so grown up -- to say the dawn prayers
before the fast. And at night, the house was always full of people, so it
was a time of happiness and sharing.''
The New Year celebrations that follow the fast have traditionally been
elaborate in the Middle East. Bushrui, the University of Maryland
scholar, remembers how people traveled great distances -- from Japan,
Africa, Europe -- to attend open-air feasts in the Holy Land. He remembers
that ``the tables were laden with rice and vegetables -- beautifully
cooked rice, the best I ever tasted in my life. And there were meats and
delicacies and, of course, the finest Oriental sweets.''
`A wondrous time'
Bushrui, whose father studied with Abdu'l-Baha, the son of Baha'u'llah,
says it was ``a wondrous time of year.'' The Baha'i observances generally
fell close to Ramadan and Easter, so that God's presence seemed palpable
to him as a boy.
Not so for Andrew Adelman.
A San Jose city administrator, he grew up in Iran where the approximately
300,000 Baha'is are a persecuted minority. Because Islam insists that
there are no prophets after Muhammad, Islamic authorities in Iran have
often regarded the Baha'i community's allegiance to Baha'u'llah as a
Adelman says his great grandfather was killed by a mob in 1902 and that
subsequent jailings and appropriations of property have forced other
family members to flee. He remembers observing the Baha'i holy days in
secrecy as a boy in Tehran.
During Ramadan, when Muslims fasted, he pretended to be Muslim. During the
Baha'i fast, he became adept at finding reasons to leave the school
cafeteria. There was one year when the family made a pilgrimage to the
Baha'i shrine in the city of Shiriz, and upon returning to Tehran, he
says, ``We told no one. That would have jeopardized our well-being in
Adelman moved to Berkeley in 1975 to study engineering at the University
of California. His first Naw Ruz in the U.S. was a bust, coinciding with
But in the years since, one by one, his parents, brother and sister moved
here. He married -- his wife, Jennifer, was raised in a small Baha'i
community in Idaho Falls, Idaho -- and ``now we can celebrate these days
the way they were meant to be celebrated.''
A family event
The Adelmans' two young daughters receive small gifts on each day of
Ayyam-i-Ha, and will join their parents for dawn prayers during the fast
when they are older.
Like so many Baha'i families in the U.S., the Adelmans are creating new
traditions to celebrate their faith. San Jose's Baha'i community, so
ethnically and racially diverse, will usher in the New Year with a
lasagna dinner at the African American Community Service Agency at Sixth
and Julian. When Baha'i parents visit their children's schools during
the holy day season, they don't bring gingerbread cookies; some bring
miniature, nine-sided Baha'i temples made of honeybread.
``I teach music in my kids' school,'' says Jean Quinn. ``And if we're
going to sing `Deck the Halls' and a Chinese New Year song, I feel, yeah,
we can sing the Naw Ruz song I'm writing, which is going to be weird,
because it's a doo-wop number. But hey, we're building new traditions.''
©Copyright 1997, San Jose Mercury News
Page last updated/revised 081600
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