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 beyond hungry."
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 world."
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 community.
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 center."
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 spiritual excellence.
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 heresy.
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 the neighborhood."
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 final exams.
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."
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