Valentine’s Day in Baha’i Gardens

We walked this morning from our apartment in Hadar haCarmel (the middle of the city) to meet the tour group at the top of Mount Carmel. This nearly hour-long walk just to get to our starting point (because we like to walk AND because we are gluttons for punishment) was quite steep, and included 7 sets of stairs up, up, up. In Haifa, a city built on the mountain, the fastest way to walk is by these shortcut stairways from one level to the next. They are all over and though they are only for pedestrian traffic, they have been assigned street names. I stopped one woman to see if she could point us to the Henrietta Szold staircase, and she and Chaim had a lovely conversation in Yiddish.

Chaim trekking up a staircase on our journey up the mountain

But our way up inevitably included a walk down, and that was done within the boundaries of the Baha’i Gardens. About 1150 stairs, I’m told.

We had our first view of the Baha’i Gardens from the Louis Promenade.

Gold-domed shrine can be seen on far left, a bit down the mountain.  One of the green-topped structures is the Baha’i International House of Justice and the other is the Baha’i World Center.

My favorite photograph of myself was taken in the Baha’i Gardens in 1981. Today I found out that the gardens I visited then were only on the lower levels, a small fraction of what exists today, which is on 19 different levels/terraces! The shrine itself is in the middle, with 9 levels above, and 9 levels below it. 19 is a holy number in Baha’i, and even this flowerpot pictured below contains 19 surfaces.

Holy number 19: There are 19 rounded protrusions adorning the pot.

In Baha’i, there are 19 months with 19 days each, which leaves 4 extra “days of generosity.” Months and days are associated with virtues. So a day of the week is not called “Wednesday” as it would be in English or “the 4th day,” as it would be in Hebrew, but “the day of Justice.” The month might be the month of “Honor,” or another attribute of God such as Speech, Splendor, Knowledge, or Questions! We are currently in the month of Dominion. Cool stuff for a Mussar practitioner like myself!

And how much must a Baha’i tithe each year for the upkeep of their holy sites? 19%, of course! Baha’is must come as pilgrims once during their lifetime, but only 10,000 are allowed to come each year, so there is  waitlist. Acco is actually the first holiest site, and Haifa is the second.

Despite the centrality of these holy sites to Baha’i, they have a complicated relationship with Israel. Because Baha’i is a peaceful religion and they associate Israel with conflict, visiting in Israel cannot be more than 3 days in duration. (The 600 Baha’i volunteers living in Israel are exempt from this ruling.) What this also means is that anyone in the world can be Baha’i EXCEPT an Israeli. What?!?!

View from above

The red terra cotta ground covering in the gardens upon which we walked matches the red terra cotta Templar roofs of the German Colony below.

The Gardens are perfectly manicured, thanks to the help of 100 gardeners, Baha’i volunteers from around the world. (It takes three gardeners to maneuver one lawnmower on the steep hills, tied with ropes!) There are 460 different flowers and plants in the gardens.

One of many fountains

Terraces being irrigated

Aside from the above, follows is what I learned about the Baha’i history and faith. I have a desire to learn even more, as this clearly only scratches the surface. In full disclosure, I’ve wanted to learn more for quite some time, as my mother, in a desire to leave her strict Orthodox upbringing for something more pluralistic/universalistic (in what must have been her early 20s), considered briefly to convert either to Baha’i or to Unitarian Universalist!

1. The first prophet was Bab. He was executed in Iran in 1850.

2. The second prophet Baha’ullah was exiled to Acco in the late 1800’s, just across the bay from Haifa. He saw Mount Carmel and decided to bury Bab there. (Chaim and I plan to visit Acco and the Baha’i Gardens there, as well.)

3. Baha’i is a peaceful, pacifist  religion. Our guide joked that no one ever heard about them because they never killed anybody. However, because they also believe that “the law of the land is the law” (what Jews call dina d’malchuta dina), they can be conscripted into an army if there is no other alternative (like community service) for them.

4. Important  values for Baha’i are equality, nature, and volunteering.

5. It is a private religion with no intermediary or priest.

6. Their holy book is called “The Holiest Book.” It can be read in any language (there is no privileged, holy language).

7. There are Baha’i temples on every continent: N. America (Chicago), Australia (Sydney), Europe (Frankfort), Asia (the Lotus Temple, Delhi),  South America (Chile), Africa. Take a peek at their beauty, particularly in India and Chile.

8. You can convert into the religion. Intermarriage is allowed, and conversion of the non-Baha’i spouse is not a pre-requisite. Children are allowed freedom of choice and can opt-out of the religion until age 15.

9.  Lest you think they sound too good to be true, they are anti-LGBT. Also, no alcohol, drugs, or premarital sex.

10. Everything in this life prepares for afterlife, the next spiritual sphere.

We are still above the shrine in this photo. This place is massive!

We are getting closer. The Bab’s remains are buried within. Can you see how perfectly manicured it is?

We are now below the shrine. Our guide Daniel explaining this Baha’i symbol connecting God to earth, with the will of God as the vertical line connecting all levels.

Our guide Daniel was pretty awesome. He told us how his father, as a Jew, couldn’t get into university in the former Soviet Union, despite winning all kinds of math awards. He wanted to emigrate to Israel, and it was a condition of his marriage to Daniel’s mother. They had one picture of Israel, a view of the Haifa Bay from the top of Mount Carmel. So that’s where they wanted to go, and, thankfully, succeeded in doing so. Daniel himself has a degree in computer science but loves guiding!

Below the shrine looking back up from whence we came! About 1150 steps top to bottom (or bottom to top, if you are so inclined!)

Cactus garden

It is Valentine’s Day, so as we walked through the German Colony of Templar homes, we heard about the fateful love affair between the already-married German Templar Alice Oliphant and the poor Jewish poet Naftali Herz Imber, author of the poem on which the Israeli national anthem “Ha-Tikvah” is based. She died, and when he attended the 3rd Zionist Congress in Basel, drunk and in despair, he wasn’t allowed in. From outside, he learned that HaTikvah would be the national anthem.

We passed under this archway of two lovers.

Baklava heaven in Wadi Nisnas, a Christian Arab neighborhood of the city.

Street art in Wadi Nisnas

Jewish artist Chaya Touma in Wadi Nisnas. She married an Arab in the 50’s. Together they started the Communist party in Israel.

And so ends another full day. Happy Valentines’ Day!


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