A Pilgrimage to Israel Gave This Greek 'Strength to Spread the Love'

A Baha’i pilgrim says 'God is playing a game with us'; the best part of visiting New York, according to a young Israeli: 'Seven floors of Forever 21'

Sofia Xenitidou.
Tomer Appelbaum

Sofia Xenitidou, 47, from Thessaloniki, Greece; flying to Athens

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

I’m a follower of the Baha’i faith. I was here for nine days on a pilgrimage to the holy places. Baha’i people usually do a nine-day journey – it’s a holy number for us.

You look very serene.

I feel renewed now. This morning, after I visited the Baha’i shrine in Acre for a final prayer, I felt sad at having to leave, and I cried. I was very moved. I had the privilege of making this journey – every Baha’i believer should make a pilgrimage once in his life. Even very poor people who live far from Israel will save up money their whole life in order to come here. So I am grateful that for me it was not hard and that Greece is so close, and now I have the strength to spread love.

Is that what Baha’i believers do?

In my eyes, the essence of every religion is love.

I thought religions were more interested in power, control and money.

Maybe that’s what happens after the founder disappears and all kinds of organization people take control. Human intervention could change the founder’s message.

And what is the founder’s message?

We of the Baha’i faith believe that God is one and transmits his message to humanity very gradually, through educator-prophets like Moses and Muhammad and Bab and Baha’ullah, who came from the East. It’s not by chance that the prophets came from the East, like the sun. 

But what exactly is the message?

The truth is hidden. I like to see it as a game that God plays with us, an amusing and meaningful game. This world is not what we see. The ancient Greek philosophers also said that truth is hidden by its nature.

What’s hidden – the truth about the meaning of our private life, or the existence of life?

The small and the large are interconnected, the reasons that we pass through this life involve the hidden truth. Life is spiritual, and we must move from material existence, as Baha’ullah revealed.

I didn’t understand anything.

The mind is eternal and it continues to develop in the world of God. But when the child is in the womb for nine months, it passes tranquilly into this life, and in this life is given the opportunity and possibility to develop spiritual qualities like love, generosity, politeness, attentiveness. Now is the time to develop them and to conquer the low self.

Why is everyone stuck with this “conquer the self” thing?

The ego and selfishness pull us down. Another truth is – and this sounds strange – that difficulties are gifts. They help you to grow, to understand that you can overcome them.

Difficulties are a blessing – that’s an annoying sentence for someone who’s suffering.

Nothing happens simply: The apple doesn’t fall straight into the mouth. A small seed contains all the ability to become a tree, but it, too, needs to make an effort. We have a goal in life that’s worth making an effort for: to understand our spiritual nature.

Why doesn’t anyone talk about our material nature?

The body is the tool that is given to us, and it’s a practical tool that allows us to judge what is bad and what is good. The material things are here so that we will enjoy them. On the spiritual journey you don’t have to be poor or enter a monastery.

What do we need to do on the spiritual journey?

In the Baha’i faith, you discover your way alone. We have sacred writings, but no one tells us what to do, we all need to be searchers. You can draw on the help of a prophet to guide you but you can also be a scientist. Look at nature and you will see the charm.

The butterfly.

I am from a very traditional Orthodox Christian family, and because they were very rigid, I moved away from God. I wanted to be a good and moral person, but I had no faith. Then, when I was 32, I met a nice person at a conference and we had a deep conversation that lit my curiosity to investigate. It looks logical to me, the Baha’i faith.

It sounds like logic plays a role in your faith, paradoxically.

I work in a museum of science and technology. Science investigates the material world, but I enjoy seeing the spiritual through it, in small glimpses. That becomes possible if you’re open and attentive. In my eyes, the way to learn in life is to be skeptical of basic beliefs. When I show children around, I give them small hints, and hope that this will take them close to God – God in the sense of peace and love.

Aya and Hava Luria.
Tomer Appelbaum

Aya Luria, 12, and Hava Luria, 52, from Tel Aviv; arriving from New York

Hello, can I ask you where you were and what you did?

Hava: We visited friends in Phoenix and we hiked in the Grand Canyon and at the end we spent two weeks in New York.

Aya: It was terrific. I didn’t want to come back.

Hava: Neither did I.

Aya: But tomorrow there’s school.

What was the most fun?

Aya: Shopping in Times Square, seven floors of Forever 21. Too much!

Hava: It was really tough, I felt as though I’d been there for three days straight.

Aya: I really liked Times Square, it’s filled with lights and it’s a huge street. I liked the size. We went to a movie there, too, and the theater also had lots of floors.

What did you see?

Hava: “Logan” – we left in the middle.

Aya: We escaped, it’s a violent movie. But the popcorn was good.

Hava, what did you enjoy?

Hava: I liked the Twin Towers area. I’ve been there three times, the first time right after they collapsed, and everything was ruins. It all looks different now. Where there were buildings, now there’s a monument, and the water flows into a pool and into a deep hole in the pool. It really speaks to me – all the choices that were made there spoke to me.

Aya, were you also moved by Ground Zero?

Aya: It was important for me to go there, because it’s the date of my birthday, though not in the same year.

Hava: Besides that, we were in the Museum of Natural History. I thought it would interest Aya, because she went to a nature school, but she wasn’t enthused by the stuffed animals.

Aya: They just kill them, remove their insides, put in things and take money from people to see them! It really bothered me.

Ugh, when you say it like that, you’re right. How did the two of you get along? Mother and daughter – from my experience, that’s a challenge.

Hava: I also thought it would be hard. Three weeks with each other is a healthy recipe for quarrels. But it was just fine. She drove me a bit crazy with the shopping.

Aya: In the end, I bought everything I wanted – an Adidas sweatshirt, a Calvin Klein sweatshirt. Lots of chocolates.

Hava: It’s a plague, consumerism. Even though there were things I told her she had to forgo, and she did. The model we manufacture is always an improvement. My parents were nave workers of the land.

Aya: I bought Michael Kors shoes.

Hava: But you didn’t find the bag.

The perfect bag is a whole life’s journey.

Aya: I really wanted a small Calvin Klein bag for going out that you put on the side; I don’t like the ones you hold.

Hava: Calvin Klein and Michael Kors are the two names that got into her head and won’t leave. 

Are they names that everyone in school knows?

Aya: Yes – the girls, I mean.

What’s hot now?

Aya: There’s the elastic of the underpants that’s attached directly to the pants, like I’m wearing. And Adidas is the trendiest, you see a lot of it in New York, too.

Hava: I don’t remember knowing the name of any firm 40 years ago.

I remember my mother buying me blue Reeboks.

Hava: I grew up on a moshav and my parents were farmers. What did we have as children? Nothing. There was no money. There were groves and chicken coops, things like that.

And what do you do now?

Hava: I’m a catheterization nurse at Tel Hashomer [Sheba Medical Center], I fled the moshav because I had a brother who was mentally ill, and things were hard at home. It was never quiet, and I wanted to learn, so I learned how to be a nurse. When there’s someone sick at home you get into the treatment aspect, it affects you.

Aya, what do you want to be when you grow up?

Aya: I don’t want to be a doctor. My father is a doctor, and the number of phone calls he makes

Hava: But it’s not the same with all doctors.

Aya: But if you don’t do those things, you don’t make money. I also can’t stand the thing of what’s inside, what they take out.

Hava: The model we manufacture is always an improvement.