Jews don’t do that – do they?
It is difficult to know exactly when I took my first step along the road to accepting Bahá’u’lláh. Certainly my first recollection of hearing the name ‘Bahá’í’ was at the age of 17 years, when a friend casually remarked (apropos of what I now know not) that part of her father’s family, whose origins were certainly somewhere in the middle orient, was Bahá’í. I asked her what that meant and she inaccurately explained that Bahá’ís believed that there should be only one world religion. I tossed aside the explanation with the comment that these Bahá’ís had paradoxically created yet another one and quite forgot the religion even existed until I met my wife many years later.
At the time Behjat and I were only casual acquaintances but I picked up on the point she had made that, unlike most Persians, she was not Muslim. When I asked her religious background she played ‘Rumplestiltskin’ and made me guess what it might be. I cannot explain why, but at that particular moment and after a gap of too many years for me to want to go on record, the word ‘Bahá’í’ again sprang into my head and I blurted it out. “Who told you?” she asked, incredulous that an Englishman should have so easily guessed the answer. Well, I think that conversation probably does represent the first real step along the road to my declaration.
Although in retrospect it now seems that my chance guess was probably the start of it all, I was still a long way from accepting the Faith for myself. However, as our friendship deepened, I accepted Behjat’s invitations to Bahá’í events of one kind or another and found myself basking in the warmth which I eventually learned characterises a Bahá’í welcome to the stranger. Coming from a Jewish background I also found the Persian culture vaguely familiar and that added to my feeling of comfort at Bahá’í gatherings. Nevertheless, I always made it clear to Behjat that while I was happy to join her on these occasions there was no question of my being able to ‘convert’. After all, Jews don’t do that – do they?
In the fullness of time our friendship blossomed but I felt concerned lest Behjat might think our relationship might eventually lead to matrimony and it will be appreciated that Jews never marry ‘out’, not in my family anyway. That was the first (but not the last) point about our relationship which I got wrong. I gradually realised that I could no longer consider a life which did not include Behjat as an essential part and as it was not practical to envisage a platonic relationship continuing indefinitely, we married in January 1986.
For reasons which are not relevant to this story, Behjat’s niece Sharon came to live with us in October 1986: she was and is a child of our family, our ‘daughter’ so far as we are concerned. Her upbringing had also been along Bahá’í principles and it was therefore agreed that she would be given every opportunity to continue her Bahá’í education. Behjat therefore, for her sake as well as Sharon’s, encouraged our attendance at Bahá’í conventions and conferences of all kinds and persuaded me to accompany them, pointing out that I would at least get the benefit of a weekend in another part of the country. I grudgingly agreed on the understanding that I would not be pressed into attending the sessions themselves but would be free to take my office work and my camera so that I could spend my time catching up on arrears of work or enjoying the countryside and photographing it. I would join them for meals and free time.
This continued for some time and I did begin to look forward to our travels around the country. At one such event, taking place during inclement weather, I asked Behjat if I might come into the session but bring a book with me so that I did not get bored. She frowned but agreed on the understanding that I would be discreet. Accordingly I sat quietly next to her and got on with my book. It was not long, however, before I found myself listening to what was being said and, to my surprise, actually agreeing with it. Some of the language sounded a bit strange but I understood the general thrust of it all.
We also started attending evenings with a very pleasant young family at what was called a ‘fireside’. I cannot understand why I did not ask why it had such a strange title but the fact is I did not and I did enjoy the evenings during which many interesting topics were discussed. Never did I feel myself under any pressure to accept a particular point of view. I continued to make it clear to Behjat that while I enjoyed all these events there was still no question of my becoming a Bahá’í. After all, Jews don’t do that – do they?
Behjat felt that there was a need in our area for a Bahá’í Sunday school and she set about organising one with the guidance of some committee or other with whom she said she needed to liaise. She secured facilities free of charge at the local primary school and the Sunday morning sessions were soon established. She said she needed help, however, with the preparation of lessons and called upon my assistance. She handed me a book on the life of the Báb, each chapter of which I condensed into a lesson. That was followed by Bahá’u’lláh, at the end of which it was fair to say that I had the beginnings of a reasonable knowledge of the history of the Faith.
The Sunday school went very well for a time but due to lack of parental support it eventually ceased to be a viable arrangement and Behjat and I felt that it would be better to take Sharon to the Thomas Breakwell School in central London. This we did on a regular basis and I found myself again listening to talks by various Bahá’ís who attended for the purpose of giving the parents something constructive to do while their children were in class. Thus my education in Bahá’í history, principles and administration expanded. There came a time when the school had need of a librarian and since I had a child attending the school it seemed reasonable and proper for me to accept that responsibility, and I did.
This might be an appropriate point at which to explain my Jewish background and my own feelings towards it. My family was what I would describe as traditional ‘middle of the road’ Jewish. I attended regular religious classes on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. I read Hebrew at the age of 4 and English at the age of 5 or 6. I studied hard for the Chief Rabbi’s examination at the age of 12 and having passed ‘with credit’, led the major part of the Synagogue service on the occasion of my bar mitzvah. My times alone in the Synagogue practising the readings from the sacred scrolls were a source of great joy and certainly the cause of my spiritual awakening.
There were, however, even in those early days certain aspects of Judaism and of religion generally which caused me both concern and puzzlement. Thus, I could not understand why so small a proportion of the world population, the Jews, were capable of recognising ‘the truth’. Why were all Jews white? If the Jews were ‘chosen’ to teach the rest of the world by virtue of their knowledge of God why were they not doing so? If it is forbidden to switch on the lights on Shabat and do all the other things which are necessary for survival in modern society, how can a truly Jewish State of Israel manage? These and other questions seemed to me to need answering if I were to continue forsaking hot-cross buns at Easter because it clashed with Passover.
There came a time, and it is impossible for me to say precisely when it was, probably because it was gradual, when I realised that there were many aspects of the Bahá’í Faith which I found attractive. I very much wanted to ask some blunt questions and Behjat assured me that in the Bahá’í Faith such questions were perfectly acceptable. I therefore took an opportunity to pose such a question and the person to whom I addressed it was clearly so offended I vowed never to repeat the attempt.
My long awaited opportunity to ask the blunt questions came with the setting up of the extra-mural course on the Bahá’í Faith under the auspices of the Birkbeck College, London. This was a course of 12 evening sessions lasting from 6.30pm to 8.30pm on consecutive Thursdays. They were led by Mr. Hugh Adamson, the Secretary General of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United Kingdom. The sessions were regularly attended by 12 to 15 people of mixed background including Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Zoroastrian and, of course, Bahá’í. What made the sessions very special for all those attending was the frankness with which we were able to express our opinions without others of a different persuasion taking offence and, above all, no question about the Bahá’í Faith was ‘off limits’. This was an ‘in depth’ academic study of the Bahá’í Faith, its history and its principles.
We all dreaded the ending of the course during which those regularly attending had formed a unique bond. The last session arrived all too soon and I was asked by the course leader if I would read a Bahá’í prayer. By this time I had been given very acceptable answers to my blunt questions and therefore acceded readily to the request. What happened as I began to read I cannot accurately describe. Suffice it to say that something stirred deep inside me and I, very much a grown man, had difficulty concealing the emotion which the reading of that prayer produced. Indeed, some present have since assured me that I failed miserably in my attempts to hide my feelings.
At this point I was clearly very close to accepting the Faith. Indeed, it may be that I had already done so but was just not ready to admit it to myself. You see, there were still a number of hurdles to overcome before I could declare myself a Bahá’í. My father, at this time very advanced in years and in very poor health, would not, I was convinced, survive the news of my ‘conversion’. My mother, also quite elderly and weak from caring for my father, would, I was sure, suffer an instant heart attack at the news, and anyway, Jews don’t do that – do they?
Behjat and I decided that it would be worth exploring the possibility of ways in which I might consider a declaration without causing the simultaneous death of both my parents. We consulted one evening with Bahá’í friends with whom we felt able to share the confidence and some very constructive advice was given. Nevertheless, I was still not ready to take that final quantum leap. I had taken one already in actually ‘marrying out’, as my mother so delicately put it, but to embrace the Faith myself required a strength which I was not yet confident I possessed.
July 1990 was warm and sunny. The Bahá’í community had arranged a Sunday picnic in the local park and Behjat and I had been looking forward to it. Sharon was away at a Bahá’í youth weekend. We sat with our friends enjoying the sunshine and the fellowship. There came a point during the day when my course of action became as obvious as my need to eat. While the friends were happily chatting I quietly asked one of the community to whom I had grown quite close if he would walk with me. He seemed worried by my request, perhaps concerned lest I had some bad news to impart. “It’s time for me to come in from the cold,” I said. “To do what?” he asked. I repeated the phrase. “Does that mean what I think it means?” he enquired. I confirmed his suspicions and we continued walking while I explained why I had decided to take that final step. We arrived back at a spot a few feet from where our party was seated. “I feel I want to give you a hug,” he said. We embraced and the look on some of the faces of those who saw us would have been good material for one of those hidden camera television programmes such as ‘Candid Camera’. We approached, and my friend announced the news to the assembled group. There followed a burst of tears from all and sundry, such that onlookers might have suspected a death had just been announced. But it was not – it was a birth and Jews do do it – don’t they!
Epilogue: My father died eight months ago. Last month I told my mother I am a Bahá’í. She survived the news.
NOTE: Alan Freeman was born into a Jewish family in Walthamstow, London, in 1940. His father, Max, had escaped the atrocities of Nazi Germany and had chosen for himself the name ‘Freeman’ after settling in London.
Alan studied law and was admitted as a solicitor at the age of 23. He began in private practice immediately. He married Behjat Binazir in 1986. Within four years of his becoming a Bahá’í, the family accepted an invitation from the Universal House of Justice to serve in Haifa. Alan served as co-ordinator of the Office of Properties where he and his staff were instrumental in purchasing land needed for completion of the Arc project on Mount Carmel as well as many properties that would ensure the protection of the Bahá’í Holy Places. Alan loved his work and the community in Haifa, and he and Behjat returned to London in August 2004 after ten years of dedicated service. He died a few months later, at the age of 64.
On hearing of his passing, the Universal House of Justice wrote: “We are deeply grieved at the news of dear Alan’s sudden death and shall pray in the Holy Shrines for the progress of his gentle, noble soul in the Abha Kingdom. His devoted services to the work of the Baha’i World Centre have left an imperishable record.”