For the past two years Bobbi Hanaw and Marlin Lavanhar have been on an adventuresome quest to explore the world.
Along the way, they have discovered a deep sense of Jewish identity.
Hanaw, 26, from New Orleans, and Lavanhar, 25, from Highland Park, III., spent the past two years traveling thousands of miles throughout Asia by bicycle.
” We were trying to find anything we could about life, about all religions, trying to understand and explore life and lifestyles,” Lavanhar said.
” But because of our Jewish heritage we have sought out Jewish communities and heritages wherever we were,” he said.
Graduates of Tulane University, they both worked in Japan teaching English in order to save up money for their trip.
Beginning in Japan, they biked through China and across mountain passes into Tibet and Nepal.
They continued through India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, southern China, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
They camped, or slept in caves, in the homes of local villagers, or sometines in cheap hotels. They confronted alien cultures, languages, alphabets and food, and occasionally had run-ins with local authorities.
At the beginning of June, they flew with their bikes from the Philippines to Warsaw, where they began the next leg of their two-wheel odyssey — Israel via East-Central Europe and the Middle East.
” Whenever we came across a Jewish community, we tried to get involved,” Hanaw said.
The couple visited four distinet Jewish communities in India, and called on the Israeli Consulate while in Vietnam.
‘WE FELT A CLOSENESS’
” Neither of us was brought up very religiously,” Lavanhar said.
” But as we were traveling, so far from home, in alien cultures, when we came across Jews, we felt a closeness, a bond, a cultural bond even though we were from the other side of the Earth.
” It was like visiting relatives we had never met before, but there was an instant rapport, even in an alien culture; we had Jewish culture, the Torah, the holidays in common,” he said.
Lavanhar said that as third and fourth grneration Americans, they never felt that connected to Jewish life.
” We felt more assimilated as Americans, but through traveling we have found our historical connection,” Lavanhar said.
The couple said that because of the burgeoning Jewish connection acquired on their journey, they now celebrate Shabbat every week, lighting candles in their hotel room or in their tent.
Sometimes they improvised. In Asia they used rice when they did not have bread for the blessing. Instead of wine, a piece of fruit was sometimes used.
“It’s part of my life now,” Hanaw said. “It will never leave me. The candles are like an energy bond all around the world. That’s why Jews won’t fade away. Jews all over the world are celebrating Shabbat.”
In Eastern Europe, where they both have roots, they plan to spend the next several months cycling through Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.
” This is where our grandparents came from,” Lavanhar said. ” Now we are finding our own roots. Before, in Asia, we made the connection with Jewish history in a broader sense. Now, we want to explore where Yiddish culture comes from.”
The couple plan to spend several months in Israel next spring, where they hope to study Judaism and Jewish mysticism. They plan to return to the United States in about a year and hope to travel around the country to Jewish communities to share their experiences and insights.
They also hope to raise money to help the tiny Jewish communities they visited along their route.