Sikhism and Judaism

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Joanne Catz Hartman

Sikh temple becomes window into Judaism

“We’re going on a field trip to a temple,” my daughter tells me, and of course I immediately think of a Jewish one and wonder why the teacher hasn’t asked me — the only Jewish mother in the class — to help arrange it. When I see the permission slip, I realize I’ve made an assumption and also a mistake, simply because when I think of religion, I think from a Jewish perspective. It is a temple they’re visiting, but it’s one for Sikhs. And I know nothing at all about them.

The next day she comes home from school, begging me to please, please tell her what’s going to happen to Prince Rama and Hanuman the Monkey God in the Hindu tale her teacher is telling the class. She incorrectly assumes I know this story and doesn’t realize I have to do some homework to find out, for it’s not one I was told when I was a child.

Stories of Buddha, too, are floating around my home. My daughter memorizes lines for a play; she’s Princess Yasodhara, Buddha’s wife. I find sketches of the Chinese yin-yang symbol and Sikh swords doodled on my shopping lists on the kitchen counter. There are Stars of David there, too. She draws the mishmash of religions that are circulating in her mind, connecting them to each other, and to herself.

The small East Bay public school she attends devotes at least a month every year to studying world religions. It’s not a cursory look, but weeks of study, introducing religions that are not necessarily represented among the children in the class. World Religions Month is highly anticipated because it’s fun. They learn through interactive and tangible means: art — painting and clay sculptures, music, storytelling, drama and field trips. They’ve visited Buddhists in Berkeley, Mormons in Oakland, and this time, I come along to see the Sikhs in El Sobrante.

The Gurdwara Sahib sits high in the East Bay’s El Sobrante hills and is rounder and more golden than the temples we’re familiar with. Aromas wafting from the kitchen set this place apart, too — definitely not that of the roasting chickens I’m used to from family Shabbat dinners in my congregation; at the end of our visit, vegetarian curries and Indian breads are shared in a communal meal.

We learn that the Sikhs believe in complete equality, no clergy or caste system, no idol worship, all points I might have answered incorrectly had there been a quiz. At Hebrew school, my daughter had just learned the story of Abraham and the idols and made the quick connection to Sikhism.

Despite some obvious differences, what we notice most are the similarities. The religious text, laid out on a table, is being chanted in song; the written words not in English. We’re ushered upstairs and shown where the book is put to bed — literally, in full-size beds, adorned with golden headboards, pillows and white bedspreads. I think about the Torah being gently put back in its cover and returned to the ark, the respect and awe for the words contained inside.

We note the absence of pews, but find familiarity watching the congregants in movement, like choreographed dance, bodies bent and raised in prayer. Like the kippot in our place of worship, head coverings are worn; we put them on too, brightly-colored fabric scarves, tied like bandanas over our hair.

The men and women who enter the temple greet each other, and us, with welcoming smiles. There’s a warmth and a connection in sharing common rituals and a unifying philosophy. We’ve been shown Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that teaches honesty, charity, tolerance and love of family. These values, of course, are Jewish ones, too.

Without a basic understanding of other religions — their beliefs, their practices — how can we really be religiously tolerant? It’s what’s unknown that usually scares us, and the assumptions we hold may be completely untrue. I realize now, after our morning adventure, that exposure to other religions can give us a greater insight into our own.

Would we have visited a Sikh temple by ourselves, even with the promise of savory Indian food? Most likely not. But now that we have, I think we’re more likely to venture out again, past our own sanctuary and the comfort of our own religion’s doors to visit places that worship in a different way. And learn more, perhaps, about what we share than what sets us apart.

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at [email protected]

Other Article

There were so many of them it seemed. The Sikhs reminded me of Lubavitch Chassidim with their uncut beards, their unending, genuine hospitality, etc. The only difference physically was that one wore turbans and one group wear black hats. To the Sikhs - all humanity are equal and they got rid of the caste system in their religion.

Over the Sikh holy book was a beautifully embroidered cover much like Jews covering their Torah. On top was a canopy, which is what we use during weddings and when transferring the Torah from one place to another.

After services the Sikhs have a "langer" - a community meal. The Jews have a "kiddush". However the Sikhs win in orderliness. Jewish "kiddushes" are unruly. Everyone waits for the Rabbi to recite the blessing over wine and then food grabbing is de riguer. With the Sikhs, you sit down in very even rows and wait for people to serve you. They feed people by the thousands. In every temple we visited we were served not only by local Sikhs but by the head of the Birmingham group - who modestly served others. This was unusual and even the head of the Institute, took her turn in serving us too.

Their marriage ceremony used to last 7 days - similar to Jewish wedding celebrations where you would have 7 days of special festive dinners in different places after the wedding. But now the Sikhs have dwindled it down to just one day.

Their prayer book looked like a Jewish book of Psalms, only much shorter.

I felt we were kindred spirits and also felt very connected with their community. I know when I visit London and Birmingham, I'll be welcomed warmly by them.

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