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Sikh Temple Becomes Window into Judaism

Reprinted with permission from j, the Jewish news weekly of northern California.

Friday September 16, 2005 -- "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.

The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Plural of "kippah," Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
Joanne Catz Hartman

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at

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