Exactly one year ago, a white supremacist attacked the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Six people were killed. And from that tragedy went forth a chant that even made it onto a T-shirt: “We are all Sikhs.”
A few days later, I attended an interfaith Ramadan break fast in Morristown, New Jersey. There, I met Gurparkash Singh, a practicing Sikh from Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
Yes – rabbi meets Sikh at a Muslim event. That’s so New Jersey. Or, it’s so America.
To quote the last line of “Casablanca:” “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” And it was. Gurparkash and I convened a small group of Jewish and Sikh leaders – to talk, to share stories, to dream together. And, of course, to eat -- an elegant Indian dinner at his gracious home; we Jews took the Sikhs out for deli.
There is a reason why the Torah tells us, 36 times, to love the stranger. Because the stranger is our mirror. We Jews encountered a culture, born in the Punjab region of India in the fifteenth century: a deeply spiritual, anti-ritualistic, meditative and egalitarian faith – the sixth largest religion in the world. They are brave warriors (hence, the miniature sword that they carry upon their person), and a fiercely proud, independent people. But they have been largely invisible to us, even though we all showed up in America around the same time, a century ago. There are 750,000 Sikhs in the United States; 200,000 are in California alone. It's not only "love the stranger;" it's, literally, "love your neighbor."
Yes – observant Sikh men all wear turbans and beards. One of them joked with me: “Don’t ever be embarrassed about not being able to tell us apart; we all tend to look alike.” (Yeah, right – have you been to Borough Park lately?) And to add to the potential confusion, all of the men and women use Singh and Kaur, respectively, either as a middle name or as a surname – symbolizing their rejection of a historically prevalent caste system.
And like many cultural minorities in the United States, Sikhs have paid the full price. When Sikh men show up at airport security, they are randomly searched -- one hundred percent of the time -- because of their turbans. Seventy per cent of Sikh boys have been bullied in schools because of their turbans.
Maybe they should consider modifying the turban requirement, and just make it optional? How American of me to think that. Sikh men simply know that they have to be at the airport that much earlier. That's the price they choose to pay for walking a religious road with one foot, and keeping the other foot grounded in Western society.
Thank you, my Sikh friends, for teaching me the lesson of religious integrity.
American Sikhs have some very “Jewish” mishigas. They want to be Americans; they want to maintain their culture. They believe that all people have the spark of God within them; they want their children to marry other Sikhs.
They have “Jewish” nightmares. “For us, history has been one long Kristallnacht,” one said. The “lesser Holocaust” of 1746, where an estimated 7000 people died within a few months. “The greater Holocaust” of 1762, in which half of the Sikh population was killed in one day. The attack on the Golden Temple – the Sikh “Temple Mount,” as it were -- in June, 1984, during one of the High Holidays, ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The number of deaths on that day is estimated to be as high as 10,000 people.
And they have “Jewish” dreams. They want to educate their children about their language and heritage. They have experimented with something like day schools and “Sunday schools.” You know how our kids go to Jewish summer camp and learn Hebrew songs and live Jewishly? There are Sikh summer camps where Sikh children go to enjoy the great outdoors – and to learn the art of turban-tying. (There are twelve Sikh summer camps in the Northeast alone).
OK, three weeks to Rosh Ha Shanah – Yom ha-Zicharon, the day of remembering.
“You Jews have had so many tragedies, just like us Sikhs,” a Sikh leader said to us. “But you are good at remembering them; we are not. Can you teach us how to remember?”
Or: “We Sikhs admired how successful American Jews have been in teaching your children how to maintain their culture. Can you teach us how to do that with our own children? Can you teach us how to interpret our story to Americans in general?”
The Sikhs not only look to us for help; they look to us for inspiration. "Like the Jews, we Sikhs carry a message of hope and optimism in the face of tragedy," said Gurparkash. "We call it Chardi kala – the state of ever optimism. This, I believe, is the reason why Jews have triumphed over their adversaries. We hope that God graces us with the spirit of Chardi kala. And we shall also overcome our challenges and challengers.”
The Sikhs call it Chardi kala. And we Jews call it Ha-tikvah.
We are all Sikhs.