By Kevin Sooraj Puri, 2017 AJC ASAP Alum
Growing up in an Indian family that practiced both Hinduism and Sikhism, there are many occasions where I remember an adult telling me to cover my head before I entered a holy space.
“Beta, apane sir ko dhako,” my mother said when we would enter the gurudwara, a Sikh house of worship, to which I would excitedly walk over to the basket full of orange and yellow handkerchief-sized cloths and pick my favorite orange one. As I ran to my grandfather to ask for assistance in tying and knotting the cloth around my head, I watched my mother, sister, and grandmother don their chunnis, or headscarves, as well, as they ascended the stairs to the holy space. Upon entering, we walked down the main aisle and passed by men sitting to the left and women to the right. As we walked down the aisle, we approached the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book and last living guru of the Sikhs, covered in beautifully colored cloth and positioned on a dominant, raised platform with an ornately embroidered canopy overhead. We bowed, with our hands joined or folded together, and bent down to touch our foreheads to the floor, a sign of respect for the Guru Granth Sahib.
While in Warsaw, Poland, amid our first tour of a synagogue during the American Service Academies Program 2017, I chose a blue kippah out of a small wicker basket sitting outside the door and gently placed it on my head. I was entering a synagogue for the very first time in my life, yet the experience felt somewhat familiar and instinctive to me. I felt an almost elemental, deep-seated connection to the space and to the experience–as if I had been there before and as if I knew what I was doing. The Torah scroll is also positioned on a raised platform, just as the Guru Granth Sahib is. This platform is called a bimah, and serves as a podium upon which the cantor can pray. The Torah is covered in an embroidered cloth, to ensure it does not touch plain wood while being read. These striking similarities I witnessed between the gurudwara and the synagogue evoked a warmth inside me—the same warmth I feel spread around me when attending Akhand Path, a Sikh prayer service, at the gurudwara with my family.
“This synagogue,” our tour guide articulated, “also functions as house of study.” It is often referred to as a Beit Midrash, which translates to study hall. On the tall walls that surrounded us were several shelves, each holding a colorful collection of sacred Jewish texts. In this moment, I once again recalled the gurudwara of my childhood.
The pearly two-story building held a small room in the back that had a large painted banner hanging outside the room that read, “Khalsa School for Sikh Children.” As I peered through the sizable vertical windows that reveal the insides of the room, I saw shelves filled with books, a large table, and floor cushions for people to sit on. I saw Sikh children inside, all around my age, eagerly grabbing a cushion for themselves and placing it in a circle around an adult who I assumed to be their teacher. I never entered this room, as my parents had not enrolled me in these educational classes for Sikh children—most likely because both of my parents practiced Hinduism and the only person in my family to practice Sikhism was my grandmother. Yet, as I peered through the windows into this back room, I admired the delighted, jubilant faces of the children opening their books and listening to every word that passed from the instructor’s mouth with such fervor and earnestness. This room, I later came to learn, was the classroom of the gurudwara, and children would attend classes there every Sunday to further their understanding of the Sikh faith and heritage. In addition, they explored and learned about the gurbani, the teachings, compositions, and wisdom of the ten Sikh Gurus.
Our tour guide continued: “there are scheduled times during the week, here, during which people will study the Torah.” The Torah study does not simply focus on the absorption of the material, but also on a conversation and dialogue among the students, and even so, between the students and the text. As I gazed at the beautiful books on the walls, I imagined an assemblage of Jewish school children studying together, and instantly, I am reminded of those elated Sikh children I saw at the gurudwara.
“At times, this holy space functions as a gathering place–a town hall for matters to be discussed and a place for groups to meet for various religious activities,” the tour guide said as we continued to walk through the synagogue. I was reminded of the langar that followed the Sunday prayer at the gurudwara. Langar, the Sikh term for a community kitchen, was the time after the Sunday prayer was complete when all those in attendance for the prayer would go to a large room outside the gurudwara kitchen to serve and volunteer to serve free meals. The room contained several long carpet runners that ran from one end of the room to the other. Immediately after the completion of Akhand Path, people descended the stairs from the darbar, the upstairs prayer room, and methodically sat next to one another in drawn-out columns on the long carpet runners. It is a beautiful sight to see. All people at the langar, regardless of their actual religion, ethnicity, or economic status, sit on the floor, knee to knee, and share a free meal together. After they finish, many get up to help out in the kitchen or pass out food to others who have not eaten. As a child, I always thought langar to be a reward for sitting through a full hour of prayer—which it was for the time being, but I never lost sight of the beauty of this experience.
I admired the chairs and long benches I saw before me in the synagogue. I imagined groups of Jewish men and women sitting in these chairs and benches and sharing edifying religious meetings here. I imagined them gathering to participate in community service and to “dispense money and other items for the aid of the poor and needy within the community.”
A close investigation into the translation of the terms, synagogue and gurudwara, illustrates this collective, communal, and educational nature of these two holy spaces. Synagogue, a Greek translation of beit k’nesset means “a place of assembly.” However, there are many other terms used to describe a Jewish house of worship. The Orthodox and Chasidim utilize the Yiddish word, shul. Derived from a German word meaning “school,” the term affirms the synagogue’s function as a place for study and education. A literal translation of gurudwara is “door to the Guru.” This definition demonstrates the welcoming and open nature of the gurudwara. It manifests the idea that the Sikh holy space is a place that welcomes all to God. Just as the synagogue serves as a location for people to meet and assemble, the gurudwara provides a site at which people can congregate and take part in religious activities. The two spaces function as institutions for religious learning and allow for participation in community service and aiding others in and out of their respective religious communities.
Not only do Judaism and Sikhism share fundamental practices and structure in their respective houses of worship, the two religions also draw an important similarity at the core of their belief systems. Followers of the Sikh and Jewish faiths both recite mantras to express the sole and single nature of God. As part of the Mool Mantar, the first composition of the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhs chant, “Ik Onkar Sat Naam,” meaning, “there is only one god, true is his name.” (“Ik Onkar – Translation and Lyrics”). As part of the Ten Commandments, people of Jewish faith adhere to the commandment that “You shall not recognize other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:3-4). The two maxims translate to the idea that “God is one,” and for me, this experience of visiting a synagogue for the time in my life was one with my formative childhood experiences
As I departed the synagogue with the ASAP group and removed the kippah from my head, I closed my eyes for a second and was reminded of my favorite orange handkerchief from the gurudwara.
“Ik Onkar – Translation and Lyrics.” Ardhamy. N.p., n.d. Web.
MJL Staff. “Studying Torah.” My Jewish Learning. N.p., n.d. Web.
Rich, Tracey R. “Synagogues, Shuls and Temples.” Judaism 101. N.p., n.d. Web.
Kevin Sooraj Puri is a second-class cadet at the United States Air Force Academy and is currently on exchange for the fall semester at the United States Coast Guard Academy. Cadet Puri is a biology major with a pre-medical track. He hopes to attend medical school after graduating from USAFA and aspires to serve as a physician and flight surgeon in the United States Air Force. Kevin is from Fairfax, VA and attended Fairfax High School and Chantilly Academy Air Force Junior ROTC. He serves a USAFA Emergency Medical Responder, a leader of the Arnold Air Society Falcon Squadron, and an Academy Student Ambassador. Additionally, Kevin is a first-stand violist in the USAFA Cadet Orchestra and is the Hindu Representative for the USAFA Cadet Interfaith Counsel. Last summer, he earned his Parachutist Badge for completing five solo free fall jumps out of a plane. Kevin is Indian-American, fluent in Hindi, has a sister who is an Ensign in the U.S. Navy, and has a husky named Panda.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit: https://mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Winter 2017 newsletter articles are found here.