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Sikh and Jew: East Meets West

A new marriage trend has emerged in the last few years: some Jews are marrying not only outside of Judaism, but also outside of the Western European-based world. Increasingly we hear of Jewish-Muslim couples, a Jewish-Hindu couple, a Jewish-Japanese couple and so on. All this seems to be something new to most of the world, but not to the two of us.

When we married in Honolulu some 25 years ago, one of us was brought up in a Jewish home in the Midwestern United States and the other came from the overseas Indian community in the Far East.

Back then there were no guidebooks, no teachers, certainly no online websites and definitely no one else around who had walked down this particular path and could give us some advice.

Has it been easy?

No, but having lasted this many years as a married couple, we hope that perhaps we can share some of what we have experienced and possibly make things easier for others.

What makes our story particularly unusual is that while one of us is from “the West,” and one of us from “the East,” somehow we have been able to reconcile those differences, particularly as they relate to religion.

Sometimes we find it difficult to explain to others what makes our individual backgrounds different, especially religiously, what we brought to our marriage that is actually similar and how it has all worked out.

Background: The Culture of Free Choice

One of the biggest differences between the cultures in which we were raised is the matter of personal choice and freedom. How a person’s marriage partner is chosen reflects that divide.

Much of what is called “the Western world,” which is where I was raised, places the value of “freedom of the individual to choose” above all other social values. Many in both the U.S. and Canada can trace their ancestry back to a forebear who just didn’t want to continue life in the “old country” and wanted more freedom. That is the story of both grandfathers in my family–almost the essential “why we came to America” story.

In the “old country,” someone, usually the older members of the family, decided who the younger members of the family would marry, leaving the narrowest margin of choice to the children themselves. In traditional culture, survival of the group and retention of group identity were an essential part of marriage.

In much of Asia today, including the tradition in which Kamla was born, a parent is expected to choose potential partners for the child and the child is expected to make a choice only from among that group. Since Kamla’s father had taken a job on a remote Pacific island where hers was the only Indian family, there were no opportunities at hand to find traditional partners for the children. Her parents tried, but there were very few ways that they could fulfill the traditional match-making function. Her parents were very apprehensive about their children’s marriage prospects as the youngest daughter, Kamla, went off for a university education in the U.S., including graduate school at the University of Hawaii.

She came back to live with them one summer and gave them a shock: just before she had left Hawaii she had accepted my offer of marriage. So, upon arrival at her parents’ home, she announced that she wanted to get married. Her intended was a Western young man whom her parents did not know and who came from a background they had barely even heard of. For some time there was a considerable commotion in the household. Her father and mother were very leery of this proposed marriage, as they knew that divorce, which in Indian culture is still severely sanctioned, was very common among Westerners. They knew nothing of what it meant that I was of a Jewish background.

It was only after my two younger brothers, who happened to be traveling together in Asia at the time, went to stay with Kamla’s parents for about two weeks, that resistance to the marriage changed to acceptance of their daughter’s choice.

Kamla’s parents, who were both raised in a traditional Sikh tradition, saw that my two brothers belonged to a tradition that was similar in many ways to their own. They observed that the two young men were devoted to each other and their family, and that they were polite, well-educated and full of plans for the future. In general, the parents approved these representatives of their future son-in-law, even before they met me.

These boys, they declared to their daughter afterwards, were different from the ordinary Americans they had encountered. They could approve of the family their daughter was marrying into.

Also, it didn’t harm things that Kamla’s dad had gone to see the film Fiddler on the Roof and had wept with Tevye over fears for the future of his daughters. He had found a way to identify with a Jew, and it helped to smooth the way to having a Jewish son-in-law.

As far as my own parents were concerned, I believe that they were just relieved that I finally wanted to settle down and get married. My father’s only stipulation was that we have a Jewish ceremony, which we had on a Friday night at the single Reform temple in Hawaii, Temple Emanuel, followed by a small Sikh ceremony on Saturday morning. Rabbi Julius Nodel (may he rest in peace) was about to retire at the time, and did not appear to have any reservations concerning officiating at our marriage. Perhaps he knew that Sikhism and Judaism were not as incompatible as they might appear to others. So we were married on Nov. 24, 1978.

Our Lives in Sikhism and Judaism

People often assume that “Eastern” religions, such as Sikhism, tend to be polytheistic, versus “Western” religions, which are monotheistic. Sikhism, a religion founded on the Indian subcontinent, is, however, staunchly monotheistic. I had first encountered the Sikh religion and people during my stint as an English teacher in Southeast Asia in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but my marriage really brought me into a fairly close relationship with this community. My father-in-law, although not a particularly observant Sikh himself, and usually lacking a large Sikh community to belong to in the many places he lived during his lifetime, had a strong emotional tie to the ancestral religion. He would communicate to me, his new son-in-law, through stories and parables, what he considered to be the essence of the religion. By the time he suddenly passed away, in 1997, I had become fairly comfortable with my role in the Sikh culture and religion.

Today, when I visit our local Sikh religious center (called in the language a “gur-dwa-ra”) with my wife’s extended family, and sit quietly with the other men in devotion, I am comfortable in the surroundings. The center is quite austere and contains only a few obvious religious symbols, similar to what might be found in a synagogue setting. Sikh men will even cover their heads with a small cloth as a sign of devotion, similar to observant Jews. As in Orthodox Jewish temples, men and women sit in separate areas, the better to concentrate on worship. Sikhism is a faith based on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, because the founders of the faith learned of this One Unseen God from the devout Muslim teachers, who of course draw their faith from Muhammad, who in turn learned of the One Unseen God from the Jews and Christians of his land. So, to me, having absorbed all this remarkable history over the years, just being in a Sikh temple is to be in the presence of the One God, and thus this connection simply expands and deepens my own faith. Sikhism may be exotic to some, but my study and learning of this faith has widened and deepened my appreciation of my own Jewish background.

Even more important, I have come (after many years) to know that my presence there is an important sign of my personal respect for my wife’s ancestry, one that is as old and deep as my own.

And, of Course, the Kids

I wish we could say that in the beginning we seriously and thoroughly discussed all the important issues of our marriage, carefully and clearly laid out the issues and compromises we would face, and went into our marriage with a clear understanding of the decisions that would have to be made, particularly relating to future children.

The truth is, all that serious thought never happened before we had our sons.

We are a little abashed to admit it, after reading of the soul-searching that seems to have gone on with our counterparts in other interfaith marriages. Maybe it was just shallow naiveté on our part, a Pollyanna view that it would all work out, or perhaps it was something else.

My personal view of our marriage and its longevity is that, right from the beginning, we each, individually, have a deep and abiding trust in one another. I strongly believe that, ultimately, any marriage, interfaith, one faith, or no faith, must rest on the bedrock of personal trust in one another to be a success. There is no replacement for trust.

Trust is what led us to come to a tacit understanding about the raising of our two sons. Our first son was born five years after we married, and the second came five years after that. We had settled in the Chicago area because Kamla felt strongly that we would have better opportunities there, although it did mean leaving her parents and siblings far away. Fortunately, Kamla found a supportive relationship with my mother, who had always yearned for a daughter (she had four sons). The biblical story of Ruth, the woman who wasn’t Jewish but who grew close to her Jewish mother-in-law, is what comes to mind when I think of these two women.

My mother helped Kamla learn about being a wife and a mother, and they have become key supporters of one another in the midst of life’s trials and tribulations. When my father lay dying in the hospital after a sudden heart attack, Kamla gave of her youth and quiet strength to my mother, who was in shock. It was Kamla who stayed with her all through the 48 hours it took for my father to finally pass away. It is experiences like these that build trust. The trust that each of them holds in the other has strengthened and supported each woman.

Kamla always says that she above all wanted her children to have a strong personal identity, and with the support of her husband’s family all around her, it became apparent to her that her sons should be raised as Jews. None of her siblings had married and raised children, and they all lived far away from her. She herself appreciated the warmth and closeness she found in the Jewish community, including the family life that her brothers-in law and husband’s cousins established around her. With the warm and supportive relation with her mother-in-law as a center, she saw that her sons would logically be best off within the Jewish tradition, and in due course stood next to her sons on the bimah as each observed his bar mitzvah.

Our two sons are clearly identified as Jews. For Kamla, there is some sense of loss and sadness about this, but for her, once she had made certain choices, there has been an inevitability in the whole process that has led to raising two Jewish sons. She placed the well-being of her children–their need for a secure identity–as the highest ideal for her marriage, and made choices that she felt would support that ideal.

War and the Future

Along with so many others who have lived through the horrible events of the last couple of years, we have pondered and discussed the meaning of it all and what is right and wrong.

Realizing the importance of not just giving lip service to recognizing other faiths, we have always made sure to include Muslim friends in our friendship circle. We saw this as particularly important after September 11, and strive to be a bridge of understanding. Recently, we hosted a small Shabbat dinner, with, as guest of honor, a traditional Pakistani Muslim woman who had never met Jews before visiting the U.S. In fact, one of her sons is a radical mullah, with all the antagonistic opinions that go along with it. This was a situation that we knew how to handle.

The evening was a small, quiet victory against the loud noise made today by intolerance and hate. At least, that is what we like to believe. The Pakistani woman told me, as she was leaving, that she had enjoyed the evening and learned a great deal about Judaism. Perhaps she will tell of her experiences with us back in Pakistan.

Now, as we live days filled with the war in Iraq and its aftermath, we maintain dialogue with our Muslim neighbors, who are mainly secular and of an elite strata of society, but who also fear for the future. They know of the extreme fanaticism and intolerance first-hand, which is something many Americans have never experienced. Although many have doubts and misgivings, we really know of no adult who is not in favor of going to war against a dictator.

In the end, I believe that trust will guide us and faith will sustain us, now and into the future.

Daniel Koch

Daniel Koch and his wife Kamla live in the Greater Chicago area.


Author: Daniel Koch