Posts Tagged 'Vaisakhi'

The Power of Symbols: On Jews, Sikhs, and Dr. Ruth

I have many fond memories from my years learning in Yeshivah. One particularly memorable experience is from when I was studying in Rabbinical School and we had Dr. Ruth Westheimer come and speak to us. She was amazing. She came in and allowed us to submit any question we wanted on 3×5 cards. In so doing, the embarrassing questions on sex and sexuality could be asked anonymously and without shame. It also allowed her to take these cards home with her as she was always looking for material for her next book.

Dr. Ruth won me over right from the start when she came standing 4’7″ with her thick German accent that reminded me of my Oma. She said, “I am a sex symbol… You laugh, but when I walk in you think about sex.” I have been thinking about this a lot as of late. How do we identify ourselves? How to other people identify us? In what ways are we symbols of things to people in their lives. What is the nature of being a living symbol?

I was thinking of all of these questions recently when I went to a conference. I go to conferences all the time, but most all of them are Jewish in one way or another. This was different in that I was one of very few Jews there. I was the only one there who was clearly identifiable as being Jewish. Beyond the beard and Kipah, I also had the conspicuous airplane meals.

In this context I was prepared for the requisite “bageling” from the hand full of Jews there. I can appreciate our desire to connect. One person wanted to connect of his being on the Board of his local Jewish Day School. Another wanted to connect about his Jewish camp experience. But, that was not the surprising part. I know I enjoy these tribal reunions.

I was taken aback by the number of non-Jews who “Auschwitz-ed” themselves to me. I realize I making up a word here, but what do you respond when non-Jews of good character steer the conversation toward the Holocaust. They seemed to just want to speak of the moral outrage or the expression of compassion. This happened a few times, which made me ask of myself a question inspired by Dr. Ruth. When I walk in the room what do they think of? Am I symbol of being a victim?

It is notable that today is not Holocaust Remembrance day. Today we commemorate Yom HaShoah , Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah -יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה, ‘Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day’, on the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. today was the day that Mordechai Anielewicz , who was the leader of the Jewish Fighting Organization led the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; the largest Jewish insurrection during the Second World War. This inspired further rebellions in both ghettos and extermination camps. His character was engraved as a symbol of courage and sacrifice, and to this day his image represents Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. We do not curate our memory around our victimization, but rather, we choose to create memory around our fighting back.

This comes into additional focus in that this Friday marks Vaisakhi, one of the most significant and widely observed annual celebrations for Sikhs, who make up the fifth-largest major world religion. It is noteworthy that there are over 26 million Sikhs in the world and only 15.3 million Jews. Some how we expect people to know about our myriad of holidays and we know little of theirs.

Vaisakhi – sometimes spelled Baisakhi – has long been celebrated as a harvest festival across South Asia and especially in the Punjab region of India, where it is also observed by Hindus. But in Sikhism, the day honors a pivotal moment in the evolution of the religion more than 300 years ago, when the tenth in a line of Gurus — or spiritual leaders — unified Sikhs and formalized many aspects of the faith. In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh Ji chose the harvest festival of Vaisakhi to start what is known as the Khalsa Panth, a community of committed, initiated Sikhs. These Sikhs vow to live by the principles of Sikhism, including remembrance of God, truthful living, service to humanity and standing up against tyranny and injustice. The Khalsa were initiated as warriors with a duty to protect the innocent from religious persecution.

This is clearly represented in the Kirpan one of their 5 “k”s of faith. The Kirpan is an iron blade in different sizes and is only a weapon of defense and religious protection. It is used to serve humanity and to be used against oppression.

The Sikhs like the Jews have experienced much oppression, violence, persecution, and murder throughout history. Both these noble peoples do not want to be seen as victims. Both Vaisakhi and Yom HaShoah are expressions of our respective yearning to be symbols of heroism, justice, and strength. We should not pity them. When we see a Jew or a Sikh walk in the room, do we see the Khalsa Panth or members of Anielewicz’s rebellion?  We are both symbols of honor and valor. This has its own appeal.


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