Sikh and Jew: East Meets West
By Dan Koch with the assistance of Kamla Devi Koch
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 twenty-five 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
Back then there were no guidebooks, no teachers, certainly no
online InterfaithFamily.com 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,
and yet what we brought to our marriage that is actually similar,
and how it all works out in the end.
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, and it is 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 the Orient 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
She came back to live with them one summer, and it was then that
she gave them a shock: just before she had left Hawaii, I had
proposed, and 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, as the young man, was of
a Jewish background.
It was only after my two younger brothers, who happened to be
traveling together in the Orient 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 found themselves highly approving of these representatives
of their future son-in-law, although an actual meeting with me
had not yet taken place.
These boys, they declared to their daughter afterwards, are different
from the ordinary Americans they had encountered, and they definitely
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
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 sixties and early
seventies, 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 l997, 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 an exotic Oriental faith 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
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 non-Jewish woman 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 forty-eight 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 (podium) 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 have strived to be a bridge of understanding.
Recently, we hosted a small Shabbat (Sabbath) 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
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.
Dan and Kamla
currently are working on the temple play; he is helping with the
sets and she is rehearsing some singing parts. They now eat out
a lot and look forward to the final performance in early May.
By: Diana BenAvides