For those of you that know New York, youâ€™ll know that Jews have become as much a part of the Big Apple as the Statue of Liberty. From bagels to black hats, the Diamond District to door mezuzot, weâ€™re a huge part of the city.
Still, New York is made up of a lot of peopleâ€”hence, the melting pot idea (though that may well pertain to good fondue, as well). After my failed expedition to a Hindu temple a week ago, I decided to make good on my resolve to actually go to a temple, not just get lost, loiter outside, and end up in a Whole Foods. This time around, I was going to pay a visit to the sanctuary itself.
That was how I ended up headed downtown on a Tuesday nightâ€”a school night rarely finds me outside of Barnardâ€™s campus, let alone on an adventure. My vehicle of choice? Well, not my choice, per se, but the best way to migrate to ISKCON on a weeknight: a car.
One of the many benefits of having my parents live nearby is that they often pop by to visit. My mom was already coming in that night, so I figured I might as well mooch off her a little bit moreâ€¦.as if college tuition, the cost of living in New York, and everything else wasnâ€™t enough. Due to pick up my dad from the airport, she happily agreed to drop my boyfriend and me off on the Lower East Side.
As stores whizzed by, my nose remained pressed to the glass. I exhaled fog and inhaled the sights of the city that I rarely visitedâ€”Fifth Avenue, thrift stores, fifteen Duane Reades in twenty blocks. We rumbled down to the Lower East Side, former abode of many a Jew: now, it rivaled Williamsburg in alleged hipster populations and had a few restaurants that looked good.
Spitzerâ€™s Corner. Economy Candy. Wow. Jews really must have lived here, I observed as we passed block after block of food packed tightly into store windows. My dad told me that, once upon a time, when our family first came over to America, they lived on the Lower East Side. No Silvers that I know remain there, though: they migrated to Brooklyn eventually, abandoning this corner for Italian ices and good pizza.
Before I knew it, the car jolted to a stop and pulled up alongside what looked to be a small apartment building in the middle of a busy block. â€œWell, weâ€™re here,â€ my mom told us.
I looked around skeptically. Peering into what I could see of the apartment building, I could only make out white walls and lots of stairs. Not promising. â€œAre you sure?â€ I asked.
â€œDefinitely.â€ She checked the address, then pointed to a restaurant next door. â€œHey, look! If you want, you can go to a drag bar afterwards.â€
Emitting an awkward chuckle, we hopped out of the car, thanked her, and made our way to the building. No signs for Hindu temples or TAs popped out to greet me, so I took a look at the paper labels above the apartment buzzers. â€œAshram. 1. Temple. 2,â€ I read aloud. Iâ€™d never known a temple to be in an apartment building or be buzzed up to one like a delivery girl, but why not? Pressing the buzzer, we opened the door and heaved our heavily-coated selves up a flight of stairs.
At the top of the stairs, I was greeted by a puzzling sight. Hmmm. Pink walls that looked like a Florida condo. Flower wallpaper. I could get to like it here. It was almost familiar! Just as we were about to go inside what I assumed was the temple itself, a voice asked, â€œCan I help you?â€
I whirled, my heart pounding. Was another formerly lost student there, too? It wasnâ€™t just us, then? To my surprise, a young man in a dark yellow robe, his head shaved on either side to leave a lock in the middle, stood there with a smile on his face. â€œYeah,â€ I said gratefully. â€œThanks. Iâ€™m Carly and Iâ€™m a Columbia student. Iâ€™m here to visit the temple.â€
Smiling, the monk shook my hand and introduced himself. To my regret and embarrassment, I canâ€™t remember his name, but I do know that he wasnâ€™t wearing shoes. â€œIn there,â€ he said as he gestured at the door to my left. â€œThe templeâ€™s in to your left. You can leave your things outside.â€
He disappeared up another staircase as we made our way into a main alcove, where I took off my coat and shoes, leaving them next to a pile of others. I rested a palm on the door handle of the sanctuary itself. This is it. Hinduism at its finest, I told myself. With that, we entered the sanctuary.
It wasnâ€™t a large room, by any means, but it definitely was impressive. Framed portraits and, in the last instance, a photograph, lined the right wall, each depicting a sage, guru, or swami that had led the Hare Krishna tradition. I stopped to peruse each one, struck by the sharp features and shrewd black eyes of the last man.
To my surprise, as I turned to the left, there he was again: only in a different form. A sitting statue of the swami, cross-legged and robed, was perched on an altar; the very same eyes and face looked out at me. Afraid the very lifelike depiction of the swami might jump up and curse me roundly for being an intruder, I turned my gaze and sank into a cross-legged pose.
Along with several other seated individuals, we faced drawn curtains, hiding what I presumed to be the statues of the god Krishna and his family. One man to my right muttered something under his breath as he rocked back and forth in his seated pose, bobbing his head and clearly very into what he was doing. Curious, I disregarded whatever decorum my mother had taught me and stared, trying to catch the mantra that he continually chanted.
Suddenly, the door creaked open again. I turned back, half-expecting a fellow student that had also missed the trip to creep on in. A dreadlocked woman entered on padded feet, dramatically lowering her body to the wooden floor next to me and prostrating herself on the floor facing the curtain. She began murmuring under her breath, too, something that sounded suspiciously like whatever the man to my right was saying.
I hope theyâ€™re asking for the curtains to be opened so I can get back uptown before midnight strikes, I thought to myself, shifting uncomfortably on the wooden floor. Maybe staring intently at the curtains would get them to open. Using that dubious logic, I focused my gaze on the dark curtains, imagining what was behind them.
This was a bit different than what I was used to in the Jewish tradition, though concealing the sacred behind a curtain reminded me of keeping the Torah in the ark. Perhaps not so strange, after all. A sort of theological Letâ€™s Make a Deal, perhaps. I could hear the host shouting, â€œBehind curtain number one: a real Torah, hand-written by only the finest scribes, all the way from the Holy Land!â€ Heâ€™d continue on, adding, â€œBehind curtain number two: the real Shroud of Turin, straight from the Templars themselves!â€ Finally, he would arrive at my choice, curtain number three, and revealâ€¦.well, I didnâ€™t know exactly what. I couldnâ€™t even understand what my fellow worshippers were chanting.
I brought my attention back to the present and glanced at a plaque in front of me. Inscribed on it was a repetition of words in some order: all I could see was that the words â€œHare,â€ â€œKrishna,â€ and â€œRamaâ€ were repeated. Iâ€™m an idiot, I told myself, mentally shaking my head. Thatâ€™s what theyâ€™re chanting. Itâ€™s a hymn toâ€¦Krishna? I donâ€™t know. It figures that whatâ€™s right in front of me is what I canâ€™t figure out.
The woman to my left had finished praying, it seemed, and now sat upright in a remarkably flexible position, her legs contorted in what looked like an advanced yoga pose that I couldnâ€™t comprehend. Tears streamed down her face like small dewdrops. I stared at her for a minute or two, silently contemplating what to do. Manners or curiosity? Which would prevail?
To probably no oneâ€™s surprise, my curiosity won out. I inched closer and whispered, â€œAre you okay?â€
She smiled at me and, in a light British accent, said, â€œYeah, Iâ€™m fine. I sometimes get overwhelmed with gratitude. Iâ€™m Kizzy. Are you new here?â€
Not so bad after all, I thought. Interrupting someoneâ€™s worship service may end up paying off. â€œIâ€™m Carly.â€ We shook hands and I added, â€œIâ€™m a student visiting here. Are you a regular?â€
As Kizzy proceeded to tell me her life storyâ€”she grew up in the UK and found Hinduism after soul-searching in Africaâ€”I was amazed at the breadth of her experience. Not only had she traveled the world, but she had found a religion that spoke to the deepest parts of her soul. That alone was evident when she told me that she was overwhelmed with gratitude to Krishna for how good he could be.
The depth of her religious belief, as she explained more and more to me about the Hare Krishna practicesâ€”something that I couldnâ€™t have gotten off the website, the experience of a real devoteeâ€”was beyond real, it seemed. Here I was, a non-religious individual who clung to Judaism as a culture more than a faith, speaking to someone whose faith was so pure that she wept with thanksgiving. When was the last time I had done that? Not sinceâ€¦never.
If someone can be this nice to an outsider in their temple, theyâ€™re definitely doing something right here, I told myself. Kizzy explained to me that the Hare Krishna sect believed that Krishna was the true divinity, but also held other faiths to be true, for religious truth is not just expressed in one way. We had learned about this tolerance in class, but to see it firsthand was remarkable. Here was someone who had no reason to talk to me going over the fundamentals of her religion, answering my persistent questions with grace and kindness.
I donâ€™t know if this was just Kizzy and her friend, the man to my right who helped answer some of my questions, but the people at the Hare Krishna temple seemed exceedingly gracious and welcoming. Judaism welcomes people, yes, but I had never been in a context like this in a Jewish temple. I donâ€™t doubt that, if non-Jews attended a service out of curiosity at many temples across the country, members of the congregation would happily fill them in and let them participate.
Finally, a priest, clad in a white robe, drew back the curtains. Kizzy and the man to my right prostrated themselves again, leaving me sitting uncomfortably upright. As I had thought, the statues of Krishna and his consort were bright and graceful. They were surrounded by pictures and statues of Krishnaâ€™s incarnations and relatives, which Kizzy told me were all incarnations of the divine. They would be gods, too, but all were part of the essential divine self, the one that resides in each one of us, too.
â€œIs anyone allergic to nuts or dairy?â€ the priest asked suddenly. Surprised, we shook our heads. Happily, he came over to me and presented me with a small cake. â€œThis is a sweet treat we offer to the gods,â€ he told me.
Thanking him, we popped the cake into our mouths. It was quite tasty. I could easily see how this would please most palates. Food and welcoming, welcoming and food. Gazing at Krishna and his family, I chewed my cake and smiled. Perhaps Hinduism wasnâ€™t so distant after all.