Kristallnacht, “Crystal Night.” It’s a phrase that seems like it should mean something beautiful and elegant. Yet it refers to the “Night of Broken Glass”, when a series of orchestrated attacks, also known as a pogrom, was carried out against Jews in Nazi Germany. When the windows of Jewish homes, hospitals, schools, businesses, and synagogues were shattered, it became impossible to pretend that atrocities against Jews weren’t taking place. The world outside of Germany began to sit up and take notice after synagogues and businesses were burned and destroyed, while German authorities did nothing.
To me, broken glass represents the shattering of a façade and the loss of protection. Broken glass can break the skin, while also embedding itself and continuing to wound.
Last year, I took my mother and son to the Kristallnacht Commemoration at the Jewish Home in Milwaukee. I had gone the year before as a reader, and thought it was a good tradition for my son to learn about as it involves the participation of many from other faiths. I had also invited my mother, but I didn’t realize until after the event that beforehand she had decided that she couldn’t handle it after all. The only reason she came was because my son misheard her.
My mother was born during World War II and has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The ceremony brought back memories that she couldn’t decipher, old wounds from within. After the ceremony ended, I went to say goodbye to a teacher who was visiting from Germany with her students, still unaware that my mother was unraveling emotionally. Others were upset too; one of the Jewish Home residents had just told one of the teenage German girls that their presence wasn’t wanted, so the group was rattled.
By the time I made it back to my son and mother, my mother was talking to a young Sikh man. When I joined the conversation, Kanwardeep was saying that the shooting at his temple that August had prompted and challenged him to go out of his way to meet those who were different from him. He had also started wearing his turban and stopped cutting his hair so that people would recognize he was Sikh. He wanted to bring more attention and interest to his community, while also opening himself to learn about the cultures and traditions of others. After our conversation about our various backgrounds came to a close, he invited us to visit the Gurdwara, the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, some day.
A while later, Kanwardeep found me on Facebook, and I remembered his invitation. In the meantime he had made such an impression on me that I had shared the story of meeting him and his challenge with a group of children whom I teach yoga to at an urban ecology center in my neighborhood. The children were bouncing off the walls as I arrived, so I had them get into almost headstands to get a different perspective, and then afterwards we sat in a circle to talk about the things that make us seem different from others. I shared how I had lived in Germany and Iran before coming to the US, and how I was called a Nazi in first grade and told that I must have made up the country of Iran because the children in my class hadn’t heard of it. Those children certainly hadn’t shown any interest in learning more. All I knew was that the two years I had lived there were happy ones, filled with neighborhood potlucks and laughing friends. After I shared my story, I asked the kids if they’d had any experiences that made them feel “called out” for being different. One boy shared that he and his sister were the only black kids at their school. The one white kid in the group said that he was one of the few white kids at his new school, adding that his new classmates were nicer than the ones at his old school.
So one day in December we went to visit the Sikh temple. It actually wasn’t my first time there. I had driven there with my son this past summer after I heard about the shooting, to pay our respects without thinking through how we are going to go about doing that. That day we didn’t get past the driveway, which was still blocked off with police tape. It was incomprehensible to me that their sacred place had been violated, so the last thing I wanted to do was trespass on their grief.
But that day in December, we followed a woman from the parking lot who kindly showed us where to take off our shoes and where to find a head covering. She then led us into their main room of worship, under a doorway that still has a bullet hole. Glass may not have been broken, but I can only imagine how their sense of security was shattered.
The service was in Punjabi, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve attended a service in a language that I don’t know. One doesn’t have to know the language in order to comprehend a place of peace. At some point I felt confronted by a wave of discomfort, not because of the language, not because of the customs, not because of the people, not even because of ending up in the first row, which is where the woman from the parking lot had led me. The discomfort came from deep within me, out of a fear that I might offend someone; that people might wonder why I was there; or that people might think I was just there for the (very delicious) food. I felt like I both belonged and didn’t belong, a battle I think rages in many of us on different levels. I remembered once going to a Jewish synagogue, and after the service being told told that “my kind” wasn’t welcome there. It was only one person who seemed to feel that way, for everyone else had been welcoming and kind. Encountering the hate in that woman’s eyes pierced me in a way that I will never forget.
After the service I went looking for the children’s group, which is where my son had ended up thanks to our friend Kanwar, mostly because I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. They were playing a game of questions, and the teacher Gurmukh talked to them with deep respect. The thing that amazed me the most was my son’s reaction. I’ve taken him to other places of worship, and this was the first one he embraced. I’ve taken him to Indian restaurants, and he didn’t show much interest in the cuisine – until that day in December, when he tried several things he hadn’t tried before and loved all of it.
As we drove away, he said he wanted to go back again and we should learn some of the language. When I asked him why out of all the places and activities I take him, the one place he asks to go is the Sikh temple, he said, “They don’t exclude.”
I texted my son’s father about the experience. He used to work with Sikhs when he was a chef at an Indian restaurant for a few years, and he always spoke of them highly. He responded that Gustav’s teen years were sure to be interesting now that he was making his own choices.
Two weeks later, my son’s father died unexpectedly. When we first went to the Sikh temple, I thought we were there to offer comfort. The second time we went, we were the ones in need of comfort, which they gave without reserve. In the children’s group that day, the teacher talked about mentors, saying that his father was his mentor. He didn’t know that my son had just lost his father. Afterwards, when we told him, he embraced us and asked about what kind of man he was, so that he could honor him and his memory. The Sikh community had lost fathers and uncles and brothers and a mother. In that moment as we shared our grief, I stopped thinking about not belonging. Grief connects us, but it’s love that unites us and makes families of strangers, not despite our differences, but because of them. Our hearts can be as fragile as glass, and yet while glass windows can be replaced, hearts that are broken cannot be replaced. Our hearts are transformed when we dare to show up for one another and fearlessly share our love.