Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Additional photos by Mr. Knoch
From Hindu Temple to Kosher Kitchen
Twenty-first century Switzerland is an open inclusive country, welcoming to all regardless of religion, ethnicity or race. So when Sasikumar Tharmalingam, a dark skinned 14 year old young man fleeing the ravages of civil war in his home country, Sri Lanka, arrived in Bern in 1989, it was not long before he found a home, a community and an occupation.
After suffering through a harrowing and dangerous passage, Sasikumar found refuge at a group refugee center. He was young, alone, and suffering from loss of home and family along with severe culture shock which increased as the trauma of the journey faded into the past. It was a difficult time for him searching for a sense of belonging in a culture so different from his own. Over the years he, and several other young men in a similar circumstance, found themselves drawn towards the Hindu Religion. After several pilgrimages to India and years of study with a guru, they were all initiated as Hindu Priests. During his time in India - along with the Hindu Religion - Sasikumar studied the ancient Ayurvedic medicinal healing and dietary methods and became an avid practitioner. When he returned to Switzerland he had direction on two fronts: religion for nourishing the spirit... and cooking for nourishing the body.
Multi-cultural groups of expats that had been immigrating into Switzerland around that time recognized their financial limitations in establishing their own houses of worship and community gathering places. To solve their individual problems they joined as a group and reached out to the Bern city government for help in creating a center where the different religions could worship, practice their beliefs and be part of the greater community.
After years in negotiation, an agreement was reached and a building was constructed with each member’s specific needs accommodated. Referred to as the House of Religions-Dialogue of Cultures it is a loose affiliation of religious groups that have come together in cooperation, to share space, costs, and not incidentally, understanding and tolerance of each other’s beliefs. To quote from their operating creed “A dargah, church, mosque, temple and Buddhist center are connected by an open and neutral meeting area, which forms the heart of the House and invites visitors to participate in interreligious and intercultural dialogue.” Just a short tram ride will take you from Bern’s historic Altstadt (Old Town) to a newer section of the city where you will find the House of Religions-Dialogue of Cultures located on Europaplatz.
Eight religious groups share in the communal spaces of restaurant, library, meeting and conference rooms: Jews, Bahá’í and Sikhs contribute and participate in the center, while Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Alevi and Buddhists additionally have their own designated spaces of worship on the property.
This was a perfect situation for Sasikumar, a place where he could accomplish his goals both as a Hindu Priest and as cook in the restaurant called Vanakam.
Enter Rabbi Michael Kohn, another immigrant to Switzerland whose home country was Norway. Contrary to Sasikumar, he did not flee his country for political reasons but chose to move there to become head of the Jewish Community of Bern. As such he frequented the House of Religions and was intrigued by Sasikumar’s cooking style and use of exotic spices so different from those used in kosher food.
These two men, a Jewish Rabbi and a Hindu Priest, came together to work out a system of cooperation in precisely the manner and purpose for which the House of Religions was created. Sasikumar, eager for collaboration, setup a kosher kitchen at Restaurant Vanakam under the supervision of Rabbi Kohn, while Rabbi Kohn also participates by lighting the stove and taking part in the cooking to insure that it satisfies the requirements of his Orthodox community. There are two kitchens, side by side at Restaurant Vanakam; one strictly kosher with all ingredients used in cooking approved by Rabbi Kohn and Kashrut certified, and the other used for, and by, the other communities that the center serves.
The day we visited we were served a traditional lunch of rice surrounded by three cooked vegetables, and in my case, a good helping of Raita (yougurt) to cool down Sasikumar’s Tamil style of cooking. Prior to lunch a cup of spicy ginger tea is offered to cleanse the palate and warm the stomach for the coming meal. We were joined for lunch by Dr. Karin Mykytjuk, manager of the center and Noemi Knoch, a member of the Jewish Community and a staff worker at the center.
After lunch Noemi took us on a tour where we visited the Hindu temple which, in accordance with the tenets of the religion, was topped with a sculpture bursting through the ceiling and open to the sky. In this way, the exposed earth on the temple floor and the sky above, always remain connected. A special variance was required from the city to allow the brightly colored construction to poke out of the top of the building.
She introduced us to the Imam at the Mosque where after a group of young men rushed out after Morning Prayer, a solitary man sat deep in meditation. We looked into the Baki room where a musical practice was taking place – no pictures please -
and we stopped by the Buddhist and Christian sections and visited the various and sundry rooms shared by all the communities.
We were pleasantly surprised when Rabbi Kohn stopped by with his 11 year old son for a chat and of course a meal. He is a young, articulate, progressive Orthodox Rabbi and the enthusiasm with which he attacked the lunch prepared by Sasikumar, and the delight with which Sasikumar delivered his plate, was evidence of their mutual admiration and friendship. These two men are a stunning example of what can be accomplished when cultures embrace in what unites us all… our shared humanity.
If you want to know more about these hands across the aisles story please visit:
For the center visit: https://haus-der-religionen.ch/
For the restaurant visit: https://haus-der-religionen.ch/angebote/restaurant-vanakam/
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