How Reading Hermann Hesse Betrayed My Father
It is 1969, year of the Woodstock summer music festival, year that I celebrate my 17th birthday. Not that birthdays merit much attention in my family, where the calendar is already overpopulated with more important events — religious feasts and fast days, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and ritual circumcisions. Nonetheless, I celebrate my own coming-of-age in a year when the world is being reinvented by other 17-year-olds. Especially those lucky enough to be skinny-dipping in the lakes of New York’s Catskill Mountains, rolling in rain-soaked earth, and tripping their brains out to the rhythms of rock-and-roll.
I can’t be at Woodstock, because the community I was born into puts up walls to shelter its young and keep us untouched by the corrupting events of the Sixties. Trapped in the confines of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I watch as my peers embrace a psychedelic uniform of tie-dyed t-shirts, love beads, army jackets, bell-bottom jeans and peace signs. I covet the excitement captured in television images of these colorful flower children letting it all hang out; giving anti-riot police the finger as they’re being tear-gassed and dragged off in handcuffs; demonstrating for peace while shouting “Make love, not war!” at the “Establishment.”
“Our kind of people” don’t wear ripped jeans and love beads, or expose bare arms and legs in public. Instead, we girls dress modestly — long-sleeved blouses, high-necked shirts, skirts below the knees — so as not to draw attention to our budding bodies. We speak modestly — no curses or angry rhetoric. We especially don’t speak out against a government that offers us religious freedom and a haven from persecution. In fact, we don’t rebel against any authority — teachers, rabbis, or parents.
I don’t rebel, either, not at age 17. I know that this community, preaching kindness and compassion, practices kindness to its members. But I also know how non-conformists are treated — spit out from its bosom and punished with guilt and abandonment.
My three sisters and one brother — all married with children — like living in Crown Heights. To them, it feels safe, comfortable, and right. But I see myself as secretly tapped by the Zeitgeist. I envision a mythical bird riding the air currents, scattering seeds of freedom like fairy dust in the souls of the young. I belong to a youth culture of one, full of my own pent-up love, rage, and anti-authoritarianism. And I hold out in secret rebellion against my own personal authority figure, my father, in our dingy second-floor apartment, where the lights are always dim and the fraying upholstery is held together with masking tape. “Vee don’t support Con Edison,” is my father’s mantra.
My father relishes the role of patriarch. Enforcing the rules of Judaism, transplanting them from his East European soil to the new world, ensuring continuity of the tribe — this is what gives his life meaning. He adds his own restrictions to the mix and inflicts them with the same fervor: the prohibitions against wasting electricity, buying new clothes, throwing away stale bread. And he’s especially zealous about the fourth commandment, “Honor they father and mother,” which is taken very seriously in our community. Like all other commandments, the medieval rabbinic scholars broke it down into bite-seized rules: You don’t talk back to your father. You don’t contradict him in public, even if he’s wrong. You don’t sit in his seat, even if there are no other chairs at the table.
My father tells us that he would rather be feared than loved. After all, we’re not commanded to love our parents, but only to honor them. It’s easy to fear him, since he’s bigger, stronger, and louder than everyone in the family. Everything about him is oversized: his aquiline nose, deep-set hazel eyes, his broad forehead that extends way back to a narrow swath of white hair that reaches across the back of his head from ear to ear.
When his sentence structure mimics his native Yiddish, and he interchanges his V’s and W’s, when you see him eating from his dinner plate with bare, large hands, when he insists that you chew a piece of thread if he’s sewing a garment you’re wearing “so your brains don’t get sewn up” — you see into the primitive roots of his life.
He lectures me about this life repeatedly, believing that it yields deep lessons. Growing up fatherless on a subsistence farm in Romania, milking the goat while his mother slaughters the chicken. Leaving heder (religious school) at age 10 to become the family breadwinner when the envelopes from his father in America stop arriving. Surviving on bread and water during the long train rides to Odessa, Russia, carrying small goods for trade across the border. Trudging across the Carpathian Mountains during World War I with his mother and invalid sister, en route to the Czechoslovakian refugee camp that housed them for two years. Coming to America with five cents in his pocket. Learning English in night school. Quitting his first job in a knitting factory because they wanted him to work on Shabbes. And so on.
“Adversity makes you strong!” he shouts, pounding his chest. “You kids are soft and lazy.” Rather than bemoan his lack of formal education, he pokes fun of people with college degrees — “educated fools” he contemptuously calls college professors, psychologists, and other professionals.
“Vomen are veak,” he says, meaning that we are emotional, we cry easily, our feelings get hurt when he criticizes us. “A voman’s place is in the home,” he snorts, when I come home with A’s in high school. “Vhat use vill be arithmetic and geography for you vhen you’re standing behind a sink, vashing dishes?”
Eventually, I learn to tune out his voice. And I learn not to provoke him. I see his anger coming when the veins stand out on his neck and that taut force starts to move through his body, when he looks like his wrath could be ignited with one disobedient word. All of us — my mother, my sisters, my brother and I — learn to tiptoe around him, trying to keep him at bay.
But with his young grandchildren, my nieces and nephews, honey drips from his mouth. “Little pitchurik’ls!” he beams, taking the smallest in his arms and dancing an impromptu waltz while singing a tuneless “bidee bom.” He delights in teaching them an acronym he’s developed: The alef-beys (Hebrew alphabet) backwards. “TaSHRiK, TsaPiS, NiMLaCH, YUDCHiZ, VaH, DaG, BA!” They repeat after him, jumping on him, shrieking with laughter.
“Zeydi, you’re so cute!” they giggle. My eyes narrow to slits as I watch them pinch the wrinkled cheeks and pat the shiny head of my demon father. I am enraged that they can so easily escape my fate. Years later, I will understand that my father had demons of his own to wrestle with. At 17, however, I am still a defenseless adolescent, and he is the loudest voice in my house and my head.
So I rebel in small ways, away from his watchful eye. When I leave the house, I roll my skirts above my knee in defiance of the tsniyus (modesty) rules. I flirt with the yeshiva boys at the kosher pizza shop, modestly, trying to attract their attention without making direct eye contact (too brazen). At home, I rebel in my mind, through uncensored fantasies, and through reading. Cloistered as I am in Crown Heights, I still have access to the wide-open spaces of world literature at the Brooklyn Public Library. Books are my portals out of this narrow world, but I’m careful to keep the more subversive of them hidden. I even hide my thoughts, becoming quiet, inscrutable.
I’m good at hiding. My parents are old, busy with their other children and grandchildren, and I slip through the cracks of their attention easily. But one day in 1969, I get caught: not with illicit drugs, not with a sexual partner — with a book.
On that wintry Sunday afternoon, I am home alone, reading my newest book, Demian, a coming-of-age story by the German author and Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse, cocooned in my bedroom. Though the book was published in 1924, Hesse has recently become a cult favorite with my generation, and my personal spiritual hero.
It is the most iconoclastic book I have ever read, turning all my values upside down with its uncompromising individualism, its radical interpretation of biblical stories, and its strange new gods. Demian is the semi-autobiographical account of Hesse’s own escape from a repressive religious upbringing.
His protagonist, Emil Sinclair, grows up like me in a strictly religious household. As a child, Sinclair is struck with the distinction between the “two realms”: his parents’ world of light, order, and piety, and the “outside world” — dark, evil, mysterious and seductive. Seeking his destiny, he ultimately finds spiritual mentors who introduce him to an ancient and mysterious non-Christian god named Abraxas, a deity who includes in his being both God and the Devil. Demian frightens me, but it also calls to me, and I have begun to carry it wherever I go, a badge of my emerging identity.
I visualize Hesse as an elegant, elderly gentleman, strolling through his country estate in Montagnola, Switzerland. He wears a straw hat and round steel-rimmed glasses, and he carries his favorite authors with him: Neitzsche, Schopenhauer, Spinoza. He stops and sits on a stone bench, and serenely reads from his own writings: “I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me.” I hear Hesse’s crisp German accent in my head; chills run up my spine. Suddenly, I hear the front door open unexpectedly. I go to the kitchen, caught offguard, Demian in hand.
My father is in the kitchen, still wearing his old winter coat, worn through in several places. For some reason, he has come home early from his discount jewelry store on the Lower East Side, where he works six days a week, Sunday through Friday. He can afford better than this coat, but his childhood of dire poverty, coupled with religious injunctions against vanity, have left him opposed to spending money on appearances.
He removes his black felt hat, revealing a sprinkling of moles and age spots, and he covers his bald head quickly with a faded black yarmulke. I greet him with the obligatory kiss on the cheek, a sign of respect. His face feels raw and cold to my warm touch. I’m about to go back to my room — we don’t have much to say to each other these days — when something about the book cover attracts his attention.
“Vos iz dos?” (What is this?) he asks, reverting to Yiddish.
“It’s nothing,” I mumble, knowing that Hesse’s philosophy is treyf (non-kosher), running counter to everything that Judaism teaches.
“What nothing? It looks like something to me.”
“It’s just a book. A book I’m reading.” I’m nervous, but not too worried, because what would my father — with his thirdgrade education — know of Hermann Hesse?
“For school?” he asks. Without waiting for an answer, he seizes the book from my hand.
He looks at it through his thick, black-rimmed glasses. “Hermann Hesse?” He spits the words out, contempt dripping from each syllable.
I think back to the Hesse of my fantasy, so civilized and worldly, imparting words of wisdom in his gentle manner. So different from my father, in his old coat, purple with rage, his voice harsh and loud. But Hesse is just a fantasy. My father is real.
The veins on his neck are blue, raised. I step back, afraid that he’s going to slap me, but his rage is directed at Demian, not at me. He rips the offending cover off the book, shreds the pages, and throws the remains on the floor. “So this is for vat I raised you, to bring Hermann Hesse into my household? I’ll break every bone in your body if I ever catch Herr Hesse again in my house,” he roars.
Crazy old man, I say to myself. This is what he does. Destroys everything that is precious to me, scoffs at it, tramples it underfoot. I want to cry, but I will not — will not give him another reason to say that women are weak. Instead, I answer with my silence. It is rebellious, not compliant.
My father doesn’t know the difference. He is satisfied. “Make sure you set the table before dinner,” he says, and goes to the living room to daven minchah.
I pick up the tattered remains of Demian. My book is destroyed, I think, but I will not be defeated. I may appear mute, but the words are seething inside of me, and I swear to myself that one day, I will let this story — my story — out of my head and into the world. I will give it a life of its own. The way my father did, transmitting his life story to his children. The way Hermann Hesse did with Demian.
It is 25 years after Woodstock — 1994 — and I visit my father in the old second-floor apartment in Brooklyn. At 93, his eyesight and hearing failing, he is no longer the powerful patriarch of my youth; at 42, I am no longer an angry adolescent. Though he can still enrage me like no one else, he’s been steadily mellowing, especially during the past year when he became a widower.
“I have to be father and mother to you now,” he says to my siblings and me. Even though we are in our forties and fifties, he frets over us as if we were schoolchildren, reminding us to put on warm hats and scarves in the winter. “Bevare those drafts,” he says sagely, wagging a finger at us.
He leads me to the sofa. “Come sit by me, kindenyu,” he says, patting the seat to his left, “next to my good ear.” He starts a monologue about his life in the old country; today he tells me about how it was when his mother took him from their little shtetl in Romania to the big city of Tzernowicz to live with his uncle and be apprenticed to a jeweler. It was 1918; he was 15. It is a period in his life I’d never heard of.
“I vas a country boy, from a farm. I didn’t fit in vith the people in the big city, but my mother wanted me there, to learn a trade. Hah! You ver an apprentice, you worked till your fingers were blue vith cold, then they gave you a piece of brown bread, a bowl of mamalige, and a hard bed to sleep on.
“In our willage, the people ver simple, pious and honest. In the city, people ver more corrupt. Too sophisticated for religion! Some of the Jews in Tzernowicz even vent to the university, spoke German instead of Yiddish, and read literature. They wanted to be like their neighbors. The same neighbors who turned on them and slaughtered them vhen the Nazis came!
“Friday night, instead of going to shul, or to the rebbe’s tish (table), they sat in the salon, talking about Nietzsche (poo!), Spinoza (poo!), Schopenhauer (poo!), Hesse (poo!).” He spits after each of these names for emphasis. “‘Got is geshtorbn’ (God is dead), I heard them say. Can you understand such a thing? For Jews? Because of this, Hitler came into the vorld, because Jews forgot our God, our Torah, our heart.”
My father has been gone for 10 years now. His voice lives on only in my head, where it coexists peacefully with Hermann Hesse’s voice. My existential angst weighs less heavily on me these days; Hesse’s message of individualism and my father’s dogma of loyalty to tribe and faith are no longer at war with each other, polarizing my inner existence as they did in my adolescence. I have no more need for demon fathers or spiritual heroes — I am writing my own story.
It is 2007, my son Zach is 12 years old, enrolled in a wonderful public school, absorbing all the knowledge I yearned for as a child. I, in turn, teach him everything I’ve learned and hold sacred: the universe elucidated by science and myth; poems hidden in trees and stars; tales of wounded child-warriors and the healers who mend them.
Closest to my heart, I teach him about the crowned letters of an ancient alphabet that dance and sing on scrolls of parchment, forming in prose and verse the stories and teachings of my ancestors — teachings that my blood will always whisper.
Shulamit Falik is a freelance writer living in Syosset, New York