Interfaith childhood: Growing up the Jewish daughter of a Hindu guru

“Do you always have to move a cow to get into your house?” I asked my father.

“A lot of the time,” he replied.

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After all, this was India, where cows are as common as squirrels.

Until that moment, I had pretty much held it together. But the cow put me over the edge. Who lives like this? The dust! The poverty! No running water! It was like the industrial revolution totally passed over this place, I murmured under my breath. My father, known as Shyamdas, proceeded on with his running commentary about India, paying little attention to my shock, awe, and general distaste for the place he considered his spiritual home. “You know, Hannah, Jaitapur is a holy site. Millions of people come here on pilgrimages every year to worship at in these the temples. All I could think was: Why was he pretending that living this far off the grid was normal?

Sensing my sour mood, he continued, “Sting loves it here.”

I took a breath and said, “Well, I guess I have different tastes than Sting. Also, I hope I don’t step in any cow dung.”

How did I—a nice American Jewish girl—end up with a father who lived in a remote village in India?

Shyamdas was born Stephen Theodore Schaffer to upper-middle class Jewish parents in Connecticut. He was raised to drive a BMW, join the country club, and work for the family real-estate business. But in 1972, after reading Be Here Now, he set off for India in search of higher consciousness. Most of his peers came home and started the yuppie phase of their lives. My father tried: In 1978, he returned to the States, met my mother, had me, and got divorced, but his attempt at a normal life didn’t pan out.

By the mid-1990s, any celebrity worth their Page Six mention had taken up yoga and toured India with my father, their guide/guru. Madonna even invited him over for dinner. Yet all I could think was, “I hope he doesn’t visit me at school wearing his dhoti, a long loincloth that looks like an adult diaper.”

While my father was immersed in polytheism — Hindus worship many Gods — I was immersed in monotheism. After my parents’ divorce, my mom took safeguards to prevent me from becoming Hindu — she sent me to Jewish day school, and just to be safe, she gave me an extra dose of Judaism at Camp Ramah.

As the child of divorced parents, I spent half of each summer at Jewish camp learning Israeli dances, and the other half traipsing around America with my father visiting ashrams and attending the chanting concerts he led.

When I called my father an idolater — and not as a compliment — he explained, “Hannah, I just see God everywhere.” I didn’t buy it. I wondered what my Bible and Rabbinics teachers would say if they knew Dad made a puja — an offering — to Krishna every morning.

Eventually I went to India to face my roots — the same ones that I had spent the previous 27-and-a-half years avoiding.

After being woken up by a group of vigorous chanters outside of our hotel in Vrindavan, a place my father called “The Jerusalem of India,” I asked, “Dad, are we staying in a Hare Krishna temple?”

He dodged my question. “It’s more like a high-end guest house. Isn’t the pizza great?”

“The Hare Krishnas are a cult,” I said.

“Every religion is a cult,” my father replied.

“Are you trying to tell me there is no difference between the Moonies and Judaism?” I asked.

That was our last discussion of religion for my remaining 10 days in India.

At that moment of the trip, I thought: This would be the anti “Eat, Pray, Love” story. What a terrible memoir it would make. Girl goes to India comes back unenlightened. More anxious.”

During my time in India, my father hovered over me, waiting for me to gush, “Now I understand. I accept you. Let’s go chant together.” It never happened.

I did have a moment of realization: I was still the girl with the weird dad.

But seeing my father in his element in India put a spotlight on another glaring truth: he was interesting. During my visit, he took me to meet the number one counter-terrorism expert in India, 100-year-old holy men, and American billionaires who lived in castles. There were no boring days.

When I was growing up I wanted him to wear a suit, and he finally did — to my wedding last October. While all the other parental figures made traditional toasts, my father offered his blessing in the form of a Sanskrit chant. My husband and I looked at each other and smiled — of course my father chanted in Sanskrit at our Jewish wedding. There was something wonderfully normal about melding the disparate parts of my life.

As my father would say, “Aum Shalom.”

Hannah Seligson is an author and journalist. Hear her and others speak at My So-Called Jewish Life, a night of unique, autobiographical Jewish storytelling on December 21 presented by Sixth & I Historic Synagogue and SpeakeasyDC.

 
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