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.
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.”