|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
Fiction or not, better educational opportunities was what my parents sought in Karlshorst for their sons. My beginning in the Kant Schule, the local Gymnasium in Karlshorst, in 1929 at age 10, was, however, not an auspicious one. To my relief, I learned that of several Jewish boys in the school, one was in my very class. Blond and tall, he was typical of the long assimilation of German Jews, and everything I would have wanted to be. Certain that finally I might have a friend and possible protector, I approached my new classmate in the schoolyard during a recess. "Go away" was his response. I hesitated. "Go get lost!" In the past, I would have walked away, meekly. But something snapped this time - perhaps the proverbial last straw. I threw myself at this latest insult, screaming in mad rage, punching and kicking. It was as though all the abuse of the past had suddenly burst and boiled over and could no longer be contained. Screaming in blind fury - to the jeers of other students, watching the two "Jewboys" fighting it out, but a teacher rushed up and pulled me off , still screaming and kicking. He grabbed me by the ears, shaking and lifting me off the ground. I was still screaming and kicking and spitting blood. "Du - du Judenbengel", the teacher cursed. I spat at him. He slapped my face and dragged me, kicking and screaming, to the principal's office.
I was ordered to leave and return the next day with my father. He was in a quandary: education meant everything, and Gymnasium, while not compulsory, was essential for higher education. I was to be dismissed from school unless I apologized - to the principal, the teacher and the student. It took several days of argument for me to agree to "demean" myself and apologize. I apologized and was permitted to return, but at the end of that first year I was not promoted to the next class. To be left back, to repeat the first year was the ultimate insult to a Gymnasium student. I was not only that “foreign Jewboy", but now also a "moron".
I had, indeed, lost all interest in what was happening in class. Facts and figures were of no further meaning, especially, mathematics. Beginning already in first grade in Fichtengrund, numbers had begun turning into colors: 2, I believe, was yellow; 8 was black; 5, some shade of purple; 3 was red; 4 was green and so on. I would mix, add and subtract, as though numbers reflected a peculiar form of palette and rainbow. The results were far more beautiful than any on the blackboard as reality took on, increasingly, different tonalities and dimensions. My mind roamed outside, dreaming of America and Indians. I imagined myself a Sioux or Choctaw, an Apache or a Chippawa (I knew them all) and ride a white horse across prairies and squint into a blazing sun to see a world of pure, rainbowed splendor. For the remainder of my formal education (it lasted only three more years) I would be mostly lost in dreams and fantasies.
My fascination with Indians and America's Wild West was not unique. Among, especially, the German young there was what can only be described as a romantic cult for all things "American". The Wild West represented an exotic freedom which young Germans could dream about amid the confining discipline of their own homeland. Playing "cowboys and Indians" was probably the most popular of children's games, in which I participated only within my own secret fantasies.
My parents were aware of what was happening outside their home and, especially, the peculiar constitution of their middle son; there seemed nothing they could do about it. Except for that one crazed moment, the only time I had thrown myself at any of my tormentors, I could not really blame them. Everything I was called, was, indeed, true: I was a foreigner, an alien, a total misfit in a place I did not belong. Perhaps, I even admired those bullyboys - they were everything I could never be. I did not loathe my tormentors - I loathed myself. In a mirror I saw, indeed, a most despicable, loathsome face staring back.
The question of madness was beginning to intrigue me. Dostoyevski and his works had become the topic of discussion: Not only whether Dostoyevski was mad, but to what extent "a little madness" might not be necessary for creativity. "Could I be mad?" I toyed with the notion as with a newfound toy. I knew that I was “different” from all the others, and I accepted the obvious that I did not seem to belong or fit in any place. In Berlin, at the time, was an exhibition of the works of Van Gogh, the largest I would ever see. I was overwhelmed by Van Gogh's vision and world which appeared to blaze with a myriad, fiery brush strokes and which finally blew him apart. To die young, in a blaze of color, was surely not a bad end, I thought. "Not all artists have to go mad; it is not essential", my father assured me.
At age 12, a proper Jewish boy was expected to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah at his 13th birthday - a most important day in his life, a celebration marking his transition from boyhood and acceptance as a man into the community of his fellow Jews. I, however, was not at all sure that I cared for this kind of acceptance. It would have been a total charade to go through a Bar Mitzvah. My parents, however felt that "some kind” of Bar Mitzvah should be celebrated, the choice of its form was left to me. I offered to illustrate the Bible; my parents seemed pleased.
I set to reading and rereading the Old Testament, and father was delighted when asked to explain certain passages. The Bible proved daunting, at times incomprehensible, but with every reading, I found the Bible ever more fascinating and possibly divinely inspired, if not actually God's voice. This God reminded me of too many earthly men I had seen, especially a picture of one of my grandfathers with a long, white beard. God also seemed to resemble the Indian poet Rabinat Tagore who I had met in the home of Etta Federn, a poet and family friend. While I could not accept a man-like God, I did lose myself in the stories of the Bible and discovered an enchanted heaven. And there was the language of the Old Testament - exotic, different from anything I had ever read. It appeared what I had come to expect of all art - not some simplistic reflection of mere reality and nature, but extraordinary and supernatural. The Bible also provided reassurance - evidence that my own sense of alienation and exile began long ago in the constant restless wanderings from one exile to another of my forebears.
I was entranced from the start: Genesis, the story of Creation, Paradise, Adam and Eve. However, I tried to imagine a somewhat different scenario: "No, Adam could not have been created first and then Eve sprung from one of his ribs. Eve must have been conceived first, born, perhaps, out of a lonely God's own fertile imagination. Then Eve begot Adam, fathered no doubt, by God. Then Adam and Eve began playing around, and God drove them from the Garden of Eden - out of jealousy". The Bible, after all, is a constant testament to an often very jealous God. The image of God can have a startling effect, especially when first encountered at that crucial critical age of adolescence. I could not accept Him as some manlike, exclusive God of only the Hebrews. But He fired my fantasies: what could He possibly look like, I kept wondering. God, of no matter what unfathomable description, could not be dismissed easily.
On many museum visits, I had crossed His path, pictured in innumerable paintings. But why picture God, robed as though a Greek or Roman and forever with a long beard. I could not bring myself to accept God as represented, described and pictured, or in any prescribed form. Father was of no help on the question of the image of God: a proclaimed atheist, he had made his choice: there was no God! While my father could not help his son's attempts to give shape and substance to God, religion, however, in all its varied aspects, came increasingly into the family's discussions: Was Marx right calling "religion the opiate of the people". In time I had to conclude that, apparently, all people needed opiate of one kind or another. Bare reality may be too unendurable bare. My own opiate, as intoxication and escape from reality, would remain Art in all its varied manifestations.
Confronted by the Bible which I had chosen to read, study and illustrate, it was the image of God which continued to confound me: "Beneath the flowing robes, what could this manmade God be like? Could He have a navel, genitals? If like man, where did He come from, who gave birth to Him, and how? Did He have a childhood, suffer through an adolescence? "Alone, without a companion, did he ever long for love?" I did not know yet the meaning of blasphemy, but began to realize that an overwrought imagination carried me into regions I should not venture. The inquisitive age of high strung pubescence may not be the best time to be introduced to a God, whose loneliness, I felt, must be awesome. In my fantasies I finally provided God, the Lord, with playmates - lovely angels who together, and happy at last, would romp through heaven, and I felt shame for my irreverent and possibly depraved mind.
Cleansed of all irreverence and depravity, the ultimate result of my Bar Mitzvah project, several dozen paintings and drawings, were duly displayed on the walls of our home in Karlshorst. Friends of my parents gathered and, amid feasting, speeches were offered, turning into the inevitable discussions which, revolved mostly around "tradition versus freedom". Most of the heated arguments came down to whether any boy should be free, at the age of l2, to choose the manner and form of his own Bar Mitzvah. Two years earlier, Isaac, confronted with a similar choice, had chosen to compose a lengthy, scholarly dissertation on why he preferred not to have a traditional Bar Mitzvah. Four years after my "Bar Mitzvah", amid the excitement of our arrival in New York, Jeremiah, the youngest, had no choice at all; there was no Bar Mitzvah for him, traditional or otherwise. This omission reflected, unfortunately, a far deeper neglect of "Jerry", born two years after the death of Miriam. When mother gave birth to yet another brother instead of the girl everyone had hoped and prayed for, there was no rejoicing.
But even long after my so called “Bar Mitzvah” , I seemed to have become addicted to the Bible and wondering about “God”. Eventually, I concluded that He must be a She. Who, or what else, could give birth to and nurture the universe. I tried to picture this female God as not only fecund but all-embracing, voluptuously swelling the universe from Her initial “Big Bang” on into never ending sensuous undulations. The God of the Bible could only have been conceived in the minds self-righteous men. However, the Bible reinforced my notions of ethics: "Thou shall not kill! Thou shall not steal! Thou shall not bear false witness!" And on to "...beat swords into plowshares!"
As the Old, eventually, led me into the New Testament, I could see in Jesus a new possibility of hope as well as another troubled, restless and radicalized young man: "Love thy neighbor." Yes, even, "Love thy enemy." I felt a kinship to his preachings and prophesies: "The meek shall inherit the earth" would continue to reassure me. Beyond all dogma and rituals, the Bible - Old and New - proved exhilarating. I could even accept God's command, "Thou shall have no other Gods before me!" interpreting it to mean that between art and the enticements of "fame and fortune", I must obey only my Muse. One God was enough, but it would have to be a universal, all-inclusive One, including everything, every rock and tree, every one, every creature, the lowest bug, even myself, all permeated with consciousness, perhaps even purpose, design and contradiction.
Curiosity, leading to heresy may have been my birthright. While my parents rebelled against a tradition which had become ossified, Hasidism, when it was founded in the 18th century, was itself a rebellion: "Dance, sing and rejoice - God may listen!" My parents, seeing a new Messiah in "enlightenment", scorned all orthodoxy, and their son carried heresy, perhaps, too far. But did heresy and rebellion not begin already in Biblical days and in the chronicle that followed: questioning, arguing, even raging at God? Wandering, wondering and rebellion was inherent in my inheritance; not obedience. No matter the consequences, I could not fault my parents for the windows and doors they flung open or for the flight they began in Lublin, God or no God, but who evolved into a tantalizing encounter.
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