Read an Excerpt
A Shepherd Comes to Manhattan
If you’re traveling the Alps with a Yiddish folksinger who also happens to be the last wandering shepherd in Austria and he assigns you the task of walking behind his flock of 625 sheep, you’ll discover that the little lambs sometimes tire out and plop down for naps. Since your job is to make sure no sheep is left behind, you’ll approach the sleeping lambs, your shepherd’s stick firm in your right fist, and shout, “Hop! Hop!” You’ll have learned to make this noise, which rhymes with “nope,” from observing the shepherd and his sons. On occasion, when a lamb is in a deep sleep and not responding, you’ll look around quickly to see whether the coast is clear. If the shepherd is far ahead or busy singing Yiddish ditties to himself, you’ll kneel down next to the sleeping lamb and say, “Come on, little cutie. Time to move on.” Then you’ll attempt to give the lamb a quick pat on the head. Usually the lamb will wake up before you touch it and scurry ahead in search of its mother. When this happens, you’ll let out several angry hop hops, as though you’re completely in charge.
After a while on the job, you’ll grow a little cocky. You’ll continue along even when a few sheep are still lingering behind because you’ll have learned that, for the most part, the sheep don’t want to be left alone. As you walk, you’ll wonder about this instinctual urge to stay close to the flock, and before you know it, you’ll be lost in thoughts about evolution. You’ll remember that we once traveled open landscapes in groups not unlike these sheep. You’ll think about what it would be like if the sheep were forced to live apart from one another in miniature suburban homes. Would they ever find happiness? Would they greet one another while grazing in their front yards?
Suddenly, you’ll reach a narrow passage and find you’ve drifted too far ahead and are now stuck in the middle of 625 tightly packed sheep. You’ll realize that the sheep, for all their virtues, don’t have much regard for human shins or feet. They’ll bump their woolly sides against you from every angle until you almost lose your balance. You’ll try to clear some space with your stick, but it will be no use. The sheep will treat you like the novice you are. Then, just as you’re regaining your bearings, a mangy gray sheepdog will race by and bark its angry orders. Your heart will skip a beat, and you’ll hurry ahead as fast as the others. If only for that one fleeting moment, you will understand the hardships of life in the flock.
After this unsettling experience, you’ll remain in back. Watching the sheep from behind, you’ll note the way their ears flop when they run, turning their heads into full-bodied birds in flight; the way sheep, in the hunched position they assume to urinate, resemble kangaroos; the way even a castrated male will mount an unsuspecting ewe; the way the ewe will continue her furious nibbling at the earth as she shakes off the pesky eunuch; the way a sheep’s stomach gradually ex-pands as the day goes on, so that by sundown a cantaloupe-sized bulge has formed on its left side.
If you’re on a particularly good patch of land, meaning the grass is plentiful and not too tall (sheep prefer their grass fresh), the sheep will spend a long time in one place. This is when you’ll put down your backpack and look around at the snowcapped peaks and the endless expanse of Alpine foothills, hills so green and peaceful that whenever you cross them, you have to fight the desire to get down on your side and roll. You’ll turn to the quiet streams cutting this way and that, pick the red flowers that peek out of crevices in the rocks, and think, Hmm, maybe I’ve made a horrible mistake by overlooking a career in shepherding.
But eventually your eyes will wander downward, and then all you’ll see is shit. Sheep shit, you’ll come to appreciate, is formless, unaesthetic shit; shit that, if not for the smell, could pass for mud. Next to the charming pebbles of goats or the healthy round cakes of cattle, the mushy green-brown splotches sheep leave behind can only disappoint. Still, you’ll keep staring at the shit because it’ll be everywhere, a parade of digested grass and Alpine flowers. You’ll see one sheep’s shit stacked upon another’s. You’ll see globs of dried shit clinging like black icicles to the wool of sheep tails. You’ll get to know the shit so well that, for the first time in your life, shit will seem harmless. You’ll walk through it as though you’ve been walking through it for years. You’ll stab at it with your shepherd’s stick for sport.
But a moment later you’ll look down at your stick to make sure it’s not too dirty because you’ll have grown emotionally attached to it. You’ll realize that the stick is not just a prop, but an integral part of what makes a shepherd a shepherd. You’ll be so fond of your knobby wooden staff that after a while you’ll accept its phallic symbolism even though you hate that sort of insight. You’ll think, The stick is my manhood. I am the stick.
At least that’s what you’ll think if you’re like me. But let’s hope you’re not like me, since then you’d also be a little too skinny. And your hair would be rather poofy. And, at age twenty-five, the only thing you’d have been really sure of was your desire to write about a singing Austrian shepherd named Hans Breuer.
I first met Hans in New York in July of 2000. A friend had forwarded me an e-mail announcement from a small Yiddish cultural outfit called Yugntruf (Call to Youth), which was sponsoring a concert and slide show by Hans at New York University. The e-mail included the following background information on Hans:
Hans truly is a wandering Jew, for he has no permanent home. And everywhere, everywhere—Hans sings Yiddish lidlekh [songs] to his sheep as he leads them through valleys and over mountains. And as he goes, he thinks out loud to the sheep, and to whomever will listen, about history, politics, geography, geology, and about being a Jew among “unknowing” racists. A peripatetic philosopher and a fine one, is Hans.
Since it’s not every day I have the opportunity to meet a fine peripatetic philosopher, let alone one who sings, shows slides of his sheep, and lectures on racism, I immediately e-mailed my RSVP for the concert.
The performance space at NYU turned out to be a classroom with a wall-to-wall blackboard and about fifty desks, half of which were filled with middle-aged Jews. I took a front-row seat along with the friend who had forwarded me the e-mail.
I had expected Hans to be an old man. I imagined him with missing teeth, his back bent from years of hard labor. When Hans showed up a few minutes late, his back was straight, and his teeth, though a bit crooked, appeared to all be in place. At forty-five he was well built, husky without being heavy. He wore a black leather cap, a light pink
T-shirt, sandals over his socks, and hexagonal glasses. His tangled hair, a lifeless brown, reached almost to his shoulders. Long and unruly sideburns framed his face, which struck me as vaguely Semitic, save for his strong cheekbones. After making a subtle turn to the right, his nose ended at a broad, rounded tip.
As promised, Hans had brought slides of his sheep with him. While a bushy-haired teenager fiddled with the projector, Hans addressed the audience in English, speaking slowly in an accent that brought to mind a slightly mad German professor. Due to the chaos of his travels, Hans explained, his hands moving in tandem with his words, the sheep slides had been mixed up and would not be coordinated with his songs. Although it’s unlikely that anyone else in the room would have noticed the difference, Hans seemed rather upset about this technical glitch and apologized for it several more times in the course of the evening. He also apologized for not having brought his shepherd’s hat. (“Normally I like very much to wear my hat when I seeng.”)
When the slides were ready, Hans nodded at the young man in charge of the projector and then belted out his first song, “Hey, Tsigelech,” or “Hey, Little Goats.” The “hey” was held for a long note, followed by an even longer, echoing “tsi-ge-lech.” At the time I didn’t understand the words, but Hans’s emotion-filled voice and intense eyes had a powerful effect. Even as I smiled at the strangeness of this gruff-looking man passionately taking on the high notes of folk ditties, there was no escaping the pull of his performance.
When Hans finished the song, he picked up a piece of paper and read the following aloud:
“At an auction, three thousand schilling more are offered for a young cow that has been raised in the mountains—with the same milk output—than for one that has been raised down in the valley. What is the reason? It is because she is healthier. She has the Alpine herbs in her flesh and the waterfall in her blood, the air and the wind of the high mountains under her skin and the soft glowing colors of the rocks in her eyes.”
I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
As the evening wore on, Hans mixed up the routine, performing classic Yiddish folk tunes about life in the shtetl along with hits from Yiddish musicals of the 1920s and ’30s. Even during the livelier songs, which occasionally had the audience clapping along, a sense of longing resonated in Hans’s voice. As he sang, he looked out over the heads of the audience and pleaded with open hands. His feet remained planted in one spot, but his upper body swayed reedlike from right to left. He might as well have been auditioning for the lead in Fiddler on the Roof.
Hans’s melancholy demeanor made me feel all the more awful about the giggling fit that finally overtook my friend and me. Moved as I was by the pathos of Hans’s voice, the slides of ewes giving birth in the background as Hans sang Yiddish show tunes was more than I could handle. I tried biting my lips, but every time I regained control, my companion’s hiccups of laughter would unsettle me again. This was especially embarrassing in that I had already introduced myself to the organizers of the event as a journalist and requested an interview with Hans after the program.
Hans appeared unbothered by the laughter, and the show continued with a young woman singing several duets with him. After each song Hans stopped to read more esoteric reflections on life in the Alps. Following a song about a peasant woman pondering the ideal husband—a shoemaker? a tailor? a student?—Hans offered this:
“What we are told not to do as children is quite normal up here [in the mountains]. You should do it here, to shout as loud as you can. . . . Shout down more than one thousand feet to your animals, driving them back from the wrong way where they move.”
Hans stopped to demonstrate, startling the audience with a room-shaking bellow.
After the concert the organizers hurried Hans off, but not before he agreed to meet me for an interview the next day in Brooklyn, where he was staying at the home of a Yugntruf member. I was hoping to publish a newspaper article on Hans, but I figured that even if I couldn’t, I wanted to hang out with him.
I arrived at the two-story house on a wide tree-lined street a little after 10:00 a.m. Hans answered the door and led me into a sunlit living room. He was barefoot, in a loose-fitting white T-shirt that exposed the upper reaches of his chest hair. His sagging blue work pants could have passed for cool in some circles. Now without his glasses, his long unkempt hair gave him the aura of an aging ’70s rock star.
I took a seat on the couch. Hans sat down across from me, then leaned over the coffee table between us and began arranging the loose pages of a photocopied booklet. The booklet was supposed to have been handed out at the concert the night before, but Hans hadn’t had enough time to put it together. It included the reflections Hans had recited between songs as well as twenty-two questions and answers about Hans’s life as a wandering shepherd:
Question #1: How many sheep have you got?
Answer: 675 on October 6, 1997. The number changes constantly. You may ask the shepherd, then he will ask his wife and she may ask her shepherd’s diary—if she finds it. . . . Or we can ask the two boys who gave the wormpowder the last time and made marks to count.
There was no small talk. I asked Hans about his background, and he began a two-hour narrative, again and again straying from his own story to talk about Austrian politics and history. His face glum, his hands struggling to convey meaning when he couldn’t find the appropriate English words, Hans spoke more openly than anyone I had ever interviewed. I learned again that one should never make assumptions about this shepherd. I had assumed that he had grown up in the countryside. In fact, Hans was from Vienna. I had assumed his Jewish parents had instilled a love of Yiddish in him. In fact, only his father was Jewish, and he had taught Hans that Yiddish was a bad dialect of German. When Hans told me that his father was Jewish, I assumed his father had undergone a harrowing ordeal at the hands of the Nazis. In fact, Hans’s father spent the war in England, while his non-Jewish mother, a member of the Communist resistance, was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. I had assumed that Hans had grown up in his parents’ home. In fact, Hans left home for good shortly after his fifteenth birthday.
With the interview winding down, I began to feel panicked. I had great material, but I hadn’t yet gotten to the bottom of the story. I still had no real understanding of why Hans was a shepherd or what Yiddish music had to do with anything in his life. Then Ilene, the owner of the house, whom I had met briefly after the concert, walked into the living room.
“Can I interrupt?” she asked.
I nodded. Ilene turned to Hans. “I guess I’d like to know what this is all about. Last night you showed slides of sheep and sang Yiddish songs. But what is the real relation?”
Hans leaned back in his chair and laughed. “Me. I am the relation.”
Ilene crossed her arms. “But how does singing Yiddish songs go with shepherding in the Alps?” she asked.