Go to m.barnard.edu for the Mobile Barnard web app or download it from the App Store or Google Play.

Last Word: Breaking Away

Illustration by Katherine StreeterIn 1967, Barnard mailed me an acceptance letter. Tears washed my cheeks as I pirouetted across the living room: I would leave my parents’ Persian home in Forest Hills, Queens, and thrust myself into the lecture halls of Morningside Heights. Not only would I be the first female from my family to ever go to elementary school, junior high and high school, but I would be the very first woman to attend college.

My parents, Orthodox Jews from the Persian city of Mashhad, were horrified. Pop, who believed it was his patriarchal responsibility to protect me from the evils of education and the Ivy League brothels of America, was faced with a wayward daughter who kept walking toward them.

But, after a year and a half of commuting, I decided it was time to have the full college experience and move into a dormitory. I secretly registered for a double room in an all-female Barnard dorm. Another student was already occupying one half of a dorm room; the other half had a bed and desk awaiting me. Knowing that this was the only available room on campus, I took the roommate and the room sight unseen.

That evening, I calmly told my parents that the commute was wearing me down and to make my life less stressful, I had taken a room in a single sex, all-female, Barnard dormitory. Pop jumped out of his chair, charged up the staircase, ripped off his three-piece suit, threw on his pajamas and got into bed. He had officially begun his hunger strike. My father stopped going to work, stopped eating solid foods, and stopped shaving. A white beard of mourning grew over his face.

For him, sleeping in a dorm translated into “leaving my father’s house,” which meant leaving his protection, values, and moral codes. A daughter only leaves her father’s home in order to enter her husband’s home. He was convinced that college girls spent all their after school hours engaged in intercourse, sometimes for money. They were all loose, wild, valueless women who would eventually corrupt his only daughter. Day after day he lay in bed, rejecting food, only occasionally sipping water, refusing to see or speak to me. I was furious; I had never demonstrated any interest in prostitution! Why was he determined to equate college life with promiscuity?

Each day I came home from Barnard and found him in the same horizontal position. He grew thinner and weaker; for 10 days I wrestled with guilt. On the 10th night of his hunger strike, I asked my brother David to drive me to Barnard. After packing all my clothing and books into the car, I respectfully entered my father’s bedroom. He would not allow his eyes to meet mine. I softly told him I loved him and promised to come home every Friday night for Shabbat.

David was behind the wheel when I climbed into the car. Mom sat in the back seat. Then, Pop emerged, running after us, unshaven, in flannel pajamas and slippers. He pushed Mom over and landed right next to her. He had come, in a rage, to witness the loss and ruin of his only daughter.  

No one at the front desk or in the lobby had ever seen a father like mine before. Waves of guilt, hatred, shame, and fury churned in my stomach as he followed me up to my third floor bedroom. As we passed, students looked on, astonished. With a gaunt face ready for war, slippered feet, pajamas, and his streaming beard, he stomped across the hallway. He had come to see for himself the depraved life his American daughter had defiantly chosen.

I thought to myself, if he has to be here humiliating me, at least he will see my dorm room is just like my bedroom at home. Pop stood behind me craning his neck as I slowly opened the door and switched on the light. To my right was my bed and desk, to my left lay my new—and naked—roommate entwined with her boyfriend.

My father stormed out with flaring nostrils and rattling teeth, but in that moment, we had entered a new phase of our relationship. I moved in. My father took a full year to recover from what he had seen, but once again, he accepted me as his daughter.

—by Esther Amini Krawitz ’71

Esther Amini Krawitz is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist.  She is working on a series of short stories entitled Leaving Mashhad. This is an excerpt.