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Column: Observations of an ex-minority

By Leah Berkenwald

Section: Opinions

January 21, 2005

Now that the semester is back in swing, we have all had time to process this past holiday season. Looking back, I realized that this year there was something a little different about December.

Sometime during Hannukah my next door neighbor showed me her socks. They were green with red and white striped candy canes on them. I know its too early for Christmas socks, she said.

It might have been a little too early for Christmas socks, but something about them made me smile. When I saw the green, red, and white colors I immediately felt the warm holiday season spirit that everyone had always talked about. I thought of Salvation Army Santas, cheery window displays, hot apple cider, and houses that sparkle with lights. I was surprised.

But what is suprising about those feelings? Well, that may have been the first time I have ever felt real, pure, Christmas spirit. Why? It all began in my public school education in a small Western Massachussets town.

I was the only Jewish kid in my elementary school, and one of the only Jewish kids in my middle and high school. My local public school system was not really big on diversity since there was none there. Therefore, I grew up protesting fun activities like class caroling trips and making ornaments for my nonexistent tree. I also grew up educating my isolated and sheltered peers. (Yes, Jews do celebrate Thanksgiving. And birthdays.)

Being completely surrounded by white Protestants made me grow to hate Christmas time. A Christmas tree in the main office, Secret Santas, Deck the Halls contests I was smothered in it. It was something that kept me apart and only reminded me of others insensitivity and cultural arrogance.

As you can well imagine, coming to Brandeis was quite a shock. On arrival, I reveled in my new-found normalcy. I was the majority now. And now, after a year at Brandeis, I have made some observations.

For one, I can finally enjoy Christmas. Now that it isnt being shoved down my throat, I can finally appreciate the spirit of the holiday and how happy it makes people. I can finally let the warm smell of cinnamon and roasted chestnuts be a part of my own identity, and enjoy it as such. A week ago, I put on a Santa hat for the first time. A year ago I would have been offended that a professor suggested I wear it. But this time, it was fun!

But going from minority to majority is not all peaches and cream. Being Jewish had always been an important part of my identity. My grandparents are Holocaust survivors. I can play Fiddler on the Roof on my flute. Every time I saw the word Judaism in a textbook, I got excited. I grabbed any book I could find about the Holocaust. It all felt personal my culture, my people, my history. I was the Western Mass representative of the Jewish people the resident expert, and I was full of pride.

Brandeis, in a sense, took that from me. I no longer jump when I see the word Jew. How could I? Id be jumping every other second. I am no longer an expert on Judaism. Brandeis has taught me that I know very little about my own religion. Apparently, I am not qualified to be an expert because I cannot speak Hebrew, do not keep kosher, have not read scripture nor do I live by the Jewish calendar. On more than one occasion, I have been called a bad Jew by my fellow Jews for not attending services, doubting the existence of God, or eating lobster. Overall, the atmosphere here has made me feel less Jewish, and question whether Judaism is really all that special in the first place.

I will not live at Brandeis forever, however. Hopefully I will find a home that is somewhere in between the two extremes I have experienced. But coming from a place where I was the minority, I have wondered about the effect that the Jewish culture at Brandeis is having on its non-Jewish students. Do students of other religions feel frustrated when their friends assume they know what a mezuzah is? Do they feel offended when professors refer to the Jewish people as we or make Jewish inside jokes? Do Muslim students feel uncomfortable discussing the situation in the Middle East? Are Christian students as upset about the lack of an Easter vacation as I was when a high school teacher scheduled a test on Yom Kippur?

There is definitely work to be done. While I would never ask for people to be less Jewish themselves, the institution (which brags non-affiliation with Judaism) could do well to take the Jewish-ness of the campus down a notch. It would attract a more diverse student body that might have otherwise felt too overwhelmed by the Jewish presence to have be comfortable here.

By submersing ourselves in Judaism, we forget that there are other cultures out there. I worry that some students, who come from largely Jewish communities, will venture into the real world and be shocked to find that Jews really are a minority in this country, and in the world. Will they be prepared to answer questions like do Jews really eat rotten fishheads? Do they realize that people actually ask questions like that?

There is no clear plan of action for the Brandeis administration to take to improve this situation. While they should remain aware of it, most of the work must be done by the student community. The Jewish majority must make an effort to find that fine line between private life and public life and attempt to keep religion on the private side. Students and professors both need to stop assuming that all those they speak to are Jewish or feel the same way about Judaism. Once Judaism at Brandeis has become less of a given, it can become the unique and special thing it really is.

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