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A Brandeis homecoming

By Michael Sitzman

Section: Arts

February 10, 2006

I am just a poor boy;

though my storys seldom told,
I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles.
Such are promises: All lies and jest;

Still, a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.
Simon and Garfunkel

Friends, this week let me tell you a little about my life. This is really a story about us all, and the wonder of that circle when it finally closes

I was born in New York and raised a reform Jew in Lexington, the town just north of here. I didnt connect well with Temple Isaiah. It seemed staid and stuffy, for an older generation. Most of my life, in fact, Ive lived in Latin-American communities, and have identified equally with that culture. Thats a story for another time.

Raised in a progressive family, I never had any ethnic prejudices;

from childhood onward Id think about such things, and they made no sense. In particular, I never had any animosity toward Arabs. But certain times try even the tolerance of progressive people, and whenever some hijacking incident occurred Id hear among family and friends some angry comments that would upset me. Being a vocal, curious kid, I sometimes raised objections, often ruffling other peoples feathers, but among my family, I usually found it wisest to keep quiet

As an undergraduate in Los Angeles, I became active with Hillel, taking greater interest in participating in Jewish activities. It was problematic: The Jewish community on campus was small, the active core smaller, and I was a radical leftist

A part of the political left tends to habitually label America imperialist, every military operation racist, and Israel a perennial oppressor. Its OK to have strong viewpoints, until they become the same knee-jerk answers every time. Thats how it was with me. I dont know why.

A friend this year took offense at hearing the term self-hating. I do too, when its used to marginalize an opposing opinion;

but in my case, I think some kind of self-hate, maybe from having to keep silent for so long, made me project it onto America and Israel, since they represented my home and my people. It got in the way of being comfortable as a Jew.

By and by, that world view ceased to make sense, so my political sentiments moderated and I learned to keep a more open mind. Still, I wouldnt dare talk with other Jews about controversial things;

it didnt feel safe yet. As for Brandeis, Id never considered coming here until I applied as a grad student, imagining it a very Orthodox, Zionist school where one had to tow the line.

Forgive me, friends;

Ive long since changed in many ways. Havent we all?

Then there came the day we all remember well, and it too changed us. It introduced America to a feeling called fear. Yet for me, a different kind of fear began to fade: The fear of controversy. Maybe I just saw that a nation couldnt count on vast oceans to shield it from harm. In the same way, I couldnt just stay quiet for fear of giving offense;

even if I crawled into a cave, Id wind up offending the bats. Better to talk.

Somehow, I regained the courage to speak. I made friends with words once more.

And then, Brandeis. My first experience in a mostly-Jewish community. Looking for things to do last year, I joined Jewish-Arab Dialogue, now called Dialogue on the Middle East (DOME). I realized then that I had changed, since I no longer feared arguments. It wasnt the Arab students, but the other Jews, whom I would have been afraid to face before. Those worries are gone now;

Im a regular at weekly meetings, and while debates indeed heat up sometimes, Im always back for more. The insights Ive gotten there from Jews and Arabs alike have been a sincere treasure. I hope my own contributions have been worthy.

Folks, do you remember your first Shabbes at Brandeis? (OK, Shabbat if you insist.) I dont even remember my first whole week here, except for that evening. You see, at my undergraduate school, we were lucky to get a minyan of ten people each Friday, including the women. Nobody objected to that (not that anyone even cared about a minyan), since few were very observant. A rabbi led services and played a guitar, and that was it. No other Jewish clubs on campus. A Kosher kitchen? Yeah, right.

So here I was in a packed Pearlman Lounge one night, attending one of three kinds of services. Three! We then walked to Sherman together, joining the other groups on the way. It was going to be a big dinner indeed, but I had no idea how big: When we reached Sherman, others started pouring out of the dorms, coming down the hill by the hundreds

Now you dont have to be Jewish to feel this;

the problem, regardless, is that I know my words just wont suffice. So instead, just imagine two eyes. Now imagine tears. Imagine a moment frozen in time, wherein two ends of a great circle finally meet;

a moment of most profound realization:

I had come home.

See you tonight, friends! Ill race you to the gefilte fish table. (Careful with the Horseradish;

its hot.)

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