Why am I here?: A Catholic at ‘Jewish Harvard’

November 15, 2019

If your eyes are immediately wondering what this article is because of the title, then I have old-timey click-baited you into reading this. Let’s face it: You’re this far into the article, which is literally two sentences, but it’s too deep to give up. So, let me explain the title by telling you all a story:

The year is 2005 and a four-year-old Thomas Pickering is preparing for his first day of pre-school in the basement of a Jewish temple in Worcester, MA called Temple Emanuel. Now on this crisp fall day, my mother packed my lunch and I was fully prepared for my first big day away from home. Everything went well; I didn’t cry when I got dropped off, and I was talking to all the kids there. Now one would think what could go wrong at pre-school? What could get you kicked out? Well, I found that out at lunch time. At noon on my first day my mother got a call from the school that just said, “You must pick your son up now!”

A million things went through my mother’s mind in the moments following the call as she got in the car to go pick me up. What could Thomas have done? Did he light the temple on fire? Did he kick or hit a kid? Did he fall and split open his head? Numerous worst-case scenario thoughts were filling my mother’s head. When she picked me up, she was surprised: There I was laughing with kids and having a grand time. Naturally my mom wondered, “What could be wrong with my son then? Is he the antichrist or something?” Turns out, the reason she had to pick me up was because I was getting kicked out on the first day of school. I had a ham sandwich for lunch and, because I wasn’t kosher, I couldn’t remain in the temple. 

Well, this is one of two main issues Jewish pre-school put upon me. Later in the year at the end of December, I was cheerfully eating some gold coins I was given at temple. As I was doing so I triumphantly looked up at my mother and announced “I celebrate Hanukkah!” This would set back any mother who was not raising a Jewish boy, and confused she said, “What, no you don’t!” Now being the great debater I was at the ripe age of four, I looked right back up at her and into her eyes and said, “Yeah, well I do.” In that moment I am told my mother’s soul shattered, and she came down at me, like the good Italian Catholic mother she is, and I was harshly told the truth that I am Catholic and celebrate Christmas, not Hanukkah.

Flash forward 14 years. I am a senior in high school, and I am committing to Brandeis University. My local parish priest pulls me over after mass and has me meet another member of my church who went to Brandeis in the early ’80s. He told me the story that as he was graduating his Catholic high school, as I as going to only in a few weeks at the time, a nun pulled him into her office. He was told to sit down and the nun dove into her desk and pulled out a chain and cross necklace. She gave it to him and told him, “Now when you are at Brandeis, don’t become one of those Jews. Wear this, and you’ll always remember your faith.” Now this was a lot to process at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and to you reading this at God knows what time, it’s probably a lot to process now for you. You are right in being confused in what happened, now imagine you are in my shoes. Your priest is having this stranger tell you this story and is now waiting for your reaction to it. I played it off, but realized only on the drive back home that he was warning me not to become Jewish. What a crazy thought?

Well now flash forward to drop off day. My family joked that I was going full circle with my Jewish character arc, and we all ate ham sandwiches together on campus to see if I would be kicked out again. If you have some brain cells, which I assume you do because you got into Brandeis, no, I didn’t get kicked out. Go figure. So now we flash to today. Am I Jewish? No. Am I surrounded by Jewish people? At Brandeis University? Nooo, Jewish people go here? What? Well they do, believe it or not, and I, for once in my life, despite being a heterosexual, cisgender, white male; I am a minority: a Catholic at “Jewish Harvard.” 

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of the series “Why am I Here?”

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