On Being a Minority for the First Time
August 25, 2020
Sarah Levine is a graduate student at Columbia University and a freelance writer trying to survive life as a twenty-something in New York City. She studied English literature and cultural anthropology at the University of Rochester and hopes to one day become an editor of children’s literature. Her love of being Jewish is only matched by her love of dogs and pastries.
On Being a Minority for the First Time: Making Non-Jewish Friends in College
My freshman year of college was the first time I had real friends who weren’t even a little bit Jewish. As a graduate of 13 years of Jewish private education, my so-called formative years were spent in a land enclosed by a Jewish sky.
From Kindergarten to 12th grade, my secular studies were studded with classes like Tanakh, a Hebrew acronym for the three books of the Old Testament, Talmud, a code of Jewish law, and Hebrew. By sixth grade, I knew almost as many Hebrew swears as English, knew more people that lived in Israel than I did non-Jews in my neighborhood.
Aside from the knowledge of archaic languages and obscure bible stories I had obtained, I felt incredibly close to the cultural and religious practices of my ancestors. I was proud to be Jewish, secure in my identity in the way only those who have ever been surrounded by sameness can be. I had never had to try to explain or justify my beliefs to someone who had no background information.
Even when my friends and I argued, we all came to the table with the same deck of cards, dealing from the collective Jewish knowledge of traditions and past tragedies handed down to us from generation to generation.
When I graduated high school, bound for a private university in upstate New York, I was reassured by the strong Jewish presence on campus the brochures claimed existed there. Because of the Jewish presence, I hadn’t considered that I might find myself leaving college with predominantly non-Jewish friends.
Over the course of my four years, my social network endured a complete 180 flip from knowing no goys to often being the only Jew in the room.
As I began my first few days of freshman year, I found myself thinking of a story one of my social studies teachers had told about meeting her non-Jewish college roommate for the first time. She told the story as a means of preparing us for what we might find waiting once we popped the translucent barrier we had been existing in since the age of five. She said that as soon as she told her roommate she was Jewish, her roommate asked her where her horns were. (For those of you unfamiliar with this strange misconception, it does not compare Jews to demons, but is from a distorted translation of an Old Testament passage.) We dismissed her story as outdated and slightly ridiculous. No one actually thought Jews had horns, we scoffed. It was on par with people believing that African Americans can’t swim, an antiquated notion from a time when ignorance and prejudice were the norms.
But when I arrived at college, I thought of this anecdote, not for the actual content of the story (no one ever asked to see my horns except once as a joke), but for the emotions it evoked. It brought to mind a sense of otherness my teacher must have felt, one that was slowly creeping over me like a fog. Among my close group of friends, in the beginning, I was the only Jew.
In those early days of college, when we clung so close to any familiar faces we could find in the dense crowd of strangers, my hallmates and I spent an exorbitant amount of time clustered on the couches in our lounge or eating meals together, playing ice breaker games and exchanging life experiences like trading cards. These young adults who had grown up in towns and cities, not unlike mine had such different tales to tell, tales of fights in cafeterias, pregnant classmates, church groups, sex, and, some, of coming to this country as children. Things that made me feel like I had grown up in an alternate reality.
As I sat in the circle of my new friends in the grass outside our dorm, the humidity pressing like a wet blanket on our shoulders as the late summer night sky stretch above us as wide and open and mysterious as our futures, I tried to twist my unfamiliarity into a sort of quirk to my character, getting people out in our endless games of “never have I ever” with things like “never have I ever been to church,” or “never have I ever been to public school,” or “never have I ever eaten pork.” The lamest of moves, anyone who has ever played this game will tell you.
It was the first time I had felt like an outsider, like a curiosity, like maybe my metaphorical horns were showing. Of course, my friends had met Jews before, but I kept kosher and attended services sometimes, a slightly higher level of observance than most were familiar with. It was the first time I had to explain my traditions, why I was going home for Rosh Hashanah, why I was fasting for Yom Kippur, or what the importance of Hanukah was to someone.
After a childhood spent in the comforting embrace of uniformity, this new diversity was thrilling and exhilarating to me, but also desperately lonely at times. When I would see my friends from camp or high school on vacations or go to the Chabad house on campus for Friday night dinner, it was like a part of me that I unconsciously kept small and sleepily slumped in a corner of my mind would wake up and stretch and smile again.
All this is to say that my early college friends weren’t unwelcoming of my Judaism. They would listen to me talk and sometimes ask questions and accommodate my dietary restrictions. But it felt like I had to edit my responses at times, an experience that is shared by any who exists as a minority in a situation, but one that was incredibly, completely new to me. In my life before, I had been part of a community with our own shared language and codes, one that everyone there understood. Now, sometimes it felt like I was a punchline to a joke I hadn’t understood. Not wanting to seem “uncool” by expressing my discomfort, I’d laugh anyway.
Entering college is the most stressful and liberating and anxiety-inducing time, matched only by leaving college. You’re suddenly thrust into a teeming pool of strangers and must figure out how to differentiate yourself from thousands of other people, all while not standing out too much and isolating yourself. Looking back on those first weeks and months, it is obvious that none of us truly knew who to be, that none of us really felt like we belonged, not yet. We played up certain aspects of our lives and personalities, trying to figure out what version of ourselves would be most successful. Eventually, as classes and homework and exams and life took hold, who we actually were won out and those people who liked that person stuck around.
Even though I had received a great education at my private schools and am immensely grateful to my parents for placing me in those schools, there were many, many things about the world I had never been exposed to. As a project for an anthropology class, I attended a Sunday church service, an experience that left me feeling exposed and vulnerable in my role as an observer. One of my friends in the class attended a Shabbat dinner at Chabad for her project and we compared notes on how out of place and slightly unmoored we each felt, a small moment that leads me to begin to see that perhaps I wasn’t alone in feeling like I was out of my element when faced with the diversity of the college.
This was my first exposure to another type of worship, something I have come to treasure and find fascinating as my view of the world has expanded. For all that I felt on the outside of my friend group, I had also been isolating myself, I realized, avoiding what was different for fear of being uncomfortable. I soon saw that a moment’s discomfort is worth it for the expanding, multidimensional, and more vibrant world unfolding before me. (Side note: If you can take an anthropology class in college, you definitely should. They change how you look at everything, in the best way.)
Those first years, I learned that people, for the most part, like talking about their traditions — religious and otherwise. I learned that curiosity isn’t inherently rude, but that you should always be respectful and think before you speak, and if you are brave enough to ask the first question, you will never cease to be amazed at what you can find out about someone, or about yourself in turn.
Slowly, my shock and discomfort dissipated before the wealth of difference I found in the people I met, in the friends I made, in a desire to learn as much as I could about the world I move in. I dove deep into those differences, reveling in the conversations we’d have late at night, debating politics and philosophy and television shows, musing over the merits and disadvantages of our diverse backgrounds. After my cloistered childhood, my new adulthood felt expansive and I threw myself into it with abandon, seeking newness at every turn.
With every new tradition or background or value set I came in contact with, I felt certain things about my own religious identity solidifying and other things that never quite fit sloughing away.
I began enjoying that feeling of otherness, no longer the burden it had seemed when I was eighteen and insecure. I made Jewish friends, although my closest friends remained non-Jewish. I met women who had gone to private Christian schools and together we explored the many similarities in our experiences, laughing at the now absurd-seeming facts of our daily lives back then. I had a friend who tried to eat Halal and we would bemoan the lackluster options the university provided for us.
The Baal Shem Tov, a Chasidic Jewish mystic, once said that “Your fellow is your mirror. If your own face is clean, so will be the image you perceive. But should you look upon your fellow and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering.” I looked at the faces of the friends I made in college, a kaleidoscope of colors and backgrounds and religions, and found pieces of myself in all of them and found pieces of them in me, a skill I continue to take with me as I travel further down the path of life.
I am no less proud of my Jewish heritage than I was in high school. If anything, I now feel like my beliefs stand on more solid ground than they did when I was simply parroting what I had learned. I am so thankful for the diverse group of friends I graduated with, so happy to have been able to learn from them and get to shine a light into the parts of life darkened by my inexperience.
But still, sometimes, all I want is someone to split a knish with. And I am now, perhaps, even more, thankful for those moments when they come about.
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