The Ivy’s Barbed Embrace

Wonders of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published April 13, 2007, issue of April 13, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Thousands of American Jewish households were on edge this month awaiting a special guest. No, it wasn’t Elijah the Prophet. It was the college admissions office. Will Chloe and Jonah be headed for Princeton next fall? Or have they set their sights on Harvard? Yale? The University of Michigan, or is it Wellesley? What about Bowdoin? Bowdoin?!

While the future collegians of America — and their parents — fret and fume, the more seasoned citizenry among us watch with something approaching amazement. It wasn’t so long ago that our decision of where to go to school had less to do with aspiration than it did with geography or the G.I. Bill, with finances or the unpleasant reality of quotas. But these days, that all seems as antiquated as a rotary telephone. There’s little, if anything, stopping our children from going wherever they please. That’s very good news, I suppose, a testament to the freedom, abundance, bounty and expansiveness of America; you might even call it the quintessential American Jewish success story.

And yet, that success has come at considerable cost, especially for those American Jews who had the exceptional good fortune back in the day to attend an Ivy League or Seven Sisters school. There they “encountered a world as different from the one [they] had always known… transported there on a magic carpet instead of in a drab day-coach of the Boston & Albany Railroad,” or so recalled Ruth Sapin, a Hoosier who attended Wellesley prior to World War I.

In the absence of a Center for Jewish Life, a Hillel or a Chabad house, the collegiate experiences of these Jewish undergraduates were often rocky, even hurtful. For one thing, numbers were not on their side. When Sapin attended Wellesley, a college she chose “out of photographs in a woman’s magazine,” she was one of only 30 Jewish students among a population of 1,400. Things were only marginally better elsewhere. At Princeton, where the “aim,” explained one contemporary in 1910, “was homogeneity,” the combined presence of Jews and Catholics accounted for just 6% of the freshman class.

Although Sapin, the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, liked to think that she and her small band of confreres were treated “just like everybody else even though our names aren’t Cabot or Lowell or Lodge,” she reluctantly came to acknowledge a different reality. “Well, not exactly like, I had to admit to myself,” she wrote in a reminiscence of her college days. “No matter what their popularity or ability, Jewesses were never elected to high office” nor did they ever receive a sorority “bid,” and visits to the homes of non-Jewish friends were not nearly as frequent, as “matter of course,” as weekends spent in the company of Jewish ones.

More revealingly still, Sapin was surprised to find that many of her classmates had never before met a real-live Jewish person. “When I first came to college,” she wrote to her parents, “it startled me to meet up with girls from remote Yankee homes who had known no Jews outside the Bible!” They half expected Sapin, she wrote, to “heave a water jug to my shoulders and stride barefoot down the road singing something out of the Psalms.”

Trying valiantly to cut a different kind of figure, one more in tune with Walter Pater’s admonition to “burn with a hard gem-like flame” than with anything found in Psalms, Sapin had very little to do with Jewish life per se. That would soon change, the catalyst an invitation she received from the Harvard Menorah Society to a lecture and reception at the Phillips Brooks House. Impressed by its handsome seal and the quality of the paper on which it was printed — the invitation “had distinction,” she said — Sapin came to know a Harvard group of young men (her future husband, Henry Hurwitz, among them) who took a different tack when responding to the twin challenges of being a Jewish undergraduate.

Instead of pretending to be a Cabot or a Lowell or a Lodge, these Harvard undergraduates embraced their Jewishness, vowing “to accept ourselves — even more perhaps to find ourselves — as Jews in the modern world, without ghettoism and yet with a certain distinction.” Toward that end, they formed the Harvard Menorah Society in 1906. Modeled after the Cercle Français or the Deutscher Verein, this organization sought to engage intellectually with Jewish history and culture even as it provided a socially acceptable basis for confraternity and collegiality. At a time when antisemitic sentiments were commonly heard on university campuses throughout the nation, and even Harvard’s esteemed president, Charles Eliot, was given to grave doubts about the assimilability of the Jews — as a group, they lacked “physical prowess,” he averred — this took some doing. It wasn’t easy to defy stereotypes, to subvert notions of clannishness, to “write poetry, read Verlaine but remember the Friday night candles,” as Harvard undergraduate Harry Starr poignantly wrote to a friend, making a virtue of cultural synthesis. But it wasn’t for want of trying.

Much as we sat around the Seder table this Passover, recalling our ancient past, we’d do just as well, I think, to recall the Harvard Menorah Society and the efforts of earlier generations of Jewish collegians to do right by their Jewishness as well as their studies. After all, it’s thanks in large measure to them that Chloe and Jonah and thousands of other contemporary American Jewish young men and women feel at home in the groves of academe.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.