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.