In the good old days, Forest Hills, New York – where I grew up between 1939 and 1951 – was a shtetl for assimilated American Jews. Like my parents, all our neighbors were American-born offspring of Eastern European immigrants. A generation removed from their identity conflicts, we children knew that Forest Hills, liberated from Judaism, was our promised land.
My father and mother rejected the Romanian Orthodoxy and Bund Socialism of their immigrant parents for the security of American Judaism. My Jewish boyhood was spent on the secular side of the shared living-room wall that separated our apartment from our neighbors, Cantor Gorsky and his wife. Through that wall, every Friday evening, I heard him recite Kiddush and the Birkat Hamazon.
On weekday afternoons he taught neighborhood boys the haftarah for their bar mitzvah. Long before it was my turn to join them, I had memorized the blessings that floated into our apartment. To make sure, I was required to attend after-school Hebrew school at the nearby Forest Hills Jewish Center. It provided some of the more vivid miseries of my childhood. My bar mitzvah was mandatory, but there was a tacit understanding with my father that it would mark my exit from Judaism. And so it did.
Yet some Jewish culture and history penetrated. My older relatives spoke Yiddish when they did not want children to understand. (But we became reasonably adept translators.) At the end of World War II Life magazine photographs brought the Holocaust, which had never been mentioned, into our home – though it was not a matter for discussion.
I also discovered that Hank Greenberg, the baseball star so beloved by American Jews for his perfect fusion of identities – hitting home runs on Rosh Hashanah and going to shul on Yom Kippur – was our cousin. His sister’s family hosted interminable Passover Seders, which invariably drove my cousins and me from the table after the Fourth Question.
I knew about Israel, born just after my twelfth birthday, because letters to my father began arriving from his Romanian relatives who had survived the war to make aliyah. I was intrigued by the foreign postage stamps and secretly proud of his generosity to our previously unknown cousins. But Israel never was a topic of family conversation.
My high-school years (at Horace Mann in Riverdale) were shared with other non-Jewish Jewish boys whose parents, like mine, wanted their sons to be free of Jewish encumbrances. I first encountered Christian America in Oberlin, Ohio, my college hometown. Before Sunday lunch, my classmates spontaneously sang the Doxology, praising “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Then we were served ham or pork chops. Christmas trees sparkled in every dormitory living room.
* * * * * Eventually armed with my doctorate, I arrived at Brandeis in 1965 to teach American history. Brandeis aspired to become the Jewish – but not too Jewish – Harvard. It proudly displayed its Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chapels, but I never saw anyone enter or leave this ecumenical enclave at the campus edge. Yet it canceled classes on Shemini Atzeret, a holiday totally unknown to me.
After five years of late-1960s campus turbulence I relinquished Jewish zaniness for the Christian decorum of Wellesley College, dedicated since 1875 to the education of young women. Like its ivy-covered Big Brothers and most other Seven Sister colleges, Wellesley had entrenched admission quotas designed to perpetuate an Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite.
Genteel anti-Semitism was the pervasive Wellesley norm. By the time I arrived, Jewish students were no longer segregated within their dormitories. But just a few years earlier an Orthodox student who requested postponement of exams scheduled on the High Holy Days was incarcerated in the infirmary for the duration, without access to books or friends, and served treif food she could not eat – to ensure that she would not cheat. In the Religion Department, the unofficial custodian of Christian culture at the college, no Jew had ever received tenure nor was a Jew permitted to teach the required New Testament course.
A year after my arrival I learned from a Brandeis friend about a program, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, to bring “disaffected Jewish academics” to Israel for two weeks of exposure to the Jewish state. Realizing that I was a perfect candidate, I applied, was accepted, and in December 1972 made the journey that would transform my life.
Our group leader, Yehuda Rosenman, was a Polish Holocaust survivor who realized that American Jewish academics were becoming lost souls, indifferent to Israel at best and prepared to jump on the bandwagon of anti-Zionist hostility that had begun to penetrate campus life.
I was not an easy convert. I fought Yehuda like a rebellious son who was determined not to be brainwashed into discarding my cherished liberal clichés for something as parochial as Jewish identity.
I returned home, mildly confused over where “home” really was. A year later I was in Israel as a Fulbright Lecturer at Tel Aviv University. There, ironically, I taught Israelis about the American promised land.
I could not speak Hebrew; bank and customs procedures drove me wild with frustration; my two young children attended schools where they did not understand a word; and the rhythms of the Jewish calendar eluded me. But we lived in Jerusalem, whose history and mystery had captivated me during my brief previous visit, and I wandered endlessly through its neighborhoods in my journey of Jewish self-discovery.
Late one October afternoon my nine-year-old-son and I, sweaty and dusty from a day of Old City exploration, returned to our nearby apartment in Rechavia. The streets were astonishingly quiet: no buses or cars, honking horns, or even people. Nothing moved. I suddenly realized the imminence of Yom Kippur.
Ashamed, we crept up the stairs to our apartment, hoping not to be seen by our new neighbors. Safely inside, we ate a quiet dinner, and awakened the next morning to a silent city immersed in solemn observance. It was the first of many painfully revealing encounters that year in Israel with the Jew I had spent thirty-five years evading.
The transformative moment came on a damp and chilly December afternoon when I took refuge inside Wilson’s Arch, adjacent to the Kotel. There I listened to the soothing drone of prayer. Lulled half-asleep, I was suddenly roused by a piercing, haunting voice, echoing off the ancient stone walls. I had not heard such chanting in twenty-five years, since Cantor Gorsky’s voice had penetrated our living-room wall. It summoned me to become a Jew.
* * * * * Returning to Wellesley after the year in Israel was not easy. Like a prim Victorian maiden, Wellesley had preserved its Christian decorum, rarely exposing its entrenched patterns of discrimination to public scrutiny. It took time before the disconnection between college values and the Jew I was finally becoming propelled me to act.
With abundant evidence of persistent and pervasive institutional anti-Semitism, I introduced a resolution in the Academic Council – the faculty governing body – condemning “the history and legacy of anti-Semitism” at Wellesley. After hours of excruciating debate during three acrimonious faculty meetings, my colleagues (amid thunderous administrative silence) finally decided to condemn anti-Semitism – and all other forms of discrimination.
My most fervent opponents were Court Jews who reflexively aligned themselves with the college, and Jewish universalists who were passionately committed to every worthy liberal cause yet unable to condemn discrimination against Jews. The Board of Trustees, faithful to the college mission, declined to endorse the resolution.
Entrenched college patterns were not easily dislodged. A brilliant young Jewish Bible scholar was denied tenure in the Religion Department. He sued the college, which overturned the decision to avoid shameful publicity. The next year he left Wellesley to pursue his distinguished academic career elsewhere. A talented young woman hired to teach Yiddish and Jewish literature was advised by her colleagues that “work in Yiddish wasn’t valuable.” Her American literature syllabus was criticized for including Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick and Bernard Malamud. She, too, left Wellesley.
But an outspoken black nationalist was already entrenched in the African-American Studies department, recently established to testify to Wellesley’s commitment to “diversity.” He assigned to his students a racist tract claiming that Jews, aligned “in an unholy coalition of kidnappers and slave makers,” were guilty of “monumental culpability” in slavery and the slave trade – “the black holocaust.” The college administration, hiding behind the principle of “academic freedom” (to slander Jews?), capitulated to his historical subversion and anti-Semitic tirades.
Wellesley remained my academic base, but Israel had become my spiritual home. My scholarly work in American history, ironically, prompted an offer from the Hebrew University. But family circumstances – and my own uncertainty about relinquishing my role as a Jewish outsider at Wellesley to become an American outsider in Israel – kept me in galut.
A diaspora Jew I was, and knew that I would always remain.
But I never forgot an experience from my first Israel trip. On the way to meet with the Arab mayor of Hebron, our bus had passed Me’arat HaMachpelah. I knew nothing about the place of Hebron in Jewish history, or millennia of Jewish history in Hebron. But I was sufficiently intrigued by the looming Herodion walls, instantly evocative of the Western Wall, to want to return for answers.
* * * * * Eventually I did. A decade later in Kiryat Arba, overlooking Hebron, I met Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, one of the pioneers of the restored Jewish community. He was, I realized, my Jewish Other. While I was growing up as an assimilated Jew in Queens, he was an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn. While I played basketball at Horace Mann, he was studying in yeshiva. When I left New York for Boston, he made aliyah.
Rabbi Waldman sharply challenged my conventional liberal Jewish stereotypes. When I questioned him about the legality of Jewish settlements, he emphatically reminded me that the largest Jewish settlement in the Middle East was the state of Israel. I felt that we were struggling over my soul.
Over the years I visited an array of settlements: Gush Etzion, Ariel, Ofra, Kedumim, Itamar, and Bat Ayin among others. There, in biblical Judea and Samaria, I encountered the passionate renewal of Zionism, and its fusion with Judaism. At a time when Tel Aviv and Los Angeles had become virtually indistinguishable, it was a source of Jewish inspiration.
To be in Hebron for Shabbat Chayei Sarah, participating in the ecstatic davening inside Machpelah, was the most inspiring Jewish experience of my life. A decade later, the family circle was closed when my son and I, as if atoning for our Yom Kippur indiscretion, were there together.
But twenty-five years after the United Nations declared that Zionism was racism, American colleges and universities were becoming festering swamps of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. The world’s “longest hatred,” as Hebrew University historian Robert Wistrich has brilliantly described anti-Semitism in The Lethal Obsession, infested and polluted academe.
As Palestinian terror surged during the Second Intifada, claiming hundreds of Israeli lives, academic bedlam erupted over Israeli – not Palestinian – “atrocities” and “crimes.” Israel “apartheid weeks,” with demands for boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against the Jewish state, gained widespread popularity.
Student activists in California universities build “apartheid walls” around their campuses. Episodes of anti-Semitic discrimination, vandalism, and intimidation erupted at Berkeley, Irvine and Santa Cruz. Hillel students at San Francisco State University required a police escort to their building and a guard posted outside.
On the East Coast the Middle Eastern Studies Department at Columbia displayed a conspicuous teaching bias against Israel while its faculty members intimidated pro-Israel students. The Zayed Center at Harvard, funded by the ruler of Abu Dhabi, promoted Holocaust denial; its director proclaimed that “Jews are the enemies of all nations.” At Yale, an interdisciplinary center for the study of anti-Semitism was recently closed for sponsoring a program on Muslim anti-Semitism.
Academic freedom came to mean the right to delegitimize Israel. Legions of Jew haters, Holocaust deniers, and Israel bashers were joined, and at times led, by self-hating Jewish academics – Tony Judt, Noam Chomsky, and Norman Finkelstein conspicuous among them. The betrayal of Israel by Jewish intellectuals became one of the defining attributes of university culture.
Like other “politically correct” academic institutions, Wellesley embraced a redefinition of “minority” that excluded Jews. Consigned to the privileged white majority, they were stripped of their Jewish identity. In this enclave of anti-Semitic decorum, the “strong male voices” of a handful of Jews (as the Hillel director expressed her discomfort) were unwelcome. Our female Jewish colleagues remained conspicuously silent.
I spent many hours reassuring Jewish students that they were not to blame for Wellesley’s Jewish problem.
Sadly, they often internalized their hurt and berated themselves for Wellesley’s demure, yet destructive, anti-Semitism.
It pained them to respond because, as one Jewish student leader explained, “We wanted to be accepted by our peers.” Confronting persistent hostility in an institution that self-righteously touted its “multicultural” sensitivity, another student confided: “I’m scared and confused and wonder if maybe…I’m doing something wrong by being Jewish.”
My public condemnation of anti-Semitism at Wellesley, like my published defenses of Israel and Jewish settlers, made me an academic pariah. Indeed, after my public graduation protest over the praise heaped on a professor I considered anti-Semitic, my photograph appeared on a website captioned “Jew Klux Klan.”
* * * * * These days a right-wing Jewish professor belongs to an endangered species. But I wore it as a badge of honor. It was a small price to pay for my experiences with passionate religious Zionists whose courageous assertion of the Jewish imperative to settle the Land of Israel was inspirational.
My life turned out to be an unplanned journey from the wilderness of Jewish assimilation to the promised land of Jewish identity. As my experiences in Jerusalem and Hebron intersected with my forty years at Wellesley College, I became an academic pariah – and a proud Jew.Jerold S. Auerbach
About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.
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