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Journey Of An Academic Pariah

Jerold S. Auerbach

Jerold S. Auerbach

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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.

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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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2 Responses to “Journey Of An Academic Pariah”

  1. Edward Alexander says:

    A fascinating snatch of autobiography by one of American Jewry’s most astute, lively, and original minds.

  2. My journey into Orthodoxy began in Forest Hills, at the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva High School on Kessel Street in 1960.

    And I strongly recommend Jerry’s book on Hebron, http://books.google.com/books/about/Hebron_Jews.html?id=PRLKrTtSWvEC

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During much of the 20th century, elite American colleges and universities carefully policed their admission gates to restrict the entry of Jews. Like its Big Brothers – Harvard, Yale and Princeton – Wellesley College, where I taught history between 1971 and 2010, designed admission policy to perpetuate a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite.

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