“You Don’t Look Jewish” and Other Tales of Being a Jew at a Catholic College

This past weekend, I sat in C-Shop with a group of my friends eating dinner as a comedian hired by CAB took the stage. We had completely forgotten there would be a performance but decided to stay a little while to hear his act. He interacted with the crowd and played a game where he sang your name and then changed into something else. “What’s your name?” he asked a student. The guy replied and the comedian said, “Well, you’re Jewish.” Don’t worry, the whole thing was wildly funny. He kept going on about the lack of diversity in New Hampshire and looked around the room. “Are all y’all Catholic?” he asked. Seizing a rare moment to embrace my faith, I spoke up -well actually I think I screamed because I have no perception of my New York loudness- so anyway, I screamed out for all of the coffee shop to hear, “I’m Jewish.” And then the comedian said, “Well you’re weird, what the hell are you doing up here with a bunch of Catholics, aren’t they your enemy or something?”

My father’s grandparents were Jews who fled Germany at the breakout of the Second World War. They converted their money and belongings into diamonds and smuggled them out of Germany and to America. When my grandmother told me this story, she made this sound a whole lot more traumatic than it actually was and kvetched about how dangerous it was. She regaled me with tales of her mother, my great-grandmother, braving the journey to America. It wasn’t until I found a picture of my great-grandmother as a young woman, dressed in a luxurious fur coat atop a posh looking ocean liner, that I realized this journey may have been a bit less harrowing than my grandmother originally told me. Wow, grandma. Way to hype it up.

When she arrived in America, my great-grandmother fell in love with a young man whose family was also from Germany. His family would not approve of the marriage unless she renounced her faith. When I think about it, I think they were ashamed or scared of her Jewishness. I know, New York, the Jewish capital of the East Coast, you’d think that being Jewish wouldn’t be a problem, right? She gave up her faith, her identity, that very quality that made her, her, to be with who she loved.

I had always felt a strong connection to Judaism and to my great-grandmother, even though I have attended Catholic school my entire life. My father grew up eating traditional German and Jewish fare and passed this on to me. Winter weekends were full of warm and crispy latkes, matzoh ball soup was readily available at the slightest sign of illness, and no family gathering was complete without my aunt’s homemade rugelach. Still, it wasn’t until I entered college that I began to explore the religious side of being Jewish. You see, for me, there are several aspects of being Jewish. There’s the cultural aspect that I was exposed to from a young age, which was centered around food. There’s the religious aspect, which I did not explore until college. And there are the everyday things that I say or do that make me Jewish, such as words and phrases that I always think are seemingly straightforward and self-explanatory, but my friends have no clue what I’m talking about. (Goy, yente, kvell, tchatchke).

It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I really felt a calling to explore the spiritual aspect of Judaism. It was definitely tough, trying to figure out my spirituality when there was not a space for me on campus. As a Catholic college, Saint Anselm has a number of clubs and societies for Catholics as well as Christians: Knights of Columbus, St. Scholastica Society, Peer Ministers, weekly evening Mass, and prayer groups held by Campus Ministry. But where was my group, my tribe? I was my own little tribe of one, wandering in a metaphorical desert, trying to find my religious identity. (I know, isn’t that just the corniest reference?)

I knew that there were a few nearby synagogues in downtown Manchester, but felt awkward walking into one all alone. What really solidified and helped me grow in my faith was the opening of the Multifaith Prayer room in the newly-renovated Roger and Francine Jean Student Center Complex. Knowing that I, and other students of various religious backgrounds, had access to a warm and inviting space on campus made it so much easier to explore my faith. For those of you who have not checked it out yet, even if you are not a religious person, I encourage you to go poke your head in when it is not in use.

In an unfortunately tragic way, I found out that there are more Jewish people on campus then I previously thought. In October, Campus Ministry held an Interfaith Prayer Service in remembrance of the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I had never been more scared or felt more alone than I did that week, but as soon as I walked into that room, I felt oddly safe. There in that room were professors, students, and faculty members of various religious backgrounds standing together in prayer. My favorite professor stood in a corner, head bowed in prayer, complete with a kippah. (A kippah or yarmulke is a traditional skull cap that is worn by Jewish men and sometimes women.) Since that day, I’ve felt a little less spiritually lonely, knowing that my tribe of one had increased, even just a little bit. The next week, when I received a Star of David necklace that my grandmother had sent to me in the mail, I wore it with pride, and have ever since.

My friends have gone out of their way to embrace my cultural heritage. I had a big Rosh Hashanah dinner, complete with brisket, homemade braided challah, and most importantly, wonderful friends to ring in the Jewish New Year. My roommates fully supported the little Christmas-Channukah display I set up on our coffee table: a white Christmas tree next to a silver menorah. I started taking time the past week and a half that we’ve been back to take a few minutes when I’m near the Student Center to stop inside and say a prayer of thanks.

While being Jewish on a college campus certainly is not easy, and often comes with the statement of “well you don’t look Jewish” (please stop saying this, it’s actually anti-Semitic. You cannot tell if someone is Jewish by their physical attributes), it also has allowed me to share special parts of my life with my friends as well as to grow and explore in my faith.

Although Saint Anselm College is a Catholic institution, I have never felt more accepted and welcomed than I do this year. I like to think that this is because being Anselmian and being Catholic are not mutually exclusive. I know Saint Anselm is a Benedictine Catholic and that the college is founded upon his teachings and those of the Benedictines, but being Anselmian is more than just being Catholic. Being Anselmian is about being inviting to all members of the community. Being Anselmian is fostering a learning environment where everyone feels welcome. Being Anselmian is setting a place at the table for everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

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