Princeton University’s conference last weekend, “L’Chaim! Celebrating 100 Years of Jewish Life at Princeton,” drew 900 participants, including over 20 people from my own Class of 1980. What appealed to me about the event was a thematic coherence that I assembled from the panels and programs, a pre-Pesach focus on passing on stories from one generation of Tigers to another, l’dor v’dor.
Arriving on campus last Wednesday afternoon, I felt some anxiousness. I had come to Princeton in September 1976 from a small town in South Texas with no Jewish education, no Jewish experiences to connect me to the 20 percent of my class that identified as Jewish. Despite some efforts to reach out, I always felt isolated. I’ve spent the last 36 years learning, doing and embracing Judaism so I would feel more a part of the Tribe.
As soon as I settled in for a reception and opening event on current research, I felt a part of the event and knew I had something to say. Over the weekend, L’Chaim felt like a distilled version of Princeton’s famous Reunions, the pre-graduation weekend that brings classes back to campus for parties, panel discussions and lots of Motown tribute band music. I’ve attended all of my major reunions, held every five years, and this event had the same vibe, except with more kosher food and fewer beer kegs, more klezmer and fewer Saturday Night Fever covers.
The name of the conference derived from the first time Jewish students gathered for a Shabbat service at Old Nassau in 1915. The gradual acceptance and creation of a support structure for Jews took decades. The notion of Princeton as an institution with ill will toward Jews is so deeply ingrained that prospective students (and their parents) still wonder about the place of Jews on campus.
A panel discussion, “Alumni Stories, Jewish Experiences Across the Generations” traced the arc of acceptance. Moderated by Abby Klionsky ’14, an education fellow at the Institute for Southern Jewish Life, the panelists ranged from Jerry Sandler ’57, a professor of medicine and pathology at Georgetown University Hospital, to graduates from 1973, 1988 and 1997. Dr. Sandler spoke movingly of the worst episode of anti-Jewish feelings on campus, the so-called “Dirty Bicker” of 1958, in which a dozen Jewish students were not invited to join any of the selective eating clubs, then the core of campus social life. Sandler recalled seeing classmates sitting on the curb of Prospect Street, where most clubs are based, crying at the blatant rejection.
Over the past 60 years, however, Jews at Princeton advanced, a tale told by alumni from the other classes. (Dr. Sandler even drew a graph on a blackboard in the lecture hall to show key points on the upward arc of Jewish life at Princeton). The opening of Stevenson Hall for kosher dining, co-education, the increase in Jewish percentage of the classes, the appointment of the first Jewish president, Harold Shapiro, in 1987 and the opening of the Princeton Hillel’s Center for Jewish Life (CJL) in 1994 all contributed to the creation of a vibrant community. As a member of the Class of 1980, I was on campus during an era trending toward confidence, but lacking the infrastructure the CJL has provided for two decades. Had the expansive CJL existed in the 1970s, rather than Hillel based in offices in Murray-Dodge Hall, perhaps I would have felt less isolated and more welcomed — but as Ecclesiastes chapter 3 says, to everything there is a season, and my season would start hesitantly at Princeton and build over decades.
Another panel addressed the theme of generations in the most literal sense: “Tracing Your Jewish Genealogy.” Panelists Ron Arons ’78, Roger Lustig 79 and E. Randol Schoenberg ’88 brought a depth of understanding to the topic that dazzled me. Who could have imagined Princeton to be a seething cauldron of Jewish genealogical excellence, and who had the savvy idea to bring together the panelists?
Schoenberg brought some star power to the discussion; he’s the lawyer who won the Gustav Klimt art repatriation case that was made into a movie “Woman in Gold.” Indeed, he had spoken the previous day about recovering “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” and other Klimt paintings for a descendant of the Viennese family.
They outlined the main tools of Jewish genealogy, such as jewishgen.org and geni.com, then delved into ways to trace the vagaries of spellings of Jewish family names and shtetls. The panelists all have assembled impressive family trees, but their take on generations went beyond filling boxes on a family flow chart. Rather, the accumulation of quantitative details — relationships, documents, the stories one generation passes to another — builds an understanding of what makes a family tick. The genealogy can explain family silences, pet names, the taunts and embraces born in the tangles of the past. I had tinkered with genealogy before, and have some family trees compiled by others, but the panel energized me to take a fresh look at my own generations and see what else waits in the shadows between small-town Texas and my family’s roots in Germany and Ukraine.
Finally, Princeton’s L’Chaim featured its very own seder-like lunch on Shabbat. I was one of 50 facilitators chosen to lead a discussion of views on Exodus, freedom, empathy and belief. The Haggadah for the lunch had statements from 11 Jews associated with Princeton, from Albert Einstein to Associate Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan ’81 to Princeton’s current President, Christopher Eisgruber ’83. The Princeton Haggadah states,
In our tradition, every voice is included at the seder table as we retell a timeless story of liberation and freedom and add our own questions and reflections. Here, we present interpretations of these themes that cross generations, disciplines and perspectives, which aim to encourage discussions in the spirit of the Talmud and Princeton. As we celebrate Passover this year, let us remember the extraordinary history of 100 years of Jewish life at Princeton and the power resonance of this occasion with the Passover story. We encourage you to use this Haggadah supplement at your Passover seders.
Amid the din of dozens of other tables launching their conversations, I guided my table’s, where the participants included two ’80 classmates. Their presence made the lunch even more special as I shared some of the Jewish fluency I’ve gained in the past decades with people who knew me back when I couldn’t tell an aleph from a bet. Indeed, I hadn’t even attended a seder until I attended two in the spring of 1980 with classmates who saw my Jewish yearning and invited to their families’ seders in the Bronx and Mill Basin, Brooklyn.
And now here I was, 36 years later, hosting my own Tiger seder right back at Princeton’s L’Chaim conference. The location and meaning of the seder combined with a clarity that touched me. In a real way, I felt my Jewish self had finally arrived at Princeton, I joined the long, long line of Jews at Princeton and in the world who lived the words of the seder,
In every generation, each one of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we ourselves went out of Egypt.”