Carol Green Ungar

An Open Letter to Columbia’s Jewish Students

Dear Columbia students,

I’ve been closely following the events on the campus as if they were taking place in my backyard because, in a certain sense, they are.

Columbia University is my alma mater—until recently I was proud of that. When I was there Columbia and its women’s college Barnard (back then Columbia College was male only) were the Jewy-est of the ivies full of day school graduates.

Half of the graduating class of my Modern Orthodox day school found their way to Morningside Heights. I was desperate to be among them, but my crappy SAT score nearly kept me out—to secure my own acceptance packet, in those days a the pillowy white envelope I spent months memorizing vocabulary words and doubling down on my algebra until I won my place in the class of 1981.

I was thrilled.

As you know, Columbia, with its to-die-for McKim Mead White Italianate buildings, is as gorgeous and classy as it gets. Then and also now, its professors are simultaneously brilliant, scholarly, and as entertaining as the best show on Broadway, even if their politics aren’t always Israel-friendly—in my day, Palestinian thought leader Edward Said taught in the English department. Still, our university felt like a Disneyland for the bookish. What could be better than that?

But from the hidden corners of my heart, I heard another voice, the same voice you may be hearing today.  That voice wondered about the other part of me, the Jewish part. Who was I? What did being Jewish, the “crime” that nearly killed my parents during the holocaust, fit in?

Where were the Jewish books in the curriculum, not Phillip Roth novels but Jewish wisdom texts like   Ethics of Our Fathers? Why were Jewish names absent from the walls of Butler Library? Didn’t the Patriarchs, Moses the lawgiver, and Moses Maimonides deserve at least as much honor as Plato, Aristotle, and Voltaire?

Once, a classmate showed our art history professor an elegant coffee table volume of recreations of the golden vessels of the Tabernacle. Could these photos be included in her world art course survey?  The professor, ironically named Bernstein, shook her head. Unlike the Lascaux cave paintings with images of animal guts and a bird-headed man with an erect phallus, Bezalel’s Divinely directed creations were not real art. At Columbia, authentic Jewish culture didn’t count.

At the same time, our university accommodated Jewish students as it still does today. One could eat in a kosher dining room, attend mostly empty prayer services, and participate in many Jewish groups.

But we didn’t.

While nearly 200 students turned out for the first Friday night meal of my Freshman year, by senior year, the crowd had dwindled.

Though no one would say as much,  being too Jewish was uncool. Yarmulkas and skirts, especially knee-length, seemed weird when everyone else was bareheaded and dressed in jeans.  Shabbos observance clashed with extracurriculars or  party time. A kosher diet meant no burgers at Tom’s Diner, the now-defunct campus hangout immortalized in the Suzanne Vega song.

And then there was the matter of socializing. How could one resist the oh-so-willing pretty shiksa or the handsome shaygetz—and, as the alumni magazine indicates, and later marry them?

Over my four years many of my peers trade their loyalty to a 3300-year-old tradition for all of these reasons. The college I had worked my tush off to get into was an assimilation incubator.

Now those oh-so-friendly goyim have turned hostile. Our campus is now a satellite of Nazi Germany.

This seems horrible, but trust me, it’s good news. Acceptance, the kind my peers experienced during our college years, is deadlier to the Jewish soul than Hitler’s Zyklon B gas.

As painful as it is, rejection is G-d’s protection. These protests are an alarm clock to awaken your pintele Yid, the Jewish spark inside of you. It’s that part of you that cheers whenever one of our tribe does good. It’s that part of you that shed tears on Oct 7 even though you didn’t know anyone who attended the Nova festival.

We Jews have a lot to be proud of.

We are a family.

G-d has our back, really.

Don’t fear the mobs. G-d is looking out for us as He did just two weeks ago when a firestorm of Iranian missiles bounced off of Israel as if the country were made of Teflon.

Don’t be depressed. Instead, use this time to discover what being Jewish is all about.

You might be pleasantly surprised.

About the Author
Carol Ungar is a prize-winning author who writes from the Judean Hills.
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