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Adam Penkin

Being Jewish at a University with Five Colleges Named Jesus

A month into my first term, my sister sent me two texts one after another. “How’s Cambridge have you found a wife?” And then immediately “any nice Jewish girls on campus?” I laughed. No, I responded, being still distinctly single, but it was funny – usually she only sends one text. She is absolutely dying for a sister-in-law but in the past the assumption that any potential candidates would be of the faith was a given. We live in Israel. My future wife’s religious beliefs aren’t necessarily that important to me (and my sister was definitely asking facetiously) but it gave me reason to pause, and think. This wasn’t the first time I’d been forced to consider what it means to be a Jew at a university with three colleges names after Jesus. After only a few months I was quickly experiencing what I had previously known only as a statistic: there just aren’t that many Jews around.

Having lived in Israel since fourteen I’ve never really known what it means to be a Jew in isolation; to be honest, its strange. In Israel I don’t have to remember when the Holidays are because everybody is celebrating around me. I don’t have to explain that bagels are for cream cheese and salmon — this is common knowledge. Also, the hummus is great. Now that I’m away from home the responsibility falls on me alone. Not being particularly religious, the question of how and when to practice my faith is suddenly, for the first time in my life, relevant. I can no longer just go with the flow.

Towards the end of Michaelmas term, I left the cosy confines of our college bar and cycled out into the cold to see the giant menorah lighting (Nine pronged Jewish candelabrum) in front of the University library. They were handing out small, personal menorahs for us to take home. I brought one back with me to college. At that Friday’s formal hall I got permission to light my small set of candles opposite the two story Christmas tree. I also drew a menorah on the blackboard at our college bar and titled my art piece in big block letters: “Happy Hanukkah!” Every night I added a little chalk flame. By the sixth night somebody had scrawled “Free Palestine” over it. I didn’t know how to react to that — I still don’t — so I left it as it was and moved on with my life. I too would like to “Free Palestine,” but I didn’t see what it had to do with the chalk drawing and my holiday well wishes. I realised I was carrying a second burden. I now have to think, and be proactive, about the Jew I want to be for me, but also about the Jew that I am for the people around me.

When a friend of mine felt comfortable cracking antisemitic jokes in my presence (only two weeks after meeting) I needed time to consider my response. Some of these jokes I’d made before at home, among Jewish friends, but it felt entirely different in this new context. I want to believe that nothing is too serious to be laughed at, but I also felt that the jokes came without an understanding of the context within which they were problematic. There was also a social element — If I think they’re funny, and laugh, does that display assent? Am I normalizing antisemitism? Maybe she “gets it,” but does everybody else who hears them? Assuming I do take issue, am I to respond publicly, in the moment, or to take her aside later? What should I say to her that won’t sound patronizing? After all, the goal is not to chastise but to foster understanding. Whatever the situation, I felt I needed to be intentional and authentic. In all cases this seems to ring true. I am learning what it means, to me, to be Jewish, alone. I hope to use intention and authenticity as my road map to navigate the uncertainty that lies ahead. And I will have to make my own hummus.

About the Author
An international Jew that came to make a home in Israel. Now back overseas studying philosophy and feeling a stronger connection to the land than before I left.
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