The first thing my new roommate said to me when I walked into the dorm room my sophomore year of college was:
“Who are you, I’m a Senior I’m supposed to have my own room this year, why are you here, I’m going to the RA (Resident Advisor) there must be some mistake.”
He was 6 foot 3, 250 lbs and on the Judo Team.
He walked back into the room depressed after talking to the Resident Advisor and said “there’s no mistake, this is your room too, I guess take that side of the room.”
I said “Can I hang my clothes in this closet?” He said “Yes.”
This was 1990. I had just come back from a one year program at a University in Israel and had shown up to school a few days late because of the Rosh Hashanah Jewish New Year. I had notified the administration I would come a few days late and they said just come after the holiday, but my new roommate did not know and had thought he had his own room and was disappointed. I later found out that a friend of his was a Senior and had his own room so they both thought he had his own room too.
He then started getting used to me over the next few days. I was quiet, cause I was pretty scared of crossing a line, kept to my side and I guess he started thinking I wasn’t so bad after all.
He then said to me after a few weeks:
“If you ever need any help, if anyone messes with you, then call me and I’ll protect you. You know that cartoon Tom and Jerry, When Jerry the mouse is given a whistle by his Uncle from Texas and Jerry blows the whistle and then the Uncle shows up an beats up Tom the cat. That’s what I mean, so if anyone ever messes with you just blow the whistle and I’ll come running and take care of it.”
I did not know why he was saying that, I didn’t know who was going to mess with me. And then his roommate from the year before said and if anyone messes with Jose I’m gonna take care of them.
My roommates name was Jose. He started opening up to me and telling me of his plans to go to medical school in the Dominican Republic and then transfer to a US medical school.
One day after waking up in the morning he said to me “I want you to know, that last night while you were sleeping I fed you pork. And you know what you said, you said “Yum yum, give me more.””
For a second I almost believed him but realized he was just joking with me. Every few weeks, he’d say the same joke and we started laughing about it.
Jose then invited me to come workout with him on the Judo team, they gave me a white Judo robe called a Ghi and various judokas started flipping me over their waists. Jose’s girlfriend was also in the judo club and she started flipping me, and then after landing hard on the mat they started telling me “the first thing to learn in Judo is how to fall. Slap the mat with an outstretched arm to increase the surface area of your body so when you fall your body doesn’t all feel the force in one spot but the force is spread out.”
One day the whole dorm floor invited me to go to the basketball gym, they had heard from my roommate that I liked basketball and Jose as well as the rest of the floor wanted to see how I played. After going to the gym Jose said “Wow you have an amazing jump shot, and he started plans to invite me to a 3 on 3 tournament.” It turns out up until that point some guys on the dorm floor were planning to steal my clothing while I took a shower but my roommate told them he’d beat them up if they messed with me. After the basketball game one of them seemed to change his attitude and then invited me to go work out with him in the weight room, but my roommate wouldn’t let me work out with that guy. 20 years later while preparing this story for the Moth storytelling event I called my roommate and found out that guy was one of the people that wanted to steal my clothing so my roommate was protecting me.
My roommate explained to me that a lot of the people on the floor thought I was some kooky guy that said “hi” to people on the dorm floor after classes. I guess I had been overseas in Israel for my first year of college and thought the most interesting thing was meeting new people and was trying to keep meeting interesting people. It turns out that they respect you more if you have a decent basketball jump shot and that’s how they related better, which was fine by me since I was addicted to basketball anyway. But I did not realize exactly how my roommate was protecting me until years later preparing this story for Moth.
As time went on, my roommate started giving me advice on girls. We even had a double date at a bowling alley.
He started offering me bread pudding from his Mom’s Latino Heritage. And I offered him Kosher smoked cheese, since I was a vegetarian.
A few months later during my sophomore year he called me up and he said:
“My parents just came back from their first Christian Pilgrimage to Israel and they want to invite you over to their house in Jersey City and show you their photos and their souvenirs.” I realized they felt I had a connection to Israel.
I was honored that they wanted to share that with me but I did not know much about Christian souvenirs, so I was afraid I would let them down. When I arrived at their house they showed me the wooden cross, the holy water in a small bottle and holy olive oil in a small bottle. I had not been prepared in my Jewish day schools how to worship with these but I saw the reverence they had for them and was touched by it and had always felt that anytime you look to a higher power it is a good thing to strengthen faith. I thought the olive oil was really cool since I knew King David was anointed with olive oil when he became King, so I wanted my own vile of olive oil one day.
There was one basketball game my dorm floor group played at outdoors and a gang showed up. My roommate actually did stand in front of me and told me and my girlfriend to run away and he stood and made sure no fight happened.
After graduation, he would stop at my parents’ house every few years to see a Sabbath dinner or a Passover lunch.
One day 20 years later after not being in touch with Jose, I got a call from a guy that had gone to my synagogue growing up. He said to me “Hey I have to tell you I met your old roommate from College, Jose, he’s been helping me apply to medical school. And one more thing:
He converted to Judaism!”
I said “What!”
I called Jose my old roommate up and asked him if this was true and he said yes he converted to Judaism. He has no pork in his house. He said he had also met some Jewish doctors once he finished medical school and started asking them questions and then found a rabbi and converted.
A few days ago I called him up and asked him if I had an effect on him. And he said yes. And he then told me 2 points that had affected him. He said that when we were roommates in college one day he said I asked him if he had any rules of life he followed and he told me “Yes, the 10 commandments.” He then realized the 10 commandments were in the 5 books of Moses and he said he found that eye opening.
He also told me that once I told him I thought it more important to know “Why” than “How”, and that stayed with him (I guess I said that so I’d be able to figure things out on tests if I understood some concepts.)
Anyway he just called me up and said he wanted to get together and treat me to lunch at a Kosher Deli.
Years later it hit me more, I realized I went to an experimental multicultural campus for college. So that makes for good chemistry. I guess this was a Chemistry experiment after all.
NOTE: A friend of mine had asked me to go to the Moth Story Telling event with her and tell a story on the theme of Chemistry, so I wrote up this true story. Then another friend said that story belongs on Times Of Israel. So I’m posting it here as an American-Jewish College experience.