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Columbia College: fifty years ago and now

Columbia College Class Day in May 1974: the weather was glorious. In the throng outside Hamilton Hall were my Mom and Dad, Mom’s mother, and Dad’s parents. We were a Columbia family. Mom got her PhD in Chemistry from Columbia and went on to become the first woman to be tenured in that subject at the City College of New York. Dad, a corporate lawyer, attended Columbia College on the GI Bill after his service in the United States Navy during the Second World War. He was also graduated from Columbia Law School. Dad served as head of the Alumni Association.

My paternal grandfather was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Yiddish-speaking, working class immigrants from a shtetl near Brody in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today Ukraine. He dropped out of high school to become an apprentice printer and help support the family. After work he would often trek uptown to Columbia, on foot, and sneak into lectures on economics and history. Grandpa went on to found a very successful company, Russell & Russell, that did fine reprints of rare scholarly books.

My maternal grandmother had escaped the Great Fire of 1917 in Salonica, Greece. Although she had a scholarship to France from the Alliance Israelite, World War One had changed everybody’s plans. She came to the USA and raised four daughters in Brooklyn. As I stepped up to the podium that spring day to deliver the Salutatory Address, she told me she expected me to be wearing a doctoral robe soon!

I had gone to Columbia on early decision as a John Jay Scholar. I majored in Russian and minored in Armenian— the first undergrad to do this in the field. Became junior year Phi Beta Kappa, got a Kellett Fellowship to Oxford for postgraduate study. Didn’t know what to talk about that day so figured I’d just tell the crowd about what interested me: a tenth-century Armenian Christian mystic, St. Grigor Narekatsi. The University’s official paper, Columbia Reports, ran my speech on their front page a few weeks later.

After five years in England I came home and got a teaching job at Columbia: Lecturer in Armenian, then Assistant and Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian. By 1991, when I came up at last for tenure with a Chamberlain fellowship, two scholarly books and a host of professional publications and academic lecture series abroad under my belt, two of my courses were among the University-wide top ten in the Columbia-Barnard Course Guide. The chairman of my department was a rabid Arab nationalist who convened regular meetings during the Gulf War to attack Israel, but I didn’t imagine that his personal prejudices could affect my career.

Then it happened.

A gentleman who chaired a community advisory committee to the Middle East department took me aside and told me bluntly, to my face, there was no way they were going to give tenure to a Jew.

The years since then have not been good. I did find another job, at a venerable institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But my eyes had been opened. After 9/11, Sheikh Alwaleed offered New York $50 million to say Israel was to blame. The Mayor tore up the check live on camera. Alwaleed peddled the money to universities, and all of them, including mine, accepted it. When asked how we might use it I said it’s blood money and we should give it back. The dean of the divinity school, a white Southerner who specialized in Islam, wrote to me that “real Americans” understand that Israel is the source of all our problems. There’s a wry, rhyming adage in Russian: Если в кране нет воды, значит, выпили жиды “If there’s no water in the tap, it means the Yids drank it all up.”

After my Class Day speech, Dad took a snapshot of Grandma, Grandpa, and me on the South Lawn of the Columbia campus. There we are, a Columbia family, smiling. Today the South Lawn is an encampment of supporters of Hamas who want to finish Hitler’s work and kill us all. Yesterday, the fans of Islamic fascism and anti-Semitism occupied Hamilton Hall. Columbia’s faculty and administration support the Israel haters. Harvard is the same.

My parents and grandparents are dead. Nearly all my family are dead. My partner of forty-four years died three months ago. My cat and I now live quietly and alone in this remote town in the Central Valley of California. I have no academic affiliation. I attend a Chabad synagogue.

Washington Heights, the upper Manhattan neighborhood where I was born and raised, was home to many German Jewish refugees from Hitler. They were gentle, educated, deeply civilized people who lived in a kind of shock: they could not understand how the country they thought their own had turned on them with such virulent hatred. We were so beloved is a documentary film of 1985 about them. American Jews are now experiencing a similar shock.

As it seems to me, the late Rabbi Meir Kahane was right in his grim assessment that the Americans do not like the Jews, and it is up to us to defend ourselves as long as we are here. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe put it a bit differently when asked about this country. He shrugged: It’s no different, he said. It’s still golus (exile). A not-so-genteel anti-Semitism was always endemic in American academia. I experienced this a long time ago: when they decide to get rid of you, all your academic and teaching credentials fall down around you like used toilet paper. You turn to the people you had thought were your colleagues, pupils, friends: they turn their backs. Nobody cares. You live your life as best you can. But it’s different now, it’s in the open: the South Lawn is a Nuremberg rally and they don’t just want us out, they want us dead.

My advice to my fellow Jews, on my life experience, would be this: Don’t send your kids to a gentile American university. Educate them in a Yeshiva. And relocate your family to Israel. The Jewish experience in America has been wonderful and creative, from Einstein, Salk, and Singer to Bob Dylan and Levi’s jeans. But we were just as creative, and for much, much longer, in places like Iraq, Egypt, Spain, and Poland, and all those stories are over. I fear that the final chapter of the chronicle of the Jewish encounter with America is being written. Perhaps that dark reflection is colored by my old age, the grim end of my own life, a life that began with such hope. But I fear my assessment is clear and true.

Columbia fifty years ago was home. Today it is Nazi Germany.

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.