There are two ways to approach a new semester: you can either retreat to what’s familiar or you can push yourself to the foreign. For me, “familiar” is cloaked in bar mitzvah kippas and Hadaya rings. And “foreign” refers to those who are so far removed from these costumes, who think a bar mitzvah is an SNL skit and Hadaya is either the name of an exotic country or a fancy car brand (I actually see it – “Hadaya: Vroom. Vroom”)
Take my first class, Calculus. Arriving at my classroom the proper first-day-eight- minutes-early, I immediately spotted a table filled with three Familiars (one kippa and two Hadaya rings) and one Foreign. Once I made eye contact with the Familiars, they familiarized with my familiarity, and my seat was locked. The Foreign? He didn’t even realize he had practically plopped himself down at a table with the social atmosphere of Ben Yehuda on a Friday morning until the class got going and we moved on to discuss The Final Exam on Shabbat Predicament.
As the day continued, I found myself torn. Yeah, in a big school like Maryland, it’s great to have a large safety net of reassurance wherever you go. I felt at home immediately, prancing into my second class and discussing study plans with another “Hillel Jew” and best friend. But gazing around the room at all the Foreigns, I couldn’t help but wonder…University of Maryland, where there are nearly six thousand Jewish undergrads, certainly falls shy of the traditional concept of secular college, and it can even feel like just the next stage of the “Yeshiva League” at times. What if your reassurances are really crutches? What if you aren’t even aware of how badly you need the crutch until it’s taken from you, and all your conversations are spent hopping around, trying to find something other than Jewish geography to jumpstart a friendship? What if your net is more a trap than a haven?
After being in the “Jewish Orthodox” bubble for my entire life, I, along with many friends, was excited at the prospect of breaking free into the “real world.” Yet I, along with many friends I have kept in touch with across many college campuses, often find that this social opportunity becomes more of a test you haven’t studied for when put into practice. When I was told to sit next to someone in my final class, Social Psychology, as we would be doing a partner activity, I instinctively scanned the room for a fellow Hillel Jew, or even, dare I say, even a JewISH Jew. Scrambling as class began, I sat next to an Asian boy. It was a partner activity: we had two minutes to recite a series of “I am….” facts. The activity not only helped me get to know Robert, who I actually realized was pretty funny and extremely relatable, despite his not knowing my friend’s brother’s friend from camp, and also was extremely introspective. Thinking up “I ams,” I began to wonder: Does “I am Jewish” define me more than I realize? It didn’t help that in doing so, I could hear echos of those warning jokes you hear in a gap year of yeshiva/seminary that are intended to have a dash of truth, lurking in my mind: “Don’t go to secular college, you’ll go to football games, then stop keeping shabbos, then kosher, become entirely not religious, INTERMARRY, and finally, finally, maybe engage in some mixed dancing. And just the fact that I so much as entertained that thought, even as a joke, was telling.
Essentially, my first day has reminded me that in a place like Maryland, it’s a challenge to straddle both. In theory, I’d love to have a cool friend like Robert; a new friend with a fresh perspective and diverse background, not to mention someone to supply me with notes when I miss class for holidays. But does it matter if the second class ended, I gushed about my encounter with “cool, non-Jewish, diverse Robert” off to my Hillel friends like a Kindergartener does with their first macaroni necklace? There’s nothing in “foreign” but there’s “family” in “familiarity.” The bubble is comfortable. Yet as any Jewish baker knows, you need to pop the bubble for the challah to rise.