Stephen Daniel Arnoff
Author, Teacher, and Community Leader

Left Behind at Columbia University

2024 Columbia pro-Palestine protest. Used by permission (Wikimedia Commons).

Despite two attempts (Here’s looking at you, Brown), I didn’t wind up at an Ivy League school. Instead, after traveling as a musician for a few years, I completed my undergraduate degree at Brandeis University, and then moved to Israel. Brandeis wound up being the perfect place for me – living affordably off campus in Boston, starting a band with an Assyriologist that opened for Tracy Bonham (now that was a real rock star – look her up), and above all immersing myself in Hebrew and Jewish history and text with an incredible faculty that led me into a world of study and culture that I have never left.

Still, what academically engaged, intellectually curious kid in the late twentieth century who grew up with The Paper Chase’s Harvard and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Princeton, and yes, I’ll say it, Animal House, wouldn’t fantasize about long walks across the college green wearing the classic hoodie, immersed in talk about all of the important things, each crinkly step upon Fall’s fallen leaves whispering the everlasting blessings of the prestige of the Ivy League?

Such a dream wasn’t meant to be for me, except for one weekend at Columbia University in 1994. That was when the keyboardist from my other Brandeis band, “The Red Sea Pedestrians” – who went on to become a leading scholar of Hasidism – convinced me to join him at a conference for Jewish students at Columbia hosted by Michael Lerner, the founder of Tikkun magazine.

In the 1990s, Lerner and his thought partner Peter Gabel’s ideas about “the politics of meaning” were very much a part of pop politics. First Lady Hilary Clinton referenced Lerner’s thesis that the Left had conceded the space of faith and religion to the Right, and that it needed to repopulate that space in order to save America and the world. A politics of meaning would reanimate progressive social values with ancient sources and new celebrations of spirituality. Lerner wrote compellingly of Black-Jewish dialogue and healing with Cornell West before West turned to demagoguery and demonization. And Lerner, who also was a leading voice of Jewish Renewal, was even a guest on the Larry King Show. 

My friend and I rolled into Manhattan for the Tikkun weekend a touch late after missing an exit on the George Washington Bridge, and commandeered couches at the apartment of another friend on Riverside Drive. As the snow began to fall (forcing us to stay for a glorious long weekend in New York), we dipped into Shabbat life on the Upper West Side, and attended teach-ins and talks and networking events on campus for what I suppose could best be described as a gathering of progressive Jews in their early twenties led by people who had been progressive Jews in their early twenties in that very same place a generation before. Imagine that. What goes around comes around until it implodes.

As an American music-politics-culture junkie thirty years ago, that weekend was something like a dream come true for me – to taste Jewish progressive political passion that felt like the 1968 of the books and albums and movies I loved. (“Hey look, it’s Hamilton Hall!”) This was like entering a wrinkle in time, a moment that my parent’s generation had lived but I had missed. The politics I cared about met the spiritual purpose I was embracing within a group of beautiful, passionate peers who wanted to change the world. Count me in.

Tragically, the gorgeous potential of such a spiritually empowered, politically enlightened, culturally open Jewish Left with which I experienced a momentary homecoming would not last. Tikkun was the first magazine I subscribed to after Rolling Stone, but in a year or so, Tikkun‘s Israel-bashing and attitude got to be too much. I turned my attention to building communities rather than movements, and while I still consider myself progressive in many ways, the Left I encountered once upon a snowy dream on West 116th Street left me behind. 

I long for the promise of so much of what I remember hearing about at Columbia University for the first time: aspirations for a thoughtful, humanistic American political life; Israel as the lynchpin of Middle Eastern peace, purpose, and prosperity; and room for every type of person in every Jewish space. These visions and more remain personal dreams, and oftentimes they have been the very real goals of the micro communities I have joined in the many places I have lived as an adult. But when it comes to anything like that weekend at Columbia, as the ex-hippie anthem “Hotel California” tells it, “we haven’t seen that spirit here since 1969” – or 1994. 

Thirty years after the conference, Left is Right, or rather Left is Wrong. Witness ideologically-assured hatred, spiritual arrogance, cultural and class entitlement, systematic misinformation, binary thinking, and – most infuriating of all – antisemitism that reflects 1938 rather than 1968, days of horror we thought we had consigned only to our nightmares, not the robotic chants of a 20-year old kids in a keffiyehs brainwashed by the emissaries of a mullah in government office in Iran or a Hamas terrorist in a hotel room in Qatar.

Like a kid pushed out of a clique at recess, like the wallflower at a high school dance, like a wannabe quarterback who threw a ball through an old tire hanging from a tree all summer long only to be demoted to the offensive line on the third day of practice, I think I’ll always have a tinge of regret about my Ivy League dream that wasn’t. But like most dreams expressing unlived fantasies, this one was too good to be true. I just didn’t expect that dream to become so very bad for so many others at Columbia and around the world. At least I’m awake enough to know what I see there now.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Daniel Arnoff is the CEO of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and author of the book About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan.
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