Wake me up when September ends: the extreme Chagim

This Saturday, the University of Maryland football team geared up for a match against Temple University. Wafts of music and alcohol from the tailgate parties clouded the air, and excitement was abuzz. They were ready for what they knew would be a close game.

At the same time, this Shabbat, the University of Maryland Jews sat around Shabbat lunch meals, anticipating the weeks ahead. A thick cloud of dread settled over South Campus (a.k.a the Jewish Ghetto), and it wasn’t just because of the hurricane. They weren’t ready for what they knew would be a tough battle.

I can assure you that those 500-pound-7-foot football players have nothing on us havdalah-candle-height Jews. Those players have never missed four Tuesdays in a row. They have never had to schedule their transportation plans in the narrow window between class and sundown. They have never had to experience the Extreme Chagim.

Every year, just as we’re settling into school, we’re hit with the Extreme Chagim. And every year, we pretend it’s not going to be as bad as it really is. It’s like what happens each time it rains on Succot. First you think you feel a drop. That’s Rosh Hashana. And then another drop confirms that yes, it was in fact a drop (not the spit that, like it’s owner – your company for lunch – is way too excited to share its latest story). That’s Yom Kippur. Finally, just as you stick your fork into your chicken, it’s Hurricane Florence, and people are grabbing chairs and tables and whatever food they can carry, finger pointing that “I told you so.” That’s what happens when you emerge from Simchat Torah: surrounded by a storm of work, drowning in that flooded post-chag inbox, rendering you more of a mess than those Maryland students unable finger point or even slur an “I told you so” about the game because they are so intoxicated from the preceding tailgates.

Being an Orthodox Jew in secular college and thinking you start school in September is like sitting at a Passover seder and thinking that you’re up to the meal when you’ve just barely grazed Maggid: far, far away. But it’s worse. Because neither tailgate vodka nor 4 cups of wine can get you through it. It all comes down to playing with the right strategy.

Strategy One is defense. Is the disaster that has become your life is a clear sign from Hakadosh Baruch Hu that secular college was just not meant to be? The stress you are feeling foreshadows the stress that the entire Jewish community will feel as they anxiously await your wedding invitation to a goy. Just as the rain on Sukkot is a clear indication that you should be spending it in Israel, this predicament can be similarly appeased by venturing out of galus and into a more accommodating institution like Yeshiva University.

Strategy Two is offense. You line up, eye to eye with your professor, and explain that yes, you can’t believe it either, but there is another holiday and even another one after that. You plan like crazy and then sit and work on the one day that you actually can work and you just get it done. This scramble is like pulling together a meal with random freshmen: mix a little or this, a little of that, wash it down with some alcohol (I’m 21 now, but if you know me, you know I’m kidding anyhow), and hope it works out.

Yes, it’s difficult. But if I wanted easy, I could have gone to a place like Stern or even Brandeis where they hold your hand and practically carry you through the chagim on the wings of eagles with all that time off. The struggle is essential to any true secular college experience; all the annoyance, extra work, and planning remind us that life isn’t centered around school. It’s centered around Judaism.

Like those football players, I may have a concussion from this experience when I’m 50. But until then, it – not my partial meal plan at Hillel, nor the mezuzah on my apartment, nor the plethora of Jews I am magically connected to around campus – is what’s truly keeping me frum. So perhaps that thick cloud of dread and anxious planning we thought we felt over Shabbat was really a remnant of anan that guided the Jews through dessert, in turn, guiding us through secular college.

I probably should be catching up on work I missed last week and not blogging right now.

Just wake me up when September ends.

About the Author
Yakira Cohen is a twenty-two-year-old Modern Orthodox Jew. She is an SAR High School graduate (2016), Midreshet Lindenbaum alum (2017), and is a junior studying journalism and psychology at the University of Maryland.