As foreign as some of the classes were, ultimately, the questions raised in every course brought me back to where I came from
In some courses, I felt like a newcomer. Like my first assignment for English, a diagnostic essay. I figured I got this, and wrote an essay in what I considered sophisticated vocabulary. I was shocked to receive a low grade. I had no idea that there were rules — thesis statement, topic sentence, call for action at the end.
In other classes, I felt more like a visitor to a foreign country. Sociology was one of those. The truth is that I’d never heard of sociology before and knew absolutely nothing about it. I only chose it as a “filler” course, but it was one of the best decisions I made. I liked the professor a lot — a scholarly man who spoke in long, fancy sentences and was witty and entertaining. The course focused on the sociology of the family, crime, gender, and religion. I gained a new understanding of different communities and cultures, and this gave me a greater appreciation of the community that I grew up in and was part of. It also gave me a more sympathetic view of people who were part of communities that didn’t have the strengths I took for granted. As I worked my way through the course, I was exposed to new ideas, some of which got me into trouble in my home turf. I once debated Marxism and the notion of false consciousness with the guys in my kollel. Playing devil’s advocate, I defended communist policy, arguing that there is no good explanation for the CEO of a company to be paid a hundred times more than the guy operating the machinery. I made the claim that the reason communism didn’t work was because it was corrupted by the USSR, not because it was intrinsically flawed. I didn’t believe a word of it myself, but from then on everyone considered me a leftist.
Visitors to foreign countries are bound to make mistakes. Once, the entire poli-sci department gathered at the home of one of the professors. Both the men and women’s divisions were present. At that event, I asked someone something about the women’s cohort. Unthinkingly, I referred to women as “girls.”
I wasn’t prepared for the reaction I got. “Women,” the woman corrected me hotly. “Just like men are not called ‘boys,’ women are not called ‘girls.’ ”
Honestly, it was an innocent mistake. It’s just a cultural quirk — my wife and sisters refer to their friends and coworkers as “girls,” even when the people they’re referring to are their own age, or much older. I hadn’t meant any offense and I tried to explain that, but everything I said made it worse. I regretted the mistake, and I also felt bad for her. If someone had referred to me as a “boy,” I would have thought it strange, but not insulting. It was obvious from her reaction that she had previously experienced some form of discrimination or disrespect for being a woman.
Our culture gives a lot of weight to connecting with our past, so I felt more at home in my History course. The course covered the time period from the French Revolution to the present, and the professor was passionate about the subject — he could discuss the events of the 18th century with the familiarity I use to discuss yesterday’s news. One class stands out, seared into my memory forever: When we reached the unit on the Holocaust, the professor brought in a book and read aloud from it, describing the atrocities the Nazis committed against the Jews. As he read, tears streamed down his face until he couldn’t continue. He asked a student to finish reading, but of course, it lost its poignance.
And sometimes I felt more like an alien from another planet. Like English literature — we were given short works of literature to read each week, and then were tested on them. The first story was about some madman who killed an elderly man because he hated the look in his eyes, and then gave himself up to the police because he couldn’t bear the beating for his own heart (The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allen Poe). This was literature? It got weirder: a person who turned into a cockroach (The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka), and a city that held a lottery each year to raffle off the privilege of being stoned to death (The Lottery, Shirley Jackson). Who was crazy, me or them? It wasn’t until three semesters later that I learned about the different literary movements and the attitudes that shaped those eras. That gave me a little context. But still….
There was one debate that surfaced in many courses — theodicy. I knew this as the “tzaddik v’ra lo” (Brachos 7) question, or why bad things happen to good people. We studied different eras and their approaches to this question in literature, contrasting Voltaire and Alexander Pope, and we covered the Torah perspective in an elective called Readings in Rambam, which covered the 13 Ani Maamins. For my literature term paper, I offered an answer from the Jewish perspective, citing Rabbeinu Yonah in Brachos and a Gemara in Chulin.
As foreign as some of the classes were, ultimately, the questions raised in every course brought me back to where I came from.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 812)
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