Sometimes I can’t believe that I’ve been “in college” (with a year or two off here and there) for over 40 years — to be precise, since autumn 1966, when I first set foot on the campus of Syracuse University.
I’ll never forget the crisp late-September air of upstate New York during Orientation Week; the excitement of live “soul music” (Sam & Dave, the Four Tops, and the local favorite, Otis and the All-Night Workers, among others) blaring from the front porches of the stately Greek-letter mansions on Crouse Avenue’s fraternity row; the delight at discovering that my dormitory roommate, one Pete Zucker, could hold a lit Kent in the corner of his mouth while playing Frisbee with one eye closed against the smoke; the thrill of sauntering into the local campus bar, “The Orange,” and ordering up my first legal “7 & 7”!
And so on.
There was, of course, a Hillel House at Syracuse that, as the advertisement went, “served the needs of Jewish students” by offering High Holiday services. Maybe it did, but my “needs” (as I imperfectly grasped them in those days) didn’t propel me through the Hillel House door even once during the entire seven years it took me to get my degree (this was, after all, the late ’60s, and much needed doing).
Like so many Jews of my grandparents’ generation who fled European persecutions for the freedom of di goldene medina, and like virtually all of their grandchildren who were my peers at Syracuse, the last thing that entered my mind upon tasting the freedom of college was confining myself in a dark Jewish suit to klop Al Khet on Yom Kippur or even take advantage of a “delicious Rosh Hashanah meal with a local family.”
Besides, as a budding fan of the Mothers of Invention, I was not going to place myself willingly within speaking range of anyone who, like the figure presiding over the Syracuse Hillel, was known to the faithful as “the beloved Rabbi Elefant!”
Well, obviously, I eventually outgrew my antipathy to Judaism, but I won’t shlep you through the tale. Suffice it to say that one thing I learned from my “college experience” is that you simply can’t predict how a Jew will rediscover the flame of the pintele yid that somehow burns despite years of oxygen deprivation.
Maybe because I’ve been “in college” virtually every autumn since 1966, the beginnings of this dual New Year — the academic year and the Jewish season of spiritual renewal — always coincide in my mind. The excitement of one feeds the other. Somehow the thrill of an early autumn “Battle of the Bands” on that long-ago and far-away Syracuse campus shapes my anticipation of the first notes of the hazzan’s High Holiday ma’ariv nusach on erev Rosh Hashanah.
Sounds preposterous, I know — but there you have it. A fact!
Stranger still is the odd way the emotional world of the Season of Atonement colors as well my approach to the new students I first meet in my classes in the fall. I view each of them as the embodiment of those whom the Talmud calls “all the world-dwellers who pass in judgment before You like wayward flocks.”
Like the Master of the World, I review my “flock’s” sins, committed in the course of their written work, and pass compassionate judgment upon appropriate evidence of atonement.
Among the relatively minor academic sins, soon to pass from the scene in this era of spell check, are the howlers of misspelling that keep me awake as I ponder the fate of student work. Here I’ll report on one of my favorites.
Would you believe that, in any given year, perhaps a dozen students, while writing about Jewish history in ancient times, will inform me of the “ancient Jewish homeland of Palestein?”
For years I’d scribble in the margin of such papers sardonic notes like: “As in Rubenstein, Goldstein, and Bernstein?”
But then it dawned on me that this sort of common mistake is in fact a cultural phenomenon that carries with it its own “teachable moment” (thank you, Prof. Gates, for restoring this conceit of ’60s activism to our working vocabulary!).
So, I began, at the first opportunity, to turn the topic of “Palestein” into a 20-minute rehearsal of the various names by which successive conquistadors (pagan, Christian, Muslim, and Imperial) have identified what Jews call “the Land of Israel.”
In order to vary the shtick, I have in recent years tended to take a more aggressive route to correction. Abandoning my ponderous, rigorously technical disquisition on the aliases of biblical Canaan, I now make my point with music.
Fighting force with farce, and exploiting my painlessly acquired native-competence in American-Jewish pop culture, I bring to class a laptop and a couple of CDs and call out, “Party Time!”
Believe me, no student who beholds Prof. Jaffee expounding Eddie Cantor’s 1930s recording of “Leena, the Queen of Palesteena” will ever again spell the Roman name for the Jewish homeland is if it were a Rheinland dukedom!
Similar instruction benefits anyone who contemplates Alan Sherman’s terrific riff on Ashkenazic names, “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max, My Boy.” As My Son the Folksinger says: “Here’s Brumberger, Shumberger, Minkes and Pincus, Stein with an e-i and Styne with a y!”
So far, this approach has worked well. By the end of autumn quarter, I have extended kapparah to virtually all sinners — except for the inevitable essayist on “the Jewish dietary laws” whose studies unearth the news that “the Bible prohibits Jews from boiling children in their mothers’ milk.” For such a one I reserve a special seat next to Amalek in the boiling wastes of the back row of Gehinom Hall.
But that’s a story for another occasion — maybe Purim!