On the fence at Yale
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 17, 1998
When I was in law school, Sunday was my favorite day - sleep until 11:00, brunch and shmoozing until 1:00, and then settle in front of the TV with the Sunday New York Times to watch an endless stream of football games. There I would remain until it was time for the law school basketball league to convene.
And so it went week after week - at least for this aspiring member of the class that manipulates words and symbols for big bucks.
Sounds pretty leisurely, I know. But no one should suspect that such a day did not involve its own careful planning or present its own special set of dilemmas. Actually, every minute had to be carefully calibrated to achieve my day's goal.
And what was that goal? Nothing less momentous than maximizing the amount of football watched while still leaving enough time to get in sufficient warm-up shots for the law school basketball game.
A typical suburban product - the kind who would pass up unguarded lay-ups to shoot 10-foot jumpers - those warm- up shots held the key to a day of glory or ignominy.
Only one fly in the ointment marred my weekly idyll. As freshman counselor, I then lived on a massive quadrangle, housing over a thousand college freshmen. On Sundays, only one of the two maingates to the quadrangle was open, and parked directly in front of that gate was a Habad mitzva mobile.
Every week, as I passed by, I was asked, 'Are you Jewish?' My physiognomy ruled out denial as a viable option, and besides, I was always proud of being Jewish. Thus the first question led inevitably to a second: 'Do you want to put on tefillin?'
Though the last time I had done so was long before my bar mitzva, in Tefillin Club, (principal attractions: bowling and lox and bagels), I could not come up with a good reason not to comply.
But as any beginner will tell you, it takes a while to get the hang of those straps, so my stint in the mitzva mobile never took less than 10 minutes. By the time I emerged, I had invariably missed my warm-up shots.
Finally, one Sunday, I decided I could take it no longer. Instead of going out the open gate, I would climb over the 10-foot fence, topped by wrought iron spikes, on the opposite side of the quadrangle.
Filled with resolve, I set off in sweat suit and gym shoes to conquer the fence, forgetting for the moment that I had never been the most agile of men.
I managed to get one foot over the fence and onto a foothold on the other side. But as I started to lift the second foot over the spikes, my foot slipped on the icy crossbar and the spike shot up under my sweat suit jacket, stopping just short of the jugular.
I was left hanging, feet flailing, my back to New Haven Green. It seemed like an eternity until I regained my footing, though it was probably less than 10 seconds.
Why, the reader will ask, am I sharing this tale of youthful humiliation?
The truth is that I've come to view that seemingly trivial incident as something of a turning point in my life. As I was dangling on the fence, I could not help but picture how ridiculous I must appear to any holiday shoppers crossing New Haven Green at that moment.
And it occurred to me that if the simple question - Are you Jewish? - had thrown me into a such panic and led me to undertake something so ridiculous, perhaps I should inquire a little more deeply into what it means to be Jewish.
Nothing particularly logical about that response, but who knows if moments of spiritual arousal are ever completely logical. No, I did not rush back to my room, pack my bags and head off for Jerusalem to enroll in a yeshiva for hozrim betshuva. That was still years away. (For one thing, I had no idea that such a thing existed.) But a seed was planted.
I suspect that every Jew will at some point in his or her life experience some similar flash of possibilities not previously considered. How could it be otherwise? If God granted us the privilege of being born into this tiny people, to be bearers of His Word to the world, then no matter the enveloping ignorance in which we are raised, there must come a moment in our lives in which access to our tradition beckons.
True, at any given moment, at least 95 percent of the people in the world are incapable of questioning the premises of their lives or considering any alternatives to the present. The lack of ability to reexamine first premises, Allan Bloom points out, is one of the consequences of our easy cultural relativism. If all values are culturally determined anyway, why consider any alternatives to one's own? Inertia rules.
Every Jew, however, will at some point find him or herself among the five percent who can look more deeply. He or she may shun the opportunity, but it will be there
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list