// end of the world //
Loitering in the Kraft Center:
An Outsider's Guide to Intro to Judaism
Having tackled most of my major requirements by the end of sophomore year, I find myself in the enviable position of having the freedom to explore new disciplines each semester. On the other hand, this latitude also signifies the intimidating number of credits needed to graduate, and has led me to experiment with courses I would otherwise not have taken. Last semester, as it happens, these aberrant courses were Introduction to Judaism and Introduction to American Politics. I meticulously culled through last semester’s offerings and decided upon these two courses because of a couple of prenatal advantages: being both Jewish and American, I was sure to get high marks in both courses.
Outfitted with this infallible logic and the remnants of my Hebrew school education in my metaphorical fanny pack, I was bound to find Introduction to Judaism a basic refresher course. Things would be peachy, the 10:10AM time-slot notwithstanding, which would make it challenging for me to attend class and stay awake once there. Though the first day of class merely entailed a speed read of the syllabus and an introduction to the course methodology, it forced me to reevaluate my appraisal of the class as a birthright “easy-A,” glowing Culpa reviews aside. Arriving on the first day and looking around the room, I realized that I was one of the only men not wearing a yarmulka, and that most of the women were very modestly dressed (leading to the grim calculation that my predilection towards Nova on my bagel would be a paltry background in Judaism when up against Orthodox Jews, most of whom began studying Jewish texts minutes after their bris). Immediately, I made a mental note: Pass/Fail the course.
What exactly was required to earn a passing grade and three college credits? Thirty percent of the grade was determined by five blog posts (read: finally, a class where I’m judged on what essentially amounts to a verbose tweet). The first post was easy enough, the prompt being “why did I enroll in the class?” Writing about myself is one of my favorite hobbies, even in a truncated 100-300 word format, so I enjoyed the opportunity to complete an assignment without the exertion required to feign some familiarity with a set of readings that I read while Netflix buffered between episodes.
However, just as Adam was unceremoniously cast out of the Garden of Eden, I was, with no forewarning, thrust into the real world, a Kafka-esque hellscape in which getting good grades necessitated addressing the readings in blog post responses. My charming quirk of “skimming” readings soon made me feel like an outsider in a room full of students who memorized every word. Luckily, to the outside world, my posts—testaments to my proclivity for vague generalizations and clear aversion to the concept of “assigned reading”—seemed to be sufficient. None of the other students knew who I was, so no connection was made between the sleepy-eyed, silent student in the back of the room and the uninformed, yet clearly pensive, blogger who received positive feedback on his posts.
Still, my most substantive hurdle appeared in the form of the midterm. While surprised by how much I had picked up by simply attending class, I was still unable to define even a third of the sixty identification terms, let alone answer the forty possible short-answer questions or twenty possible essay prompts. Then there were the charts—empty boxes where I would need to write down dates of historical events and describe the origins and purposes of the Jewish holidays. The dates were covered in three lectures that I warmly recall as times when I let my mind drift, taking me from pleasant daydream to introspective meditation, abruptly ended by the shuffling of students packing up their bags and standing up. Despite the fact that study materials were posted about two weeks ahead of time, I decided to try my hand at starting my midterm preparation less than twenty-four hours before the exam.
I fled to the Columbia/Barnard Hillel’s Kraft Center, where I hoped to learn through Jewish Osmosis--absorbing ancillary details about the Babylonian exile by virtue of proximity to a bunch of millennial Jews eating lunch. I carefully positioned myself near groups of friendly Orthodox Jews. At the eleventh hour, an old friend, more religiously inclined than I, responded to my desperate texts and came to the Kraft Center to sit with me and hash through terms, some incredibly familiar, and others, to my dismay, entirely foreign to him. After thirty minutes of muddling through the extensive review materials with me, my friend suggested I approach another student in the class who I noticed sitting nearby. My friend introduced me to her, and she graciously included me in her exam preparation. The next five hours of my life were devoted entirely to studying, drinking coffee, and complaining about the amount of material on the exam, and so by the following morning I felt thoroughly prepared.
After achieving a stellar midterm exam grade, I experienced two crucial epiphanies. First, why had I only now discovered the miraculous, brain-enhancing powers of the Kraft Center? Second, with over half of the assignments behind me and the midterm under my belt, I realized I had fared as well as my Orthodox compatriots. I also imagined it unlikely that my mere Americanism could compete with the myriad students in my Introduction to American Politics class who not only followed politics, but also willingly wanted to work on Capitol Hill. As an unregistered voter and a begrudging one-time tourist to D.C., the prospect of a good grade in a class that did not have a 30% blog post cushion seemed dim. Chest swelling with pride at my serious commitment to Jewish studies, I emailed the Registrar to change my grade option to Pass/Fail in Introduction to American Politics, not Introduction to Judaism.
Although primarily driven by the precious currency of my GPA, my decision to take Introduction to Judaism for a letter grade proved the enlightened decision. After the midterm, the class was far more interesting than I had anticipated. The subjects discussed began to resemble the cultural interests of any somewhat-cultured Jewish New Yorker; I even found the blog posts a valuable opportunity to contextualize readings and discourse in terms of my own Jewish identity. Discussions about the significance of “Seinfeld” for Jewish personalities in pop culture? Check. Conversations about Sholom Aleichem’s work Tevye’s Daughters in relation to the quotational play Fiddler on the Roof? My bread and butter. And though I never found the stories from antiquity to be particularly stimulating, my interest in and enthusiasm for Jewish culture matched those of the Orthodox Jewish students, which allowed me to occupy a space in the Jewish community somewhere in the seemingly unbridgeable divide between observant and non-observant Jewish students (though my uncovered head makes me feel vaguely self-conscious when I venture to Hillel). And this democratization of Jewish education from the hands of Orthodox students, well that’s truly something to schep about.
// SHOLOM FROMAFAR is an undergraduate student at Columbia University.