Jewniver­sity? I chose a dif­fer­ent path

The Jewish Chronicle - - EDUCATION - BY EL­LIE HY­MAN

GO­ING TO univer­sity as a Jew is a funny thing. Take the phe­nom­e­non by which you will al­ways know some­one who is a fel­low Jew, or know some­one who knows some­one. Three years in, I still strug­gle to ex­plain it to my non-Jewish friends.

“How do you know him?,” they ask as I ex­change a fa­mil­iar hello with some­one they have never seen be­fore as we’re walk­ing to­wards lec­tures.

“Oh, he’s just Jewish,” I re­ply, as if that of­fers suf­fi­cient ex­pla­na­tion.

And this is at a univer­sity where there’s only a hand­ful of Jews. Go­ing to a Jewniver­sity ia a whole dif­fer­ent ball game. Join­ing a univer­sity with more or less the ma­jor­ity of your school year must be an ex­pe­ri­ence al­most en­tirely unique to the Jewish com­mu­nity.

Where most peo­ple see univer­sity as a clean slate, some­where that you can start com­pletely afresh, at­tend­ing a Jewniver­sity — Not­ting­ham, say, or Birm­ing­ham — is en­tirely the op­po­site. Your legacy pre­cedes you; your friend­ship group is largely al­ready es­tab­lished, un­less you have de­lib­er­ately cho­sen to ven­ture com­pletely away from the Jewish cir­cle and make an en­tirely new group of friends.

Not many do that, though. For most, you start univer­sity with your friend­ship cir­cle al­ready es­tab­lished, adding to it slightly along the way with house­mates, Jews from other parts of the coun­try whom you went on camp with in Year 8, or the oc­ca­sional

“hon­orary

Jew” (read: not Jewish but may as well be). But that’s more or less it.

Faced with the daunt­ing prospect of leav­ing the se­cu­rity of home and head­ing off to uni, this can seem like a com­fort­ing op­tion.

Your al­ter­na­tive is do­ing what I did; de­cid­ing to choose a univer­sity not so densely pop­u­lated by Jews, one where you don’t know any­one, which gives you the chance to start com­pletely afresh. While all my friends had a safety net, I chose to freefall into the abyss — the abyss in my case be­ing­be­ing Durham.

I’m now in my third year as an English lit­er­a­ture un­der­grad­u­ate, but I can still re­call first ar­riv­ing and the feel­ing of over­whelm­ing lone­li­ness as my par­ents set­tled me into my room and waved good­bye.

But the doom and gloom very quickly faded. Faced with an en­tirely clean slate for the first time in what, for most of us, may be 14 years of ed­u­ca­tion, you can re­ally choose who you want to be friends with; peo­ple with whom you share things in com­mon be­yond your re­li­gion.

The clique-ori­en­tated as­pect of at­tend­ing a Jewniver­sity van­ishes, and while I can cer­tainly see the ap­peal of hav­ing a fa­mil­iar face be­side you dur­ing your first few days, you quickly form new friend­ships.

I would be ly­ing if I said I didn’t miss the nods of sym­pa­thy when­ever I say I’m “shvitz­ing” rather than looks of bewil­der­ment, and I’d like to be able to share my ex­cite­ment if a song comes on that re­minds me of camp seven years ago.

I can’t tell you I don’t feel an ache for home ev­ery year I’ve had to spend Yom Kip­pur at univer­sity, al­most al­ways co­in­cid­ing with the start of my aca­demic year.

It is hard hav­ing to fast while ev­ery­one around me, in­clud­ing my house­mates, are eat­ing and drink­ing, and reg­u­larly ask­ing why I don’t have just a glass of wa­ter if I’m so thirsty be­cause “who’s go­ing to know?”

They are com­ing from a place of kind­ness, but it sim­ply serves as a re­minder to me that a shared level of un­der­stand­ing is miss­ing in our friend­ship.

How­ever, I am ex­tremely lucky that my friends have em­braced our cul­tural dif­fer­ences with gen­uine cu­rios­ity, ea­ger to learn rather than re­main stub­bornly ig­no­rant.

De­spite the dif­fer­ences in our back­ground, our friend­ships, based as they are on gen­uine per­son­al­ity com­pat­i­bil­ity, rather than just time spent to­gether, are some of my most valu­able.

But then, even on the most re­mote cam­puses, you can never say there are no Jews around you.

Even with my de­ci­sion to skip out on JSoc, I’ve still man­aged to meet other Jews by what can only be ex­plained by some kind of deep­rooted mag­netic at­trac­tion

Freak­ing out our non-Jewish friends with “Jewish ge­og­ra­phy” or our mu­tual knowl­edge of Yid­dish, which I can only as­sume must sound like a made-up lan­guage (and largely is) re­minds me that while I may have es­caped the Jewish bub­ble, it will al­ways find me again.

And you know what? I don’t re­ally mind that.

While my friends had a safety net, I chose to freefall into the abyss’

El­lie Hy­man

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