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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Brandeis unofficial language requirement

Published: November 9, 2007
Section: Opinions

Upon graduating high school, I thought of myself as being prepared for college. At least, I thought my academics were up to par, and that I was ready for the world of Academia. I thought that since I read the New York Times regularly and kept up with my readings in philosophy and literature, my vocabulary would be more than ready for a collegiate environment.

However, my studies of words and vocabulary did little to prepare me for my experiences at a predominantly Jewish university. Now dont misunderstand me, I had Jewish friends back in high school. I regularly attended Yiddish Club. I went to Bar and Bat mitzvahs. I could sing the Dreidel song. Most importantly, I even knew how to kvetch with the best of them. Yet these few interactions and phrases were mere stepping-stones to my cultural adventures at Brandeis. It all started with words regarding Jewish lifestyle practices like: shomer shabbos, shomer negiah, kosher, and the keeping of the Sabbath. For some, these words were second nature, but for me, well, they represented a new and sometimes even intimidating culture about which I knew very little. After my first weekend at Brandeis, I can remember one phrase coming to mind: Toto, were not in Kansas anymore!

Then, for reasons I would only later understand, I kept getting days off at school. Now, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, I knew all those holidays, even if I only knew that all my Jewish friends would just miss school, I still knew that they existed. But Sukkot? Purim? Shemini Atzeret? I somehow missed those being mentioned in Yiddish club! And what about words like mezuzah, tefillin, mitzvah, Tikkun olam and Aliyah? Where were these words in my high school education?

The fact is they simply werent. Even though now I encounter almost all these words on a regular basis, I did not have exposure to them until I came to Brandeis. And while these words are beautiful words, (how many other cultures demand us to repair the world [Tikkun olam]?), for many of us at Brandeis, these words are foreign entities that need to be learned and discovered. I do not want anyone to hesitate using these words, but please before you do, just in keep in mind that your audience may or may not understand what you are saying.

For a quite a few students at Brandeis, we are far away from our homes, from our cultures and traditions. Like Dorothy, we have been uprooted from all the things comfortable and familiar and have landed in an unknown place, strange but wonderful all at the same time. So before you use some of these words, remember that Dorothy is not in Kansas anymore, but rather she has landed somewhere in Oz. And I am sure, as any person in a foreign place would, that shed sure appreciate a friendly face and some patience and understanding.