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Letter to the Editor: Memoir of a 'Goy' belongs in Steven King novel

Published: December 9, 2005
Section: Opinions


To the Editor:
Kevin Montgomerys tragic essay (Memoir of a Goy at Brandeis, Dec. 2), began with the appalling story of his experience at Bentley College, one which belongs in a Stephen King novel (it reminded me of the horrific conclusion of Kings Carrie). It ended with a painful description of exclusion and discrimination at Brandeis, driven by his experience of the Jewish/non-Jewish divide.

It is so hard to judge from personal anecdote whether what we experience is pervasive or anomalous. Whats needed is systematic examination, not oral history, and its already been done. In 2002, the Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis released a paper called Coexistence at Brandeis: Reflections and Recommendations. It was written by Cynthia Cohen, Lesley Yalen, and Belle Brett of the Brandeis Initiative in Intercommunal Coexistence, and funded by the Slifka Foundation. You can read it here.
Briefly: in significant statistical numbers, Jewish and white students felt more comfortable with their sense of community, equal treatment, and freedom to express their ethnic and religious identities than did their non-white, non-Jewish counterparts. The executive summary of the report could not have been clearer: Brandeis must address its commitment to its Jewish roots and its commitment to pluralism simultaneously. We believe that there will be a higher quality of community and coexistence at Brandeis if these two commitments are fully, explicitly, and creatively embraced. We have yet to grapple, publicly and firmly, with the omnipresent 800 pound gorilla identified in this report.

During the Autumn 2003 term, there was a campus explosion over several very provocative racist incidents. After having heard a senior Brandeis administrator say repeatedly, We need to own this issue, I tried to. I wrote a very academic essay on diversity issues at Brandeis, which appeared in a student magazine called The Watch;

you can read it here. It used the life of the famous German-Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn, and by extension the experience and perception of Jews emerging from the shtetls of Eastern Europe into modern Western society, as a metaphor for Brandeiss interminable struggles with Jewish heritage, Jewish identity, and Jewish entitlement. I thought that at a university, sounding like an intellectual would be a good way to start a public discussion. None ensued.

That European Jewish attempt to establish a modern, open, multicultural society, also identified with Felixs famous grandfather, Moses Mendelssohnone which can easily be described under the loaded term assimilationran smack into the twentieth-century carnage and annihilation that we know only too well. Our own institution was born in the aftermath of that horror;

and the institutions reluctance to embrace diversity is bound up with a powerful, related sectarian impasse over assimilation. The related institutional ambivalence is Brandeiss bread and butter, and its Promethean wound, all at once.

Kevin Montgomerys experience reflects that sectarian impasse, and burningly so. His story immediately reminded me of attending a small campus gathering on such issues last year. A non-Jewish undergraduate woman, from a Midwest home where Jews were the stuff of the Bible and not real life, recounted attending a Shabbat dinner where a young man said in front of her, Shiksas are for practice. I repeated this story to a colleague of mine, once a Brandeis undergraduate some thirty years ago, who told me there was a guy in his dorm with a poster having exactly that caption. I have non-Jewish friends who were in love with Jews, who were not introduced to their lovers family, because it was clear what would ensue. The result was personal heartbreak. Im sure that the same has happened with ethnicities and religions reversed.

Read into these anecdotes what you wantbut I have a personal one which is better. For years, I chauffeured my Jewish grandmother from her Brookline apartment to Sunday dinner in Lexington with my family. During the car ride, the recurrent theme—intoned with the regularity of a bass note in a Bach fuguewas: if you marry a shiksa, you will get no yerushah. (Marry a non-Jewish girl, lose your inheritance.) To keep the conversation going, I would usually respond, Grandma, if shes half-Jewish, can I have half the yerushah?

And thats what came to passone of my wifes grandmothers grew up on a farm in southern Indiana;

the other was the president of the Philadelphia Hadassah. Years ago, my wife played the piano at a Hadassah luncheon, preceded by a pep talk that Were mustard, theyre mayonnaise;

were half-sour pickles, theyre sweet gherkins;

were pumpernickel, theyre white breadin short, were Jews, and theyre… not. Theyre goyim. Theyre Kevin Montgomery.

At the end of her life, my grandmother was exhausted by heart failure and struggling with memory problems. Then in her nineties, she met my wife to be only once, just before we were married. Grandma Rose sat up in bed and planted her feet on the floor. You would have thought that she was having tea at the Ritz Carleton. The Defender of the Faith extended her hand, and with a radiant smile, said to my beloved wife, I am so happy and so pleased to meet you.

Harry Mairson
Professor of Computer Science