Majoring in Judaism

This Chanukah, find what in Jewish life sparks a flame and inspires your dedication. 

This story comes from the JW archive. 

by Rabbi Jennifer Krause
Winter 2010

Photo by Alan Levine

Photo by Alan Levine

It’s graduation day in New York City. The subway cars are filled with cap-and-gown-clad crowds and their entourages of proud family and friends. Complete strangers look up from their newspapers and lower the volume on their iPods to offer congratulations, with some mazel tovs thrown in for good measure. As a professor of Jewish studies at the City College of New York (CCNY), that May it was my mazel to be riding the train to graduation, too.

When Dr. Roy Mittelman, director of the Irene and Michael Ross Program in Jewish Studies, presented a young Pakistani Jewish studies major with her diploma, something happened I’ve never seen before and I know I’ll never forget. As she received her diploma, she also offered a gift. She explained that she had asked her mother to find and bring this gift to the United States as a reflection of the unforgettable experience she’d had as a major in this discipline.

“It’s a chumash,” she said in perfect Hebrew, “written in Urdu.”

The Torah, written in the official national language of Pakistan; a gift made by a non-Jewish graduate in Jewish studies that would soon join tractates of Talmud, the commentaries of Rashi, Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, the collected stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath on the shelves lining the walls of the library where we sat. Nes gadol haya sham. A great miracle happened there.

Stories like this one are miraculous, indeed. But they are not uncommon. Some 95 percent of the young people who take Jewish studies courses at CCNY, as well as those who complete their university educations with Jewish studies majors and minors, are not Jewish. They are Hindu, Muslim, Seventh-Day Adventist, Catholic, Coptic and Greek Orthodox—just to name a few. Immigrants and the children of immigrants from Egypt, Haiti, Iran, Colombia, India and countries all over the globe have made CCNY home to the largest Jewish studies program in the country whose students are almost exclusively everything but Jewish.

In the early to mid-20th century, a thriving Jewish studies program at City College would have made perfect sense. At one point, Jewish immigrants and the children of Jewish immigrants comprised approximately 85 percent of CCNY’s student body. They studied there at what some called the Harvard of the Proletariat because it was what they could afford or because private universities made certain they would not afford Jews the opportunity to walk through their hallowed halls and ivy-trimmed gates.

But why are the City College students of today who have no organic attachment, inherent responsibility or prior exposure to inherited Jewish texts, Jewish tradition or Jewish wisdom finding their way to Jewish studies in increasing numbers each year? And they aren’t just majoring in Judaism. They’re falling in love with it.

Every semester of each academic year, I see my students fall in love with Judaism. To explain why or how they fall would be just as challenging as presenting empirical data as to why any of us falls in love with another human being.

When I’m not in the classroom, I spend some of my time in rooms filled with lots of people who worry for the present and future of Judaism and Jewish life. We worry for good reason.

We don’t know what makes our own people care enough to place themselves squarely in a chain of tradition, what makes them choose to learn, to teach, to cherish our inheritance, to lay claim to it, take responsibility for it, expand it and continue building it so that those who come after us will have something to guide and inspire them. We want to know where we’ll be in a generation, in two, in ten. We want to know if we’ll be at all. We look to the past and fear we’ve lost something in the present. We look at the present and fear we’re losing our future.

What I can say definitively is this: These students are not encumbered by the past. They are not waiting to feel something special because they’ve been told they should. And when they do discover something that speaks to their lives, they don’t worry whether their parents will approve of what they’ve found, whether a community will determine they’ve found the “right” source of connection, or whether what sustains them will be enough to sustain the life of an entire people. They are unafraid. They don’t hold back. Perhaps it’s their youth, the sheer excitement of learning and having the world with all its possibilities stretched out before them.

All I know is when they spark to Judaism or when Judaism ignites a spark in them, the word that immediately comes to mind is “abandon.” Because that’s what it takes to fall in love. And I wonder what it would be like if we approached Judaism with some abandon of our own.

According to the rabbis, the Maccabees had to go forth with great abandon. A simple handful of lines in the Talmud tells their timeless story and teaches us how Chanukah came to be. We all know it. We all relate to it. For everything we forget or never had a chance to learn about our festivals and celebrations, this story has staying power. With action, suspense, heroism, redemption and, of course, a happy ending, it has something for everyone. It is the tale of the miraculous.

Yet, the miracle of Chanukah is not that we emerged victorious from battle; it isn’t even the single cruse of oil the Maccabees found for the eternal lamp above our sacred altar left in ruins. Surely they knew that enough oil for even one day would never an eternity make. Yet they did not save it, they did not hide it, they did not guard or preserve it. They did not focus on the fact that it was the only remnant of the Temple’s past glory, nor did they deliberate as to what might happen when the light went out again. The eight days of light that ensued were a surprise, to be sure. But the miracle of Chanukah is that they dared light the lamp at all.

“Chanukah” literally means “dedication.” To dedicate is to devote, to give without hedging or hesitation. It is no easy feat, and is not fitting for every moment or for all times. But there are some moments when it’s exactly what we need.

Perhaps Chanukah is the perfect time to find what in Jewish life kindles a flame in us and inspires our own dedication. Perhaps Chanukah is the time to dive into one text, one tradition, an idea, a book, a ritual and just enjoy it; to get to know it without baggage or concern, without shouldering all the weight of the past or wrestling with questions of the future. Maybe if we, like the Maccabees, like a room full of college students who have everything to gain and nothing to lose, celebrate this holiday with abandon, we may just find ourselves falling in love with Judaism for the first time or all over again. By candlelight.

Dubbed “one of NYC’s hippest rabbis,” Rabbi Jennifer Krause is the author of The Answer: Making Sense of Life, One Question at a Time (Perigee). Her writing and commentary also have been featured in Newsweek, The New York Times, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She has served as the High Holidays rabbi at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, where she also makes frequent appearances as a moderator and speaker.