|Too Jewish But Not Jewish Enough:
Anxieties of Self-Presentation and Self-Perception at the University of Virginia
By Anne Grant ‘12
Jewish Studies - Distinguished Majors Program
University of Virginia
Table of Contents:
Abstract ………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 3
Acknowledgments ………………………………………………………………………………………. 4
Introduction: Giving a Bad Name to Jews …………………………………………………… 5
Chapter 1: Alienation from UVa’s Mainstream Social Culture ……………………. 23
Chapter 2: Embarrassment with Jewish Visibility ……………………………………… 46
Chapter 3: The Gay Pride Parade of Judaism: Israel Advocacy
and Other “Obnoxious” Representations of Jewish Life ……………………………… 72
Chapter 4: Sharing in the Jewish Psyche: Desire to Connect with Jewish Life 90
Conclusion …………………………………………………………………………………………............ 97
Appendix …………………………………………………………………………………………............ 102
Works Cited …………………………………………………………………………………………....... 106
In this ethnography of Jewish students at UVa, I analyze, primarily through thirty long-form, in-depth interviews, perceptions among these students about their social orientations within both Jewish and non-Jewish social communities. I completed these interviews between October and November in the fall semester of 2011; I also used information from two follow-up interviews that I conducted later in the school year. I spoke with students whose Jewish identities range from religious observance, to solely cultural affiliation, and even to complete disengagement with Judaism. This study focuses on the anxieties of self-presentation as relayed to me by a stratum of Jewish students who are particularly ambivalent about Jewish identity at UVa. In this study, I discuss the self-perceptions of this subgroup of students, who experience feelings of mutual alienation from both mainstream (and mostly non-Jewish) social circles at the university and the Jewish community itself. Regarding estrangement from the Jewish community, this subgroup and even students who exhibited strong Jewish identities voiced disillusionment with the materialism and overt Israel advocacy that they observe in American Jewish life.
Paradoxically, despite their criticisms, even members of this alienated subgroup of students still seemed to want to engage with Jewish life. The interviewees manifested this desire in such varied ways as positively referencing their Jewish upbringings, participating in Jewish life on-campus, or traveling to Israel on Birthright trips or other programs. I argue in this paper that anxieties of self-presentation and self-perception pervade the experiences of this stratum of alienated Jewish students, most of whom come from culturally Jewish families in the Northeast. In UVa’s conservative, Southern social environment with heavy Christian undertones, these alienated students feel more Jewish than they ever have before. Still, they lack what they may view as the necessary Jewish education or religious upbringing to participate in the Jewish community, a group about which they may know very little. They are too Jewish to feel that they fit in with mainstream UVa culture, but they do not feel Jewish enough to take an active role in the Jewish community at UVa.
This project would not have been possible without the generosity of the UVa students whom I interviewed. Thank you to these students! Everyone provided incredibly insightful and honest input about their experiences, and I very much appreciated the opportunity to learn about them in such an intimate way. Thanks to my advisor James Loeffler, whose advice and investment in this project as well as in all my Jewish Studies pursuits have been hugely helpful throughout my time at UVa. Thank you also to Gabriel Finder for his excellent input throughout the project and for teaching me so many new and surprisingly useful Yiddish words. Thanks also to Vanessa Ochs, who gave me the idea to start writing about these issues in the first place and who has been wonderful to me. Thank you to Jake Rubin for investing so much in the Jewish students at UVa; we are so lucky to have him as Hillel’s director. Thanks also to Jenna Mitzner, who has done incredible outreach to Jewish students at UVa—her work has already positively impacted participation in Jewish life at the university. Thanks also to Lila Berman, whose interview helped me direct this project in a way that makes sense within a much wider context of American Jewish history.
Thanks also to my wonderful friends in the Jewish community (by blood or by association!)—Phil, Rachel, Kendall, Elena, Ben, Lech, Sloane, Zoe, Steven, Alexis, Huston, Zaina, Peter, Sara, Steven, Julie, Prue, and especially Erin. And a way belated thanks to my very special Gentile friends Aneesha and Rona, who have sucked it up and come to Hillel with me so many times—yeaaahhh Boxenhaus!
Thanks finally to the Jewish Studies faculty—I have really enjoyed getting to know everyone.
Introduction: Giving a Bad Name to Jews
“You’re giving us a bad name, Sarah,”1 her roommate Lauren warned in a slightly aggravated, singsong voice from the kitchen of her apartment after she overheard her roommate Sarah describing to me the “crazy ones” within the Jewish community who vehemently support Israel. That afternoon, I had been conducting an interview with Sarah at her apartment for a Jewish Studies research project about Jewish life among undergraduates at the University of Virginia. This project originally began as an attempt to gauge students’ political support for Israel, yet the interviews quickly took an entirely different turn. For instance, during that afternoon, the first interviewee Sarah had begun voicing anxieties about negative perceptions of certain segments of the American Jewish community among non-Jews. When Sarah’s roommate Lauren, also a Jewish student, then jokingly criticized Sarah for describing the Jewish community to me so negatively, Lauren’s behavior reflected a pattern of anxiety regarding Jewish self-presentation to non-Jews that appeared throughout the interviews.
While the interviewees ranged widely in Jewish affiliation and observance level, I found that a certain social stratum of Jewish students manifested a surprising self-consciousness about their Jewish identities. During my interviews with this particular group of students, they revealed strong feelings of disassociation from both the mainstream culture of UVa, which they perceived as overtly Southern and even Christian in nature, and from the American Jewish community itself. Not only did these Jewish students express perceptions of their own Other-ness in comparison with their non-Jewish peers at the university, but they also manifested feelings of strong disassociation from their own Jewish identities and the American Jewish community itself. A tension emerged among these ambivalent Jewish students between their understanding of themselves as undoubtedly different from others because of their Jewishness and their simultaneous discomfort when being identified with the wider Jewish community, both at UVa and on a national level. These students seem to be caught in a no man’s land of ambivalence between their Jewish identities and the culture of the non-Jewish UVa world that both surrounds and alienates them. On one hand, these students feel too culturally or otherwise Jewish to assimilate into UVa’s social scene as they perceive it because, as Jews, they feel hindered from accumulating vital connections within influential Southern and Christian social networks at the university. On the other hand, these students’ Jewish identities are perhaps too thin in UVa’s largely non-Jewish social environment for them to feel confident about their knowledge of Judaism and to participate in Jewish life at UVa in a deliberate, engaged way. Perhaps due to lack of extensive Jewish educations or to their own negative perceptions of Jewish life, these particular students feel acutely estranged from the Jewish community to which they often belong only by name.
The University of Virginia: An Overview
Founded in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia, the University of Virginia reflects the impressive historic and architectural legacy of its founder, third American president Thomas Jefferson. Considered Virginia’s flagship public institution of higher learning, UVa attracts highly competitive applicants for both its undergraduate programs and its various graduate schools in law, business, medicine, engineering, and the humanities. Among undergraduates, most students come from Virginia: during the 2011-12 school year, 69.4% of UVa students were Virginia residents.2
While UVa possesses the prestigious reputation of a major research university buttressed by an impressive historic legacy, it has also gained notoriety for its distinctively preppy, white Southern social culture. For instance, national publications such as the Huffington Post have taken note of UVa’s reputation as a white school; the news source listed UVa as second among its list of 2012’s preppiest colleges.3 Even high-end preppy clothier Brooks Brothers, the oldest menswear retailer in America, selected UVa as one of fifteen universities for which it created individualized, logo-emblazoned college apparel in 2011.4 Demographically speaking, UVa is also mostly white; during the 2010-11 school year, 12.2% of the university’s 14,039 undergraduate students identified as Asian, and 8.0% listed their racial background as African American.5 UVa’s conservative white roots extend reach far back historically. The university prohibited the matriculation of black students until 1950, and women only began enrolling at UVa twenty years later in 1970.
UVa’s contemporary student culture reflects not only its historical Southern roots but also its affluent student body. Greek life at the university began in 1852, 33 years after the institution’s founding, when the first chapter of the prestigious fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) was established. Since then, fraternity and sorority life has expanded greatly to total 55 Greek chapters today; approximately 30% of UVa students claim membership in these Greek organizations.6 Despite the misleadingly low statistical percentage of students involved in Greek life, fraternities and sororities cast a long shadow over the university’s mainstream social culture. On weekends, packs of expectant first-year undergraduate students crowd the entryways of various fraternities, most of which are elegant brick mansions with white columns, on the university’s famed Rugby Road. Fraternity parties with readily accessible alcohol often dominate the social lives of many of these underclassmen, who live in dormitories and cannot take advantage of UVa’s bar scene or host their own house parties.
The impact of Greek life as a respected social institution at UVa stretches beyond weekend nightlife and into other spheres of student culture at the university. For instance, UVa’s largest student-run philanthropy event Pancakes for Parkinsons, during which students serve pancakes in exchange for donations to Parkinson’s Disease research, holds a donation competition exclusively for Greek participants. Outside the student community, even UVa’s administration recognizes Greek life as an integral part of the university’s culture. For instance, the Office of the Dean of Students annually administers the Greek Awards, which recognize fraternities and sororities for achievements such as Outstanding Chapter, Most Improved Chapter, and Best Programming.7 From the administration’s benevolent recognition of fraternities and sororities, to fraternities’ prominent and well-endowed off-campus houses, Greek life represents a large chunk of the mainstream social culture of UVa students.
Outside the Greek system, other UVa student organizations perpetuate a network of socially elite students. Selective extra-curricular activities comprise another vitally important facet of student life at UVa, a university known for student self-governance. Competitive organizations such as Student Council, the University Guide Service (known by students for the group’s selectivity and high alcohol consumption), the academic Honor Committee, and the University Judiciary Committee comprise a social network of high-achieving, involved students. While no formal ties exist between the fraternity and sorority system and these extra-curricular activities, together these groups create a hierarchy of elite social involvement in UVa’s mainstream social culture.
Christian culture is a crucial ingredient in the murky mixture of Southern, white, and preppy influences that dominate UVa’s social scene. It is not just the commonplace Christian paraphernalia, such as cross necklaces, worn by students to class, that indicates the prevalence of Christian culture at UVa, but the overall environment of UVa itself. For instance, the waiting list to reserve UVa’s historic Chapel for the weddings of (obviously Christian) alumni can stretch on for years. At UVa, Christianity represents the default among students regarding their backgrounds; Judaism significantly diverts from this typical student profile. For students with a strong interest in developing their Christian faith, fellowship and worship groups include panoply of organizations, such as the Catholic Student Ministry, InterVarsity, Eunoia, and Reformed University Fellowship, among others. Evangelism manifests itself in various interesting ways, from recruitment of Christian students for fellowship organizations, to testimonials about the power of Christian faith at special events sponsored by the Campus Crusade for Christ in conjunction with the Athletic Department.8 Even UVa men’s football coach Mike London, credited with improving the team’s record during his first two seasons at the university, leads the team by “unapologetically following the mantra of ‘faith, family, and football.’”9
For Christian students, their various faith communities provide extensive social opportunities to develop friendships and romantic relationships with other students who share their religious beliefs. These organizations even converge with Greek life. For instance, several selective fraternities and sororities contain contingents of religious Christian students who are sometimes referred to jokingly as “God Squads.” Among these students, their social connections within the Greek system and their fellowship groups overlap significantly. While the specific relationship between Christianity and Southern UVa culture is ambiguous, it certainly exists in university life.
Jewish Life at UVa
Where do Jewish students fit into this unique social culture? Of UVa’s approximately 14,000 undergraduates, about 1,400 students, or 10% of the student body, identify as Jewish.10 Two primary institutions, Chabad and Hillel, exist at UVa to provide these students with resources related to Jewish life. Run independently by a Hasidic rabbi and his wife separately from UVa, the Chabad House is considered among Jewish students to be the significantly more religious of the two organizations. Situated in a small house that is soon to be renovated off-campus near first-year dormitory housing, Chabad offers Jewish students a homey atmosphere, with Shabbat dinners every week and many other events pertaining to the Jewish religion, culture, and holidays. Some students report that, while they appreciate the welcoming attitude of the Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Mayer and his wife Channa, they sometimes feel frustrated by the couple’s attempts to make students “more Jewish.” Students cite the couple’s seemingly ultimate interest in matchmaking as problematic. Some also dislike their persistence in frequently contacting them before Chabad events to encourage the students’ attendance.
Conversely, Hillel arguably caters to a wider base of Jewish students at the university, many of whom identify as culturally or ethnically Jewish. Having just undergone a $2.3 million renovation that was completed during the spring of 2011,11 the large white Hillel building with black shutters, now called the Brody Jewish Center, stands on a quiet residential street off-campus. Reconstructionist rabbi Jake Rubin, himself a 2002 UVa graduate, and Assistant Director Jenna Mitzner supervise mostly student-run organizations that conduct their work through Hillel. Some of these groups include the Jewish Leadership Council, the Jewish Social Connection, the a cappella singing ensemble Hootzpah (a play on the word “Hoos,” a nickname for UVa students), and the Israel advocacy organization Hoos for Israel. Especially during this year, Hillel has raised the profile of Jewish life at UVa. For instance, collaborating with Chabad, Hillel organized an event called Shabbat 300 in March of 2012, which brought together 300 Jewish students and faculty, along with other UVa community members, for a Shabbat dinner. While many students enjoy the pluralistic nature of Jewish life at Hillel, some complain that Hillel feels cliquey and socially exclusive.
Aside from Hillel and Chabad, the last several years at UVa have seen the introduction of both a Jewish sorority and a fraternity (after an absence since 2009) to campus life. Sigma Delta Tau, a nationally Jewish sorority, officially joined the Inter-Sorority Council of UVa in March of 2011.12 The nationally Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, on the other hand, has experienced a somewhat rockier history at UVa. After closing down because of suspected hazing practices, the chapter made a comeback (and a new charter) in March of 2012.13 After a six-month period of probationary rebuilding, Alpha Epsilon Pi will once again join the Inter-Fraternity Council as a chapter member. Interestingly, both Sigma Delta Tau and Alpha Epsilon Pi maintain relationships with Hillel. For instance, Alpha Epsilon Pi holds meetings in Hillel’s Brody Jewish Center; its re-chartering ceremony on March 21, 2012, took place there as well.14
As a Jewish Studies undergraduate major from a non-Jewish background, I have spent my time in college as somewhat of an insider-outsider within the Jewish community. My participation in Jewish life at UVa in this capacity has allowed me to closely observe Jewish students’ interaction with the majority non-Jewish student body. By interviewing many students whom I have known throughout my time at UVa, I was able to record extremely personal, no-holds-barred accounts of many of these Jewish students’ often-uncomfortable experiences at UVa.
Initially, I planned to interview 30 Jewish students at UVa in order to answer the following question: How do efforts by Hillel’s Israel advocacy organization Hoos for Israel to transmit a Zionist message to University of Virginia students reflect the tensions among young Jews today over Israel’s role in their Jewish identity? At the time, I wanted to test the contemporary assertion among some scholars that young American Jews today feel alienated from Israel because of the perceived disparity between many Jews’ liberal political views and Israel’s policy decisions regarding its Arab population. As political pundit Peter Beinart astutely observes, “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”15 Similarly, through his sociological studies of American Jews, Steven Cohen also finds that young Jews are growing increasingly and seemingly permanently detached from Israel.16 To test these findings on a micro-scale at UVa, I designed a standard set of interview questions17 through which I hoped to gauge Jewish students’ support for the existence of Israel, as well as their levels of emotional and political attachment to the country. In addition, I asked students about any previous travel experiences they may have had in Israel through family trips, Birthright, or other programs. The following pie charts demonstrate the variation in Jewish students’ backgrounds and experiences.
As these charts demonstrate, many of the students with whom I spoke come from Jewish families in the Northeast, with a few exceptions from Atlanta, Georgia. 22 out of the 30 students whom I interviewed had previously traveled to Israel, and the majority of the interviewees expressed some emotional attachment to Israel. This group of students is not designed to be a representative sample of UVa’s Jewish population according to geography. Rather than a qualitative survey or a purposely varied research sample, this project is an ethnography that details only the perceptions of this certain group of Jewish students. As a researcher, I was interested in learning about their very personal, subjective experiences in their own words. Among the interviewees, only two are first-year students. I found that upperclassmen provided much more detailed, reflective interviews than younger students, likely due to their extensive time spent at UVa.
“You Will Never Feel More Jewish Than You Do at UVa”
One of the most striking findings of these interviews is a discernible pattern of alienation from UVa’s mainstream social culture among a large number of the students with whom I spoke. Perhaps due to the details inherent to their Jewish backgrounds, such as clothing choice, geographic origin, common expressions, and holiday celebrations, these students expressed an acute alienation from their non-Jewish peers in mainstream social circles at UVa. Demonstrations of alienation ranged from feelings of not fitting in socially, to recollections of antisemitic comments from other students and other observations of hostility toward Judaism at the university.
Regardless of whether or not non-Jewish students at UVa in fact ostracize their Jewish peers at the university, many of the students with whom I spoke perceive themselves to be socially disadvantaged and at times alienated because of their Jewishness. For instance, one fourth-year student repeatedly pointed out the perceived sense of her own distinct Other-ness as a Jew at UVa. As she explained this feeling, she referenced a Jewish UVa alumnus who had once told her, “You will never feel more Jewish than you do at UVa.” For many interviewees like this student, this feeling of being different from their many Christian peers at UVa has defined their social experiences at UVa.
Mutual Estrangement: Jews’ Alienation from the Wider Jewish Community
According to these Jewish students, the American Jewish community leaves them with feelings of estrangement that echo their similar attitudes of alienation from UVa’s mainstream social culture. Interestingly, many of the interviewees—both those who exhibited strong, confident Jewish identities and those with ambivalent attitudes towards their Jewishness—described feelings of disassociation from American Jewish life as they perceive it. They discussed what they perceive to be the cultural markers of contemporary American Jewish life—materialism, ostentation, and JAP (Jewish American Princess) culture. In addition, the widely publicized Israel advocacy movement, arguably Jewish life’s most visible facet, also garnered intense criticism from many students. Among the interviewees, Taglit Birthright trips to Israel played a large role in their (often humorous) descriptions of American Jewish culture as materialistic and Israel-centric. As opposed to spiritually meaningful Jewish rituals or other community-based events, Israel and materialism emerged as prominent aspects of Jewish life. In fact, several students seemed to view the American Jewish establishment—typified by groups such as AIPAC and other organizations that promote support for Israel to young Jews—as bothersome and manipulative.
Most criticisms of Jewish life in America revolved around the American Jewish establishment’s rallying around the Israel advocacy movement. In this project, I do not discuss Israel advocacy as a political cause in detail. Rather, I emphasize alienated Jewish students’ perception of the movement as a source of embarrassment for its visibility to non-Jews, who may view these Jewish activists as extreme and needlessly ostentatious. Several students expressed the concern that the advocacy movement represents an “obnoxious” aspect of the Jewish population that discredits the entire Jewish community to non-Jewish Americans.
Regarding their travels to Israel, especially through the Birthright program, many students seemed thankful for the opportunity to experience Israel firsthand. At the same time, these students consistently referred to the trip in a tongue-in-cheek manner and described the program as propagandistic. Specifically, several students accused the American Jewish establishment of financially supporting Birthright trips for the sole purpose of eventually raising money for Israel advocacy efforts.
A Persistent Sense of Ownership over One’s Jewish Identity
Despite their ambivalence toward their Jewish identities, even estranged Jewish students seemed to feel some sense of ownership over their Jewishness. For instance, when they read the news, many of the interviewees feel obligated to follow events surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some even expressed guilt when they admitted that they are out-of-touch with current events in Middle Eastern. While these students clearly view their Jewishness as problematic or disadvantageous in various respects at UVa, they also seemed to feel inextricably connected with that exact problematic Jewishness. Many of these students tend to bond socially with other Jewish students and demonstrated through their interviews that they want to connect with their Jewish identities, despite their negative perceptions of the American Jewish community. Paradoxically, while this group of alienated Jewish students collectively expressed ambivalence about their Jewishness, they also seemed to care in some capacity about Jewish life.
According to many scholars, postmodern ambivalence about one’s Jewish identity, as well as anxieties when interacting with non-Jews, are central to the American Jewish cultural landscape. Examining a wider pattern of Jewish self-justification to non-Jews in America throughout the twentieth century, Berman argues that the presentation of Jewishness to non-Jews “became a political necessity and an act of Jewish survival.”18 Berman further asserts that the development of the social sciences in the 1920s created a crucial opening for rabbis and other American Jewish leaders to explain Jewishness, with all its cultural and behavioral markers, in a new, sociological language.19 Anxieties among Jews about self-presentation in non-Jewish social settings appear in popular culture as well as academic studies. For instance, prominent comic book artist Kominsky Crumb literally illustrated Jewish insecurities among non-Jews in the 1970s by poignantly dramatizing Jews’ perceived physical differences from non-Jews through cartoon drawings.20 While these anxieties among Jews about their Other-ness certainly persist today, these concerns of self-presentation and feelings of alienation paradoxically do not reflect American Jews’ actual position in society. Shapiro specifies, “The Jewish economic and social profile diverges dramatically from that of Gentile Americans. Jews are wealthier, more likely to be found in the professions, academia, and the upper ranks of business, and attend universities in greater numbers.”21 As Goldberg rightly points out, Jews’ anxieties in the context of wider non-Jewish American culture contradict the reality of their success in America. According to Goldberg, while antisemitic attitudes in contemporary America have diminished to a “virtual zero point,” American Jews’ fear of antisemitism has sharply increased, and has even doubled between 1983 and 1990.22 Goldberg’s observation of the “perception gap”23 between Jews’ reality and their negative self-perception as a group certainly reflects my findings from this study, which examines these feelings among Jewish students within the microcosm of UVa.
While I agree with Goldberg that antisemitism is certainly not the threat to Jews that it used to be in America, I would not go so far as to say, as he argues, that antisemitism is nonexistent. An international survey done by the Pew Research Center in 2008 revealed that, while negative perceptions about non-Jews are lower in America than in countries like Spain (with about 46%) or Russia (with 34%), 7% of Americans perceive Jews negatively.24 Clearly, antisemitism is still somewhat present in American society and is likely more pervasive in some regions of the country than in others. That said, given the success of Jews in American society, Jews do not face on a large-scale the flagrant prejudices and biases that previously pervaded American society.
For young American Jews who have grown up repeatedly hearing about the tragedy of the Holocaust, the threat of antisemitism, rather than the presence of antisemitism itself, poses an obstacle to Jewish self-confidence. Internalized antisemitism, I would argue, also plays a role in feelings of discomfort among Jews with their identities. For young Jewish adults, it is no longer important necessarily to ask whether antisemitism exists because the simple threat of antisemitism itself can damage their self-confidence as Jews.
In the following sections, I will outline the aspects of the dual alienation that I observed among these particular Jewish students from both the mainstream non-Jewish culture of UVa and also from the American Jewish community itself. I will discuss students’ feelings of social and religious estrangement, as well as these students’ and others’ discomfort with Jews’ visibility within the wider UVa social landscape. Finally, I will point out that, despite this mutual estrangement, students are still seeking to connect with Jewish life.
I argue in this paper that these perceptions of alienation among a certain stratum of Jewish students at UVa result in anxieties among this group of ambivalent Jewish students. Caught in a no man’s land of perceived mutual estrangement from non-Jewish and Jewish social communities, this particular group of students feels that they are unwelcome in both of these social circles. They are too culturally Jewish when interacting with non-Jewish students at UVa, but they are not Jewish enough to confidently identify and engage with Jewish communal life at UVa and on a national level.