A Rude Awakening by
(16 Stories)

Prompted By Finding Your Tribe

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Every Easter Sunday my mother dressed me, a Jewish child, in my best finery, fancy bonnet and all.  My older brother was discouraged from  going to  the local basketball court in his sweats and sneakers. The   unspoken message we were being taught was one of my mother’s cardinal rules of conduct called  a “shanda for the goyim”. This meant that we had  to keep a low, respectful profile when it came to our relationship with non-Jews. We were not to call attention to ourselves and do anything that would make us stand out to our Irish Catholic neighbors.  The strong implication was that to do otherwise, was  to release  the underlying disdain of people who were inherently anti-semitic. 

I never really absorbed  this fear, thinking that this was an old world  concept.  I was kind of a dreamy child, with romantic fantasies and ideas. I had my head in the clouds and my nose in a book.  Books fed into my fantasies, especially stories about what I imagined to be all-American girls who were  living a female versions of Andy Hardy. I dreamed of sharing an ice cream soda with two straws with “my steady” in a small  town local drugstore, having my mother actually sit down to eat with us (instead of standing up throughout the meal and serving), and having a Christmas tree while sitting around a warm hearth drinking cocktails. And the most important of those dreams and fantasies was  the plan  to “go away” to college.

When high school graduation approached, most of my close friends had planned to commute to one of the top,  highly rated,  New York City public colleges.  But I wanted to live in a dorm and make friends who weren’t born and bred in New York City.  It didn’t matter what college it was, as long as it had a campus and I had the freedom to recreate myself in the image of a Seventeen magazine co-ed.   Unfortunately, my choices were very limited, because my parents lived on a limited  budget.  But  after some research, I zeroed in on one of the inexpensive New York State’s teachers’ colleges.  My parents, especially my practical frugal mother, were perplexed.  “City or Queens Colleges are far superior academically to a teachers’ college!”  She was right, of course, but academics were the last thing on my mind.

My parents finally made me an offer they thought I couldn’t refuse: they offered to  buy me a (used) car.  In spite of feeling my mother’s understated panic that I would flee the nest,  I vetoed  that idea and I packed my trunk for “out-of town’ college. 

My parents drove me up to school, took me out to lunch, and bid me goodbye. When I went to check in at my dormitory called “Sayles Hall”  (it sounded so very waspy, not like the Morris Cohen Library at City College), I took a deep breath and told the students greeting me that I wanted to be known  as “Sari”, not Sara. The name Sara seemed old-fashioned, and I thought, very Jewish.   A new adventure called for a new name. 

I knew no one, but dorm life was  one big sleepover, without a parent checking up on you. Upstate New York is beautiful in the fall, and the campus, although modest, looked to me like my image of college life. Fridays and the weekends were special.  We were on our own for meals, for parties or even for some  studying.  What freedom! I had no regrets.

And I started making friends.  Girls who came from different backgrounds, religions and ethnicities. This was like camp, only more diverse and free wheeling.  My first really close friend was a girl name Caroline Schmoll, another freshman who lived in my dorm.  She was a firecracker: intelligent, enthusiastic and fun. We hit it off immediately, and were inseparable. Caroline and I would have long, late night serious talks about men, politics, and “life”, with the pretentiousness that only college freshmen have.  We would also laugh and party and I even shared my first drunken spree with her one Friday night. 

Caroline came from Rockland County, and although today it’s as much a part of the New York City culturally as any suburb, back in 1961 it was much more rural rather than overrun by malls and commuters. Caroline was brought up in a Protestant Church.  This was fascinating to me.  I never had a very close friend who was not Jewish.  We discussed religious beliefs with conversations that I remember to be open and friendly. One Sunday I even went with her to her Dutch Reformed church.   After the service I recall that she kidded about getting me “converted” (the minister said converting a non-Christian would be a person’s ticket to heaven). We laughed about it and it was pretty clear that although I liked “wasp”  affectations  I would never shake my Jewish roots.

In November of my first term, there was an announcement of a campus wide competition, with participation by all of the dorms, sororities and fraternities. Each unit would form a choral group and prepare Christmas carols to be sung in front of the student body.  This “Christmas Sing” was a long-standing tradition at the college and victory brought a trophy and bragging rights.  Since  our dorm housed only freshman, there was no one with experience to lead a chorus.  But I was a fresh graduate of the  High School of Music and Art and I had taken one semester of choral conducting as an elective.  So I happily volunteered. 

A business meeting was called for all student choral conductors, and I attended as the representative of Sayles Hall.  I remember very clearly sitting in the back of the meeting room  because  I was a  little intimidated by the many upperclassmen and I think I was starting to doubt my abilities as a choral director.  The leader of the meeting handed out an agenda, and the first item was  a recommendation that was proposed by  the members of the student affairs committee. They wanted to change the name of the competition from the “Christmas Sing” to  the “Holiday Sing.”  After an unanimous vote of approval on the issue, other items were discussed and I sat silently in the back for the entire meeting. 

When I got back to the dorm, I ran into Caroline’s room and happily told her about the vote to change the name of the sing. I kidded her how my very Jewish presence, even though I had sat completely mute, had somehow raised their consciousness.  She had been sitting at her desk and I remember her slowly lifting herself out of her chair, standing over me and shouting.  “You Jews have to change everything!”  There was venom in her voice and I was shaken and ran out of her room.  I don’t remember if I cried or gasped or answered her back, but later that evening I found a note  from Caroline slipped under my door. I didn’t save it, but I still  recall the gist of it. The hastily written explanation said that she had  lived in Monsey, NY her whole life and now the Jews were taking over everything. And she was fed up. She wrote that “she was not going to take a back seat anymore”.

This was probably the best time for a long late night conversation with Caroline about really serious things, but I never spoke to her again. I never responded to her vicious note. Nor did I ever seek her out. I don’t remember any dramatic looks or feelings of discomfort. We didn’t share classes and we didn’t cross paths. We just stayed out of each other’s way. I was deeply hurt by the incident, but somehow I was not surprised. Caroline had hit a raw nerve and I recall thinking that as a Jew I should have kept a low profile. I thought that I should have been more on my guard, suspecting that something like this might happen. My mother’s fears had been realized.

 Ironically, later on that year Caroline joined a mostly Jewish sorority, and the whole thing seemed  so puzzling to me. I probably could have sabotaged her and let some of the girls in the sorority know what had happened, but I felt strangely distant from her and the entire episode.  I don’t even remember missing her as a friend. 

I went on to have a very happy social life with friends from all backgrounds and to lead my chorus into the finals of the “Holiday Sing”. But l the  glamour of “wasp culture” was increasingly suspect. And after I graduated  college I started calling myself “Sara” once again.

Profile photo of Sara Gootblatt Sara Gootblatt

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Marian says:

    Sara, you’ve captured perfectly what it was like at that time to be a Jewish student, with all of its dilemmas. There were so many mixed messages. We lived in a non-Jewish town but my mother really wanted us to identify as Jewish, and how to navigate that was very confusing–just as your story describes. Being blond, blue-eyed, and on the tall side, I had many issues involving “passing” for WASP. Ironically, the worst time I had was at Brandeis, where the Jewish girls didn’t like me! When I got to California and Mills, I was more of a curiosity and actually better accepted as a Jew, go figure.

  2. Goodness Sara, I was stung reading your story.
    Thinking back I can’t remember any antisemitic episodes from my youth and certainly not during my college years at NYU, which then had a large Jewish student body.

    But years later in London where Danny was working we were at a party when someone told an antisemitic joke and others joined in. I was so taken aback I didn’t know how to respond then, and I can’t say I would know now!.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    What an interesting story, Sara. College is such a time of trying on identities. At least it was for me. So sorry that you had to receive such a vile note from a supposed friend, but glad you made it through despite that.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Such an interesting, sad story, Sara. And all too appropriate for the times we find ourselves in now.

    I went to a high school that had a very small Jewish population and we were singled out in some ways (I am from suburban Detroit). I remember, after staying out for the High Holidays in 9th grade, a boy who sat next to me in Home Room turned to me and said, “You are Jewish aren’t you?” I said yes. He asked, “Where is your nose?”, as if a hooked nose was a requirement. I had other such incidents too. It was all rather disconcerting. You handled yourself well. It is interesting that Caroline joined a mixed sorority. Good that you stayed away and kept on with your life.

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