Going to Harvard was my childhood dream. The culprit: the Harvard Club in New
York City. The place is awe-inspiring, full of high ceilings and stuffed animal
heads. There’s even a woman who sits at the entrance to make sure visitors are
Behavior is governed by rules that are difficult
to master. These days, when I head to the Club for an event or to interview
prospective students, I dread unwittingly violating a rule! My dad was a Club
member. He took my family there when I was a kid. If the Club is awe-inspiring
for adults, imagine the effect it had on a little girl. When I was six, during
dinner at the Club, I informed my mother that I would be going to Harvard for
Thrilled is not a big enough word for what I felt when I was
accepted to Harvard over 10 years later. It was a benediction. My confidence
soared. From the day I opened my acceptance letter in December until the
following August, when freshman year started, I floated on a cloud of eager
My parents drove me up to the campus in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. When they dropped me off at my dorm, my mom gave me a handwritten
note with words of wisdom to guide me now that I was on my own. In addition to
advising me that “hot showers always help when you’re sad,” and “men like women
who listen,” the note exhorted me to “find the Jews.”
This confused me.
Like New York City, Harvard is 25 percent Jewish. It seemed that I would stumble
upon a lot of Jews without having to seek them out. I was aware of the 1920s-era
“Jewish quota,” an Ivy League admissions policy that limited the number of
Jewish students. As Jerome Karabel explains in his book The Chosen: The Hidden
History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the policy
was based on a conviction that “‘character’ was... in short supply among
Jews....” I knew those days were over. In 1999, when I was a freshman, Harvard
Yet Harvard’s history is not defined by Jewish cultural
influence. The name of my freshman dorm, Wigglesworth, attests to that. I didn’t
have to do research to figure out that Mr. Wigglesworth was not
Ivy League social clubs (which look like the Harvard Club
inside), too, are not in the Jewish tradition. These private “final clubs” were
still open only to men in 1999.
Becoming a member was a rigorous process
that involved many “comp (audition) rounds,” consisting mostly of cocktail
parties at which hopeful members showed off their social graces. Just as
suburban high school cheerleaders make the rest of the (less blond, less
cheerful) girls feel bad, many of the male Harvard students felt inferior in the
presence of socially adept final club members.
Most Harvard men wanted
(secretly or not-so-secretly) to be final club members. At the very least, both
of my serious college boyfriends did. Though these two men were different in
many respects, both were Jewish and funny. You never knew what either of them
Both endured the pride-swallowing comp process at a final club
called the Delphic. Neither made the cut. Being rejected by these clubs cast
each man’s awkwardness and even Jewishness in stark relief.
I was prone
to awkwardness and funny but inappropriate comments myself, but I was a girl.
Final clubs had looser standards for women (or at least looser standards for
getting into parties). For women, good looks trumped awkwardness and a tendency
to tell socially inept jokes.
For me, getting into parties was easy.
(Talking to people once inside was another story).
Then my turn came. I
joined the Harvard Lampoon, a different kind of social club, and a co-ed one.
Lampoon members wrote and published a humor magazine. They also spent a lot of
time mocking suave final club men and concocting plots to attract pretty girls.
The Lampoon had a “comp” too. One member assured me that “it was not a social
comp,” meaning that the Lampoon comp tested humor writing skills, not social
Social or not, the Lampoon comp was emotionally
The boyfriend I was dating during the miserable and humiliating
process made an astute comment about the Lampoon: “It’s not for Jews.” (If only
he had been so self-aware about the Delphic!) At the time, I didn’t know what he
Now I understand.
It’s not that Jews are excluded from
final clubs. The Lampoon in particular has quite a few Jewish
The bottom line is that “social comps” clash with Jewish values.
Testing a person’s willingness to humiliate himself (or herself!) to gain
membership in an exclusive club tends to be low on our list of priorities.
Jewish tradition prizes intelligence above social grace, authenticity above
I take great pride in being a Harvard alumna. I am so very
lucky I had the chance to go to this intellectually exhilarating school. It was
a great match for me. I tolerated the Lampoon comp because I knew being a member
would be fun, and it was. To this day, some of my dearest friends are from
Harvard. I am delighted that, as a full-fledged Harvard Club member, I no longer
need to wait for my dad to take me to dinner there! Yet I know the mismatch
between Harvard’s values and Jewish values extends to campus animosity toward
That is a difficult pill to swallow.
The recent “Israeli
Apartheid Week” highlighted the tension. Held annually for the past few years,
mostly on college campuses in the US and Canada, its goal is to depict Israel as
an apartheid state. During Israeli Apartheid Week this year, the Harvard
Palestine Solidarity Committee posted mock eviction notices on student dorm-room
This was a shrewd way to attract attention. And the Harvard
administration did not respond aggressively. If it had, it would have been
viewed as allying itself with Israel. There may have been a pull toward
resisting this perception.
Harvard is a bastion of liberal political
Politically conservative students are in the minority, and
they are marginalized. Being anti-Israel is subsumed under the umbrella of
“liberalism.” At Harvard, if you are pro-choice and pro-gay rights – as most
students are, or hold themselves out to be – it seems to follow that you are
anti-Israel. Meeting opposition and hostility when I voiced pro-Israel ideas
made me feel like an outsider.
I wish liberalism could be divorced from
anti-Israel sentiments at Harvard. I wish Israel was not held to more stringent
standards than are other counties. These are modest goals. Israel’s policies are
not unassailable, but blind devotion to them is no more necessary than it is
warranted. I simply wish it wasn’t cool to be anti-Israel at Harvard.The
writer is an attorney in New York.