When I told my grandmother – in one of those emails I’m guilted into writing every so often – that I was in an eating club, she was surprised. She told me that in her days at Smith, c. 1938, she had dated a few Princeton “men” (her quotes, not mine) and so was aware that, when it came to the eating clubs, Jews were flat-out excluded, and it was the rare Catholic who could find his way in (e.g., F. Scott Fitzgerald).
I knew this historical tidbit, of course – Jews don’t often miss opportunities to talk up past injustices and Princeton literature doesn’t often miss opportunities to talk up Fitzgerald. But hearing it in the form of a living memory – and from my rabidly secular grandmother, no less – struck the slightest of chords. I got her email in the midst of planning the final advertising push for Shabbat 360, which happened last Friday night. Not too long ago, getting 360 Jews in a room together wasn’t any harder than getting 360 people in a room together – you just picked your community right (e.g. the Lower East Side), and then did something that might attract 360 people. Homogeneity made things simple.
For better or for worse though, that’s no longer the case. And there were serious concerns from on high (i.e., from our sponsors) that even if we did get 360 people in attendance, less than half would be Jewish. As such, I found myself with two other Chosen People, holed up in my room late Wednesday night. We obtained the CJL email list from an inside contact, removed the people who had already signed up online, and printed personalized invitations – each name appearing just above the quasi-militaristic, clenched-fist, “Be Part of the Revolution” logo. (Get it? 360? a “revolution?”) Sorting these invitations by dorm, we distributed them early the next day to our troops on the ground – the CJL and Chabad student boards – who were exhorted in no ambiguous terms to deliver them in person.
To my knowledge no one did, though – and that’s probably just as well.
Incidentally, the Shabbat 360 logo – still flying proudly over McCosh walk, as of my writing this – was itself not uncontroversial. The first idea for the “revolution” emblem was the standard t-shirt picture of Che Geuvara, except with a Jewish star in place of the regular star on his beret. But it turns out that, in addition to riding a motorcycle, Che ran several death camps after the Cuban Revolution, where outspoken political dissidents were tried without jury and executed. This offended enough of our test group that we had to ditch the idea. And so our pure conception was diluted into something that doesn’t look quite as good on a t-shirt. No surprise – Jews aren’t big on pure conceptions. Nor death camps, for that matter.
In the end, our toned-down logo and Gestapo advertising succeeded: we got well over 360 dinner-goers, and there was no question that the majority were Jewish. The food – presumably kosher – was good, and an uppity Jew gave a short speech about how Judaism isn’t just gefilte fish and decrepit great aunts named Shprintze. He was right, I suppose – we really are out of the shtetl. But moderately assimilated
American Jews in pursuit of a definitive cultural identity still have some baggage to work through. What will eventually emerge remains to be seen.