Ellie Hyman

Jewniversity? I chose a different path

Starting university this week? Ellie Hyman has some thoughts.

September 19, 2017 10:56

 Going to university as a Jew is a funny thing. Take the phenomenon by which you will always know someone who is a fellow Jew, or know someone who knows someone. Three years in, I still struggle to explain it to my non-Jewish friends.

“How do you know him?,” they ask as I exchange a familiar hello with someone they have never seen before as we’re walking towards lectures.

“Oh, he’s just Jewish,” I reply, as if that offers sufficient explanation.

And this is at a university where there’s only a handful of Jews. Going to a Jewniversity ia a whole different ball game. Joining a university with more or less the majority of your school year must be an experience almost entirely unique to the Jewish community.

Where most people see university as a clean slate, somewhere that you can start completely afresh, attending a Jewniversity — Nottingham, say, or Birmingham — is entirely the opposite. Your legacy precedes you; your friendship group is largely already established, unless you have deliberately chosen to venture completely away from the Jewish circle and make an entirely new group of friends.

Not many do that, though. For most, you start university with your friendship circle already established, adding to it slightly along the way with housemates, Jews from other parts of the country whom you went on camp with in Year 8, or the occasional "honorary Jew" (read: not Jewish but may as well be). But that’s more or less it.

Faced with the daunting prospect of leaving the security of home and heading off to uni, this can seem like a comforting option.

Your alternative is doing what I did; deciding to choose a university not so densely populated by Jews, one where you don’t know anyone, which gives you the chance to start completely afresh.

While all my friends had a safety net, I chose to freefall into the abyss — the abyss in my case beingbeing Durham.

I’m now in my third year as an English literature undergraduate, but I can still recall first arriving and the feeling of overwhelming loneliness as my parents settled me into my room and waved goodbye.

But the doom and gloom very quickly faded. Faced with an entirely clean slate for the first time in what, for most of us, may be 14 years of education, you can really choose who you want to be friends with; people with whom you share things in common beyond your religion.

The clique-orientated aspect of attending a Jewniversity vanishes, and while I can certainly see the appeal of having a familiar face beside you during your first few days, you quickly form new friendships.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss the nods of sympathy whenever I say I’m “shvitzing” rather than looks of bewilderment, and I'd like to be able to share my excitement if a song comes on that reminds me of camp seven years ago.

I can’t tell you I don’t feel an ache for home every year I’ve had to spend Yom Kippur at university, almost always coinciding with the start of my academic year.

It is hard having to fast while everyone around me, including my housemates, are eating and drinking, and regularly asking why I don’t have just a glass of water if I’m so thirsty because “who’s going to know?”

They are coming from a place of kindness, but it simply serves as a reminder to me that a shared level of understanding is missing in our friendship.

However, I am extremely lucky that my friends have embraced our cultural differences with genuine curiosity, eager to learn rather than remain stubbornly ignorant.

Despite the differences in our background, our friendships, based as they are on genuine personality compatibility, rather than just time spent together, are some of my most valuable.

But then, even on the most remote campuses, you can never say there are no Jews around you.

Even with my decision to skip out on JSoc, I’ve still managed to meet other Jews by what can only be explained by some kind of deep-rooted magnetic attraction

Freaking out our non-Jewish friends with “Jewish geography” or our mutual knowledge of Yiddish, which I can only assume must sound like a made-up language (and largely is) reminds me that while I may have escaped the Jewish bubble, it will always find me again.

And you know what? I don’t really mind that.

September 19, 2017 10:56

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