My Friend the Jew

"The system had been operating all around me from the day I came to college, and I had never seen it. I was a non-Jewish freshman pledged to a Jewish fraternity."

I entered the University ignorant of even the names of the fraternities. Whatever I had heard, from a brother or cousin or friends in other universities, had been completely forgotten. On my first or second day I was asked to lunch at a fraternity house, and went. On the next day I discovered that the godlike creature, the Editor of the Maroon, was a member of this very fraternity. When, on about the fourth day, I was asked to take the pledge, I accepted at once.

There followed what has since seemed to me a grand tragi-comic episode. I moved into the fraternity house, where I soon had, ready-made, all the friends I could possibly need for the course of the next four years. My roommate was a dour, dark, and silent freshman with a sharp native intelligence. He now makes vast sums of money writing novels about the wild and woolly West, but at that time he was much more concerned with such effete Eastern pursuits as French composition and English literature. There were a number of other brothers in the bond who are vivid in my memory: one became a celebrated football player and now coaches the new generation of heroes at Princeton; another was a lover of music, and taught me leading motives out of the Nibelungen Ring. Above them all, in a kind of hazy splendor like that which crowns a high mountain in the sun, dwelt the supreme god, A. B., the Editor of the Maroon. He was kind to me, suggested books to read, talked to me about the scraps of verse I used to write. Nobody I have seen since possessed quite his Olympian quality, and two or three kings, with a Pope and a President thrown in, could not possibly awe me now as he awed me then. In short, I was perfectly happy in that fraternity and led an existence for two or three months which – if prolonged for four years—might have made a great difference in many things.

Then, on the very day of our initiation into the fraternity, three months after taking the pledge, a girl asked me to cut my classes and take a long walk with her. She was a pretty girl, a freshman, whom I had met in the office of the Daily Maroon, and with whom I was conducting a sort of shy and tentative flirtation.  It was bitter cold that day; she was wrapped in furs and I decidedly was not; but we walked for many hours through the snowy streets, down to Jackson Park with its trees hung in ice, and out to the wintry lake. After we had been chattering about ordinary things for ten or fifteen minutes she suddenly opened up on me.

'I've been talking to various people around the Maroon about you,' she said with the frontal directness which is a disconcerting charm of American women. 'We all think you're a pretty good freshman. You might amount to something if you had any sense. I don't think you know what you're doing. I realize it's none of my business, but I've made up my mind to talk to you about it before it's too late.'

This meant nothing at all to me, and I said so.

'Oh, don't pretend that you don't understand,' she said. 'It's that fraternity. You can't possibly belong to it and make anything at all out of your college life. You'll be miserable in another year, when you know where you are. No girl will go out with you—no nice girl, that is. And you're barred from everything that makes college life what it is. Of course I know you're not Jewish, but everybody doesn't realize that, and I think it's a terrible shame.'

In my entire life I had never heard a more surprising series of statements. To say that I was bewildered is putting it mildly.

'But what are you talking about, anyway?' I asked. 'Why on earth should anybody think I was Jewish?'

'Because you belong to a Jewish fraternity,' she said.

There ensued one of the most ludicrous, painful, silly, and melancholy conversations it would be possible to imagine. In the course of it I made acquaintance with (a) the social system of the University of Chicago; (b) the Jewish problem; (c) the way of the world; and (d) my own colossal ignorance.  Incredible though it seems to me now, I had never known a Jew in my life, and had no idea that there were so many of them growing there, under my eyes. I had only the most romantic and provincial notions about Jews—I thought of them as bearded old gentlemen with magic powers and vast stores of gold. Except for Rebecca in Ivanhoe, I had never made the acquaintance of a young Jew even in literature. I suppose I must have thought they had sprung full-grown into the Middle Ages and thence into the oblivion of Eastern Europe. At any rate, the fact is that I had never thought of the Jews as a possibility in the here and now—as my contemporaries in America, in Chicago. To Lucy, my pretty little girl friend,—a very vise little girl indeed, striding along in her muskrat coat,—I must have seemed a complete imbecile. At first she refused to believe that any of this was new to me.

'You're sixteen years old,' she scolded. 'You've got a fair amount of brains. My God, boy, do you mean to tell me you don't know a Jew when you see one? Look at them, idiot; look at them. They have noses, hair, eyes, features, mouths, all different from anybody else. Can you honestly tell me you don't know that ___ is a Jew?'

And then the melancholy catalogue began. One by one we ran through the list of every member of my fraternity. They were all, it seemed, Jews. So were half the freshmen, male and female, on the Daily Maroon. Lucy did not know all of them, by any means, and took pains to let me see that she would never want to know them; but their names alone were enough for her.

The last name—the one I dreaded to pronounce—was that of the godlike senior, the Editor of the Maroon. And he, too, as Lucy proved by a merciless analysis of his name and appearance, was certainly Jewish.

After this I walked for a long time in silence. Lucy kept on talking, but I scarcely heard what she said. I was trying to realize that I had been living for nearly three months in a houseful of Jews and had never even known it. I was shocked, humiliated, and angry, not because my fraternity brothers were Jewish, but because I had not known about it. The shock would have been the same if they had all turned out to be Swedenborgians, or Spaniards, or vegetarians, or believers in the transmigration of souls. It made them a special caste, a marked and unvariable species, to which I could not possibly belong. To have failed to recognize a quality so singular was also a proof of abysmal ignorance on my part. I was naïve and provincial, of course, but I had never realized to what a degree. In the end I had recourse to that expedient which we all come to at one time or another -of refusing to believe the truth.

'Well, Lucy,' I said combatively, 'I don't believe a single thing you say, but let's just suppose for a minute that it's true. Then what? What's the difference? What possible harm can it do me to belong to a Jewish fraternity?'

She began a recital which—even then—horrified me. It horrifies me even more now, because I know that the state of affairs described was by no means peculiar to the University of Chicago or even to universities. The Jews, it seemed, could not possibly go to the 'nice' parties in college.  They could not be elected to any class office, or to office in any club, or to any fraternity except the two they had themselves organized; they could not dance with whom they pleased or go out with the girls they wanted to go out with; they could not even walk across the quadrangles with a 'nice' girl if she could possibly escape. And so on. The picture was painted with violence, but it was all quite true, as I was to learn before long. Hitler himself could not have invented a more savage and degrading system of anti-Semitism than that which had been worked out by those little monsters, the undergraduates. The system had been operating all around me from the day I came to college, and I had never seen it. As Lucy explained, my position was peculiar; I was a non-Jewish freshman pledged to a Jewish fraternity. My own brothers in the bond would naturally not explain these things to me, said she; and nobody else had the courage to do so.

It took another period of painful argument to convince me that these prejudices and restrictions existed. Having, for the moment, accepted them as true, I then asked why they should apply to me. Even a blind man could have had no trouble detecting that I was as Irish as Pat's pig. But Lucy, a wise and determined girl, was on the aggressive throughout the afternoon, conceding nothing; and before it was over she had nearly convinced me that I myself was regarded by my classmates as a Jew.

However much I may have disliked being taken for something I was not, this made no difference to me in the final decision. After hours of explaining, exhorting, and laying down the law, Lucy brought forth the suggestion to which all of this had been a preparation. It was that I should break my pledge to the fraternity, spend two or three months living in a dormitory (that is, a college hall), and then, in the spring, join one of the better Gentile fraternities.

I repudiated this notion with the greatest vehemence. What? Leave the place I liked best in the whole University?  Abandon the friends I liked so much?  Desert the roommate who was the only person I knew foolish enough, and amiable enough, to sit up arguing with me until two or three in the morning?  Above all, forsake the precincts hallowed by the presence of that saint, that prince of the world, the Editor of the Maroon? Impossible!

And on that note the afternoon ended.  We had walked from early afternoon until dark; we had ploughed through snow and shivered on the icy lake front; I had been more thoroughly upset than ever before in my sixteen years.  Lucy entered the gates of Foster Hall without knowing whether her effort had been in vain, and I went on home to the fraternity house, which now seemed to have been invested, between luncheon and dinner, with strangeness and mystery.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In