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.