For my last piece in WSN, I thought about writing a sentimental reflection on my time at NYU. Every time I started, however, the piece transformed into a sappy, trite mess. Instead, I decided to finally put to paper one of my earliest experiences in college — the Shabbat Dinner.
When I arrived at NYU, I had only one friend in the city, Rachel, who I knew from high school. I was bad at meeting people, so during Welcome Week I attempted to get out of my comfort zone by attending several events. Rachel texted me about an NYU improv event on Friday, which sounded like a very New York thing to do. I also saw on the Welcome Week website that there was a dinner before the show at the Bronfman Center, so I suggested we go for the free food.
In retrospect, I should have looked up what a Shabbat dinner was beforehand. Before college, though, I had met exactly one Jewish person because I come from a very, very, very Catholic town. Therefore, I went in blind. I arrived exactly when the dinner was scheduled to start and texted Rachel to see if she was there yet, because I didn’t want to go in alone. She responded “Yes, I’m inside!” So I walked in.
She was not inside. In fact, she had gone to a completely different building.
When I entered I saw a very long table with all of the seats taken. I moved to go stand on the side, but no, the man at the head of the table kindly offered his place so that I could sit down, visible to everyone. It was then that I realized that this was, in fact, a slightly more religious event than I had anticipated. And that’s when everyone started singing together in Hebrew.
Perhaps were I less embarrassed I could have handled the situation better, but my first reaction was to hide my face with my hand and start mumbling the one bit of Hebrew I knew, which was “Hava Nagila.” As the song ended, Rachel finally arrived. I then looked over and saw, way across on the other side of the table, one of the only people at NYU who could at that point have possibly recognized me — my CAS college leader. We made eye contact and he started waving excitedly, as I slowly died on the inside. He came over and said, “I didn’t know you were Jewish.” I cleverly replied, “I’m not, but I know someone who is.”
At this point, I had made my way over to a group of friends with a plate of food in my hand, hoping to avoid talking to anyone else. That immediately failed when the rabbi came over to talk to us. Rachel and I exchanged a quick glance that said, “OK, let’s pretend we’re Jewish.” The rabbi asked about our religious communities at home, at which we mumbled something about there not being a lively synagogue scene. She then asked where we were from, and after we replied she said, “Oh, I lived there for 20 years!”
By now, I was sure I was close to death. But then, out of nowhere, someone accidentally put a napkin into a candle and a table was suddenly on fire. People tried throwing their grape juice onto it to no avail, and the rabbi announced, “I have to handle this,” and hurried away.
I am not a religious man, but looking on at the fire, I could not help but think of the burning bush that spoke to Moses. And from that moment, I learned a valuable commandment that I followed for the rest of my college career: thou shalt not pretend to be Jewish.
Email Thomas Devlin at [email protected]