My 72nd birthday that I celebrate today is a stark reminder that my 50th Hamilton College reunion quickly approaches. On that weekend Vickie and I shall be in Germany where we will teach about the Holocaust in schools, and I will speak in several churches and synagogues. I am sorry to miss it.
That said, I wish I could reflect more lovingly on my Hamilton years. I learned so much, but I often felt alone and lonely at our then men’s college in the middle of nowhere.
As a Hamilton student I was closer to academic probation than Phi Beta Kappa. It was not for lack of trying. I studied hard, but the knowledge the professors wanted me to demonstrate on exams did not seem to penetrate my brain.
My only real success on the Hill came on the tennis courts where I treasure my 50-3 varsity record and the ECAC and NCAA (regional, college division) tournaments that I won. Perhaps the most touching compliment I have ever received was when (our Coach) Mox Weber told me as he presented me the MVP award for the ’68 tennis team: “Steve, you’re the best team captain I’ve ever had, and that’s not just in tennis. That’s in all sports.”
Looking back, I see the total absence of Jewish life on campus in those days as one of the factors that led me to become a rabbi. I missed what had been a significant part of my childhood and high school years.
In my rearview mirror I also see a significant measure of what I call “academic anti-Semitism” on campus then. There were no Jewish studies courses and no Hillel or other outlet for Jewish religious or cultural expression.
I am thankful that the Hamilton of today is a very different place.
I thought of that academic anti-Semitism this past Wednesday when I attended a lecture by the Swedish Political Scientist, Johan Norberg at Sanibel’s Big Arts’ Forum. He spoke about all the advances that in learning and technology that make the times we live in the best era in human history. He lauded the contributions of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Africans and Asians all of which propelled human progress forward in important ways.
As I sat there I thought, “What about the Jews?
What about a people who comprise less than 1/3 of one per cent of the human population but who somehow has won 30% of the Nobel prizes given since the awards’ inception. Have we done nothing noteworthy enough to advance human progress?
I am convinced Professor Norberg’s omission was not accidental. His notes were in the open computer in front of him.
As his lecture progressed he spoke of the perils of extreme nationalism that creates barriers among people and place some in superior positions to others.
Without mentioning Israel by name, I heard behind his words all of the bromides and slogans of the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment) movement against Israel pushed so hard in many academic circles.
There was nothing overtly “wrong” with Johan Norberg’s lecture. He was urbane, witty, and entertaining. The audience seemed to enjoy the presentation although some commented that it lacked the substance and depth they hoped for.
But as I listened to Professor Norberg, I felt transported back to the Hamilton College I attended in the 60 ‘s. I felt isolated and alone. I felt part of “a people לבדד (l’vadad)) alone among the nations”, as Balaam in the Bible described the ancient Israelites. (Numbers 23:9).
We well remember when not enough people stood up for us when other marginalized us. Professor Norberg reminded me of those times.
It was not his intent, but he also reminded me that I must stand up for others who feel marginalized and alone even in this, the best of all eras to live in human history.