This may not be an original take, but going to college during a pandemic has not been easy. The magical feeling of being in a faraway land juxtaposed by cramped dorm Zoom calls creates an unnerving experience; at least, that’s how I felt while studying in Dublin, Ireland this year. To quell this isolation (and calm my mother’s nerves about my loneliness), I looked for clubs to join and was so excited to see that my college had the only Jewish society in Ireland. I joined immediately.
At the first meeting, we began with those horrid icebreakers: where we’re from, a fun fact about ourselves, all the prompts that make every student cringe. But, the last thing we had to say was our relationship to Judaism. As each person went, answers came forward like “I’m not actually Jewish, but my major is Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures” or “I have no relation to the religion, but I’ve always been fascinated by its customs.”
By the fifth person, the thought finally came to mind: Am I the only Jewish person here? The next person answered the prompt, and I knew. Yup, I was the only Jewish person there.
As my turn came, there was shock and delight as I said the joke I was planning in my head for the last 10 minutes: “I’m just your typical New York Jew.” I was elected to the committee that night and what followed was a host of highly comical, deeply disturbing, and still perplexing situations.
One day we had to create questions for a college-wide trivia night in which prompts were being provided by almost every school club. Our time was spent in a call and response where I would provide a question, and there would come a reply of, “Great! And the answer to that would be?” Trivia questions such as “What is a b’nei mitzvah?” or “What is the holiest day in Judaism?” stumped every member. When we brought in a guest speaker whose mother survived the Holocaust, I was instructed to advertise him as a “second-generation Holocaust survivor” to boost attendance even though that term is confusing and problematic. During our Passover Zoom, one female member showed up wearing a yarmulke, to which the chair, a baptized and confirmed Catholic, responded, “Yes! Women can wear yarmulkes too,” while everyone else nodded in agreement, never stopping to think that while Jewish women can wear yarmulkes, non-Jewish women should not. The committee once proposed changing the celebration date of Holocaust Remembrance Day to better fit everyone’s schedule, justifying it by saying we could still post something on Instagram on the actual day.
When we eventually met in person, I spoke to the chair about how I only have one Jewish parent but still grew up practicing. “Oh good!” they exclaimed. “Sometimes I worry I’m doing a bit of cultural appropriation, but that makes me feel better.”
I wondered for weeks how our two situations were comparable until I had to conclude: they were not. They just wanted to use me as a way of making them “feel better.”
Hanukkah candle lightings, Passover seders and Purim parties went from questionable to respectful now that there was someone there to serve as even just a physical reminder that their events had cultural and religious significance. But still, issues persisted.
One of the worst incidents occurred when the Israel-Palestine conflict came back into the news and reached new heights on social media. With Ireland being a majority pro-Palestine country, a member of the committee suggested we make an Instagram post in support of Palestine. I pointed out that, no matter our personal beliefs, if we did, we would lose our rights as the university has a rule against non-political clubs making political statements. We took a poll, decided not to post, and this member quit in response, saying they could not work with people whose default position was “disavowment and appeasement.” While this text was sent to the whole club, it felt like it was meant for me.
While I can look back on some of these stories and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, they, do bring up an important issue in the culture surrounding Judaism. From those who have been practicing for generations to people who have dedicated their time and hearts to converting, this faith has come into people’s lives in many ways, none of which should be shamed. However, the romanticization I witnessed in the club had none of the education or care that comes with accepting the Jewish faith.
With antisemitism reaching heights not seen in decades and a socially conscious generation becoming increasingly powerful, I fear it’s popular amongst some white people to prove they are not as privileged as their skin color makes them seem by pretending to be Jewish or coopting our traditions. In a country such as Ireland, which is still dominated by the Catholic church and hosts only 2,557 Jews as of 2016, this is extremely easy to get away with and exceedingly detrimental.
From jokes about me being cheap to being asked at a party where I kept my horns, antisemitism has shown to be a prevalent issue in Ireland that most of these Jewish society members will never have to experience. Indeed, their lack of awareness displays how many privileges they truly have: of not needing to understand the history, of not worrying about carrying a stigma wherever they go, of never fearing attacks based on their beliefs.
During my time as a member of the society, a pattern formed of the occasional Jewish American student joining the club for a week and then disappearing forever. I still don’t know why I didn’t follow them, but I know staying taught me invaluable lessons.
The fetishization of my religion made me feel isolated and tokenized in a country where I was already an outsider, but it reinforced my love for those who have found their spiritual home in Judaism, strengthened my belief in the importance of Jewish education, and serves as a constant reminder of the need to give every culture the respect it is owed.