I Was the Only Jew in My Religious Studies Class, So I Had to Speak Up

My parents’ generation did not take a semester in college to “study abroad.” Perhaps it was because 30 years ago, it was less common to pursue graduate degrees and thus more important to stay at your university for the entirety of your four years. Maybe it was a financial disparity. Or, perhaps, that generation was closer in time to the atrocities of fascism and totalitarianism that had absorbed Europe in the 20th century. My family, on both sides, has stories of escaping Europe. Going back is a privilege. 

I had this in mind while choosing to study abroad in Spain for a semester. As an Ashkenazi Jew, I knew good and well how my people were treated in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. But I was ignorant to the toll and legacy of the earlier atrocities against Sephardic Jews, seen blatantly in the populations of many cities in Spain. 

I set off for my semester abroad with the goal of improving my Spanish, and found a city that seemed to encompass everything I was looking for: Córdoba. The city, where my hometown rabbi took a group for a bat mitzvah ceremony, boasted a rich history of religious diversity. Short history lesson: In the 1400s, the city was home to Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in harmony. That is, until the Inquisition, which caused all Jews in Spain to either flee or convert to Christianity. I later learned that many Spanish cities, especially the larger ones such as Madrid and Seville, had bounced back and rebuilt their Jewish communities — Córdoba had not. Yet, from what I understood before traveling there, the city would offer boundless teaching moments about interreligious harmony.

During my course selection, I prioritized a class about the history of monotheistic religions, centering the history of Islam and Judaism. To my disappointment, the course focused mainly on the semitic linguistics (yeah, I still don’t really know what that is) and only offered a few concrete lessons about the intricacies of Judaism and Islam. The inquisition was not discussed, and neither was the history of the city we were studying in. It felt like a huge missed opportunity. 

It also soon became clear that I was the only Jew in the class. In fact, hearing the questions students asked, it became clear that most people had never even met a Jewish person before, and their only idea of what a Jew could be was a man with a long beard and a top hat. 

I found myself dizzy trying to keep up, in Spanish, with what my professor would say about Jews. Once or twice, I was sure an anti-Semitic generalization was uttered, but I was too timid to say anything. The classroom environment of long, meandering lectures during which I would drift in and out of focus left me with too much uncertainty to take a stand. I also knew that what I would say would carry weight. If these people had literally never met a Jewish person before, what I said had to be thoughtful and somehow representative of an entire group. That’s a lot of pressure.

However, one day, the teaching assistant taught a lecture. Her lesson was far more organized than the senior professor’s, complete with a powerpoint and slides of text. I understood almost everything that day. During the lesson, which discussed the books of the Jewish bible and somehow morphed into a conversation about what modern Jews are like, my Cordobesan professor made a comment about Jews in New York, saying something like, “No Jews in New York City wear yarmulkes.” 

So, you know, that’s incorrect. I suppose I was glad that she was dispelling the false idea that all Jews are Hasidic, but I had to say something. I rolled my eyes to my classmate and he encouraged me to speak up. In exasperation, I blurted in my American-accented Spanish that, “No es la verdad” — that’s not true.  And all eyes turned to me. 

I explained, shaking and in stunted Spanish, that there is diversity among Jews and how we dress and express our religion, using “we” to make it known that I, in fact, was also Jewish. The professor herself began asking me questions and then students followed, inquiring about the holidays, whether I keep kosher, and if I had a bat mitzvah. It was the first time I had to explain the entire identity of Jewishness to complete strangers. 

I was worried that their ignorance would lead to unkindness, but really, the curiosity of these students felt genuine and respectful. Our cultural differences subtracted the nuance but also relieved their desire to tiptoe around hard questions, and this was actually a relief. The rest of the class period was basically a Q&A with Maddy, and although I was high on adrenaline, I didn’t really mind.

“You should teach that class,” my friend joked once we were dismissed. I laughed, half agreeing. But now my secret was out: I’m a Jew. 

For the rest of the semester, I felt that the energy of the classroom changed. Not only did I speak up when I heard something incorrect, but I could tell that the stakes of conversations seemed to rise, knowing there was a Jewish person in the room. People began to ask more questions, even paying attention a little more. During my final project presentation — about the feminist roles of Miriam and Ruth — I felt comfortable sharing that Miriam Ruth is my Hebrew name and what it means to me. I was glad to answer questions as they came up, and felt empowered to challenge classmates when I noticed something wrong in their claims. 

This genuine curiosity came up again among my roommate and her family. When I visited her family in Valencia, we had a very long conversation about religion and what it meant to them, and their mixed feelings about their own Catholic upbringings. They argued that religion and feminism cannot coexist, something I disagree with strongly. Facing this disagreement head on was frustrating, but eventually enlightening. As I have noticed in other parts of my life, sometimes being open about what is important to you can teach you a lot about others, too. I don’t believe everyone should have to answer for an entire people, but when the question comes out of a place of love and curiosity, I was proud to speak for my fellow Jews. 

This experience also showed me firsthand the importance of representation in spaces where an identity is being discussed. We can’t have conversations about inclusion, or “fascinating” histories of an entire people, without any members of those marginalized groups in the room. Sadly, I know a few friends who have felt the need to hide their Judaism for safety reasons while traveling abroad. I feel lucky that I lived in a place where my Jewishness, while definitely outside the norm, was embraced for the most part, at least to my face. My Jewish identity isn’t always visible, but when I find myself hiding it, that is usually the moment when I feel the need to speak up, wherever I am. 

Image via Eliott Van Buggenhout/Unsplash

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