When I arrived last week for a writing residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I sat with my fellow new students in a basement room getting “oriented” and kvetching about the poor quality of the accommodations. But as we began to introduce ourselves and each other during a “getting to know you” game, I noticed a distinct lack of “witz” and “berg” and “man” as suffixes for people’s surnames.
Suddenly, I realized that I might be the sole member of the tribe — and I felt a whole lot more than seven hours from New York City. For me, a born and bred on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with extended sojourns in Cambridge, Mass, being that removed from a hub of Jewish activity isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.
Of course I’ve been a minority many times before: teaching in the Bronx; studying in Ireland with a host of Johns, Patricks, Colleens and Moiras from small Catholic colleges in the Midwest; once on a hiking trip on which my peers played very, very competitive sports. And on the whole, I’d been fine, of course. But there had been an aching loneliness for someone who would echo my “Oy veys,” share my allergies and bat-mitzvah stories, and not keep asking me what my Christmas plans were.
I began asking a few new friends if they, or anyone they’d encountered on campus, shared my religion. Soon I might as well have been known as Sarah “Is anyone here Jewish?” Seltzer. Although I didn’t have any takers at first, my opening up about my religion helped others open up to me. I was told by two people that I was the first New York Jew they’d ever met. I began teaching my new friends Yiddish phrases, although I had to stop myself from peppering too much of my speech with the mother tongue — as I didn’t want to seem affected or exaggeratedly ethnic. I did come to notice that I use the world “schlep” on an hourly basis).
Of course, after a few days, I identified a few Jewish students in other classes, and a handful of prominent Jewish faculty members. Even a non-Jewish visiting writer, Richard McCann, read an excerpt from a story full of Jewish references and told us that he had flirted with conversion.
But by the time he read his story, a few days into the residency, I no longer felt the need to seek anyone out based solely on their ethnicity. My new group of friends, not a Jew among them, didn’t feel alien to me the way the soccer players and the kids from the small Catholic colleges had. They were writers, after all: verbal, and opinionated, and nerdy and interested in new things. They were urbane, without necessarily being urban. They interrupted each other and worshipped humor and culture. They were my people, too.