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You’ve probably heard it before. It’s commonly said that there are three topics one cannot broach in conversation: religion, politics, and money.
I have a confession: I am a repeat — if not serial — offender when it comes to one of them. While I do not blab, unsolicited, about a Swiss alps vacation, or talk my problem set buddy’s ear off about abortion, I do talk about religion. And not just with people who know me well.
Why, by a month into the semester, did everyone in my PSY 1 section know that I am an Orthodox Jew? Why do I have a compulsive need to alert the people around me to my religious identity? It boils down to a few reasons.
Sometimes, the situation just forces me to explain my practices to avoid confusion in the future. Several times during the week leading up to Halloween, people would ask me what my plans were for the holiday, and I felt the urge to describe my religious identity in response to questions like “What are you doing for Halloween?” (answer: “nothing”). No matter the week, I cannot work or answer any texts for the duration of the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. So I always know that when a group project is assigned, I must soon explain that although it may seem like it, I am not ghosting my partners for 25 hours each week.
In some cases, I feel like I need to tell people that I am religious in order to avoid embarrassment or exclusion. While the people around me talk about their favorite Jefe’s orders — which I have never tried because they are not prepared according to Kashrut, the specific dietary and food preparation requirements of Judaism — I feel an urge to justify my lack of participation. “It isn’t that I live under a rock,” I want to yell, “or that I don’t like Mexican food! I just can’t eat at Jefe’s!”
These are cultural phenomena, woven into the fabric of a typical college student’s life, that I am clued into but will never be able to experience fully. My observance of the Sabbath and Kashrut will always dictate my lack of participation in many conversations about Friday night football games and bad dining hall dishes. Harvard’s dining halls, in particular, are designed to breed friendship and a sense of community. When the only foods in the Lowell House dining hall that I can eat are microwave meals, fruit, and cereal, I am hardly spurred to show up three times a day, meaning I lose out on auxiliary social benefits. Similar phenomena occur almost daily, guaranteeing that the quintessential Harvard experience will always be out of my reach.
However, inconveniences notwithstanding, the majority of the times in which I bring up religion in public are because of my unabashed identity as a Jew. I take a tremendous amount of pride in the way my identity distinguishes me — kosher food, special mode of dress, holy day observance, and all — and makes me feel fulfilled. I mention my religious affiliation in conversation when it arises, not out of a sense of duty, but because I wish to.
Before Harvard, I was introduced to the philosophy of “Halakhic Man” by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in which he argues that the legal and ethical principles of Judaism should govern every aspect of a Jew’s life. I grew up in a relatively insular religious environment, where I attended school and associated almost entirely with other Orthodox Jews; the way of life that Rabbi Soloveitchik described was almost a given. However, at Harvard, the halakhic lifestyle governed by Jewish law and tradition is anything but spoon-fed. I spend hours of my day praying and studying religious texts, trying to uphold myself to the standards that I hold dear.
The practices that take up so much of my time are things that I care deeply about, and they naturally bleed into my social and academic life. I could note the connection between the Book of Esther and Arabian Nights — both involve an insomnia-ridden king who cycles through hundreds of suitors — to myself, but it is much more satisfying to do so aloud in section. When asked in an icebreaker what I do for self-care, I could say I was working out or spending time with friends, or I could mention the 25-hour period each Sabbath in which all of the distractions of my day-to-day life melt away. Time and time again, I reveal my Jewish identity to the people around me, gaining a bit more confidence in the confession each time.
Judaism values the concept of a “Kiddush Hashem,” literally translated as “sanctifying God.” It refers to behaving in such a way publicly that people around you recognize that positive actions you perform are due to your religious identity. My teachers and mentors have told me that my existence as an Orthodox Jew at Harvard is a living example of this philosophy. My Jewish life on campus isn’t just the moments of impassioned spirituality, but also those of alienation. I would like to suggest that this idea bears greatly on religious students on this campus overall. Be proud of your faith. Talk about it, write about it, bring it up in class, because that might be what gets you through the next moment of religious isolation.
Leah R. Baron ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Statistics concentrator in Lowell House.
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