Saturday, October 1

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Confronting religion

Before Outdoor Action took off for what was fated to be a sadly truncated, very wet hiking trip, my leader took me aside and assured me that all my needs as an Orthodox Jew who observes kosher dietary restrictions would be met. He asked me if I had any concerns relating to my religious observance, adding, “Nobody else knows that we’re a kosher group. You’re not going to stand out.”

Not sure how to respond, I thanked him. I regret that now.

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My OA leader was wrong. I skipped half of the packing process on Saturday because of Sabbath observance. During the trip I prayed for 10 minutes every morning, a ritual wherein I appeared to be talking to myself and bowing to the ground. I washed my hands before eating bread and said blessings on my food.

I most certainly stood out.

At first nobody asked questions. The bewildered discomfort that all freshmen experience during the first few days of hiking and trowelling with strangers was potent enough to stifle their curiosity about the freakish eccentricities of a fellow OAer. As we ran out of conventional topics of conversation and games like ‘I spy’ began to lose their charm, my religious eccentricities were finally broached. What is kosher? Why do you have so many rules? How many types of Jews are there? Each conversation did a little more to break down the barrier erected by my strange practices.

My overall feelings about the OA trip are decidedly positive. I am still disturbed, however, by my leader’s assumption that “standing out” would negatively affect my experience. There was a version of don’t-ask-don’t-tell in place with the goal of making the Orthodox kid fit in seamlessly. My religious observance could have been swept under the carpet had I so chosen, an awkward personal quirk politely ignored by my new friends.

This policy of minimizing religious differences adopts the political correctness of indifference to skin color, nationality or sexual orientation and applies it to religion. You’re an Orthodox Jew? We won’t tell. And yet — would a French student appreciate being told that nobody will notice her accent? Why promise a gay teenager that nobody in his peer group knows of his orientation if he is open about his sexuality? These assurances imply that there is something embarrassing about the student’s identity. Moreover, religion, unlike the aforementioned categories, is a choice. If anything, the assumption upon encountering people with unusual religious practices should be that they are proud of their faith. If they weren’t, why would they continue following a way of life in an environment where conformity is so much easier? I can’t imagine complying with kosher dietary restrictions, thereby limiting my social opportunities, dining hall options and restaurant choices, if I were ashamed of my observance.

In fact, the misplaced (and false) reassurance that I would blend in was more for the sake of the other OA participants’ peace of mind than my own. Witnessing strange practices, indicative of a way of life and philosophy widely different from one’s own, can be unsettling. For freshmen, the overwhelming, anxious priority is to “fit in” — and anyone who does not conform to that standard is disconcerting. Attempting to ignore someone else’s alien cultural or religious practices, however, can only lead to misunderstanding and discomfort for both parties. Had my OA friends refrained from asking questions, they would have been bemused and possibly disturbed by the strangeness of my unfamiliar customs, and I would have experienced all the distress of imagining how bizarre my behavior must appear.

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Religion is an uncomfortable topic. It causes tension, disagreement, and generally has the unfortunate effect of making people squirm. Candid dialogue does much to mitigate this embarrassment. Wholly avoiding any mention of religion will leave a large hole in one’s relationship with a religious student; the lack of understanding that ensues must prevent the formation of a truly empathetic friendship. That said, in the case of non-religious students who dislike the subject or religious students who are sick of explaining themselves, not every conversation has to revolve around religion.

A friend recently told me, “I don’t think of you as Jewish.” I was both amused and offended. My immediate response was, “I am Jewish!” To which she answered, “Yes, but I don’t think of you like that.”

Undergraduates who are strongly religiously affiliated are going to face repeated trials to their faith on campus. A Christian student will be offered a job on the condition that he work Sundays. A Muslim student might have a course schedule that interferes with her times of prayer. If they continue to translate their beliefs into practice despite the challenges, the last thing they want to hear is an assurance that their religion does not make them stand out. Religion is an integral part of our identity, and undervaluing or pretending not to notice it is tantamount to rejecting a large part of who we are.

Tehila Wenger is a freshman from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at twenger@princeton.edu.

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