The Only Jew on Faculty
Years ago, at one of the first work events I attended as a then associate professor of Jewish studies at a Catholic graduate school in Chicago, a middle-aged man whom I had never met made a lasting, albeit unintentional, impression on me. Toward the end of the evening, after the speeches had been delivered and people were mingling, this gentleman made eye contact with me from 20 feet away. Soon, he was marching toward me purposefully, holding a plate of desserts in one hand.
“I just want to let you know,” he said after taking my hand and pumping it up and down, “that we are so glad that you’re here.” He spoke to me with a broad and eager smile.
“Why, because I’m Jewish?” I heard myself, the only Jew on faculty, blurt out. After waiting a beat, and barely registering that his smile had frozen in confusion, I added, “Well if so, then I thank you.” I walked away with my chin lifted and my cheeks burning. For the remainder of the event, I felt angry and alone, ashamed by my hostility and embarrassed by my failure to behave cordially.
After the event ended, I went to my office to pick up my things and stopped by the office of a close colleague before heading home. I told him what had happened and waited for some rebuke about how I had messed up. Instead, my co-worker looked at me for a long moment and then broke into peals of laughter. As he doubled over, I started laughing, too, exhilarated and mortified by what I had done. We laughed at my defensiveness, my self-righteousness, my bottling up of the long suffering of the Jewish people into my psyche, of 2,000 years of history that had brought me to this Catholic institution. We laughed for this poor fellow, who had only meant to be nice. We laughed at the absurd awkwardness of the situation, at my speaking the subtext in a place where subtext is rarely spoken out loud. We wiped tears off our faces and said good night.
Every few months after this happened, the story would come up again one way or another.
“I heard from one of my students the other day that he’s really enjoying your class,” my colleague said to me one morning as we stood in line waiting to buy coffee.
“Why, because I’m Jewish?” I answered in a testy voice, and with that, we came undone. Colleagues standing behind us smiled, confused and curious, wanting to be in on the joke.
“I forwarded you an email about an interesting conference you might want to attend,” he told me as we exited a faculty meeting.
“Why, because I’m Jewish?”
“I have to tell you about a great show on Netflix that I just started watching,” he said over lunch, sandwich in hand.
“Why, because I’m Jewish?”
The joke aged well, better than I could have imagined, and highlighted the increasing absurdity of my paranoia.
A few years after the original incident, my colleague left the institution. Without him around, my memory of our joke as being hilariously funny began to dissipate until it no longer felt funny at all. When I did think about the joke, I thought less about my tart response and more about the man’s comment, “We are so glad that you’re here.”
I began to realize that my retort was an impulsive reaction to his use of the word “we.” He was a nonfaculty member, and I found offensive his implication that he was part of the “we”—but I was not. If he was a board member or trustee or some affiliate of my institution, why was he more legitimately a member of the “we” than I was? But I wasn’t in the “we.” Indeed, I had never been part of the “we.”
Nothing like this will ever happen to me again. More than six years after that evening, and after assuming the chair of the Jewish Studies department, I am too practiced in the art of interreligious small talk. I am more polished and self-controlled than I was then. More than anything, I am now comfortable being the only Jew at the school, and I don’t expect my Catholic colleagues to see me as anything else. When they say the words “we” and “you” to me, I understand what they mean. In fact, people still say to me things like “we are so glad that you’re here.”
Sometimes these words should be taken literally, a heartfelt “thank you for being here.” But sometimes I suspect that what people are trying to articulate is a more complicated emotion. Perhaps my presence helps ameliorate the guilt of historic Jew hatred and oppression and embodies the Catholic Church’s efforts to reconcile past misdeeds against the Jews. Indeed, my presence affirms that the Church has a broadly positive relationship with the global Jewish community. At the same time, however, my work as a professor of Jewish studies often calls upon my Christian students to face a difficult legacy of Christian oppression and persecution of the Jewish people.
Other times, I interpret the phrase kindly, thinking they are saying, “We see that you are sacrificing a part of your individuality in order to be tokenized, and that you are doing this in service not only to the Jewish people but to the Church. We see the sacrifice that you have made. It means something to us.”
With the recent rise in antisemitic violence, the phrase has come to mean something else altogether. Antisemitism has brought new dimensions of loneliness into my professional work, and hearing this phrase now invokes a fresh subtext: not a gesture toward reconciling the theological anti-Judaism of the ancient past, but a gesture toward the palpable tension of a changing time. And that tension reminds me of the man at the event so many years ago, the man who took his hand and held it out to mine, the man who was trying to make an overture that was halfway between an apologetic admission of complicity and an invitation to be my full self.
“Thank you,” I say to my colleagues now when they speak graciously to me about my Jewishness, and I mean it. My anger has been replaced by something gentler and more compassionate, a reaction that settles on the speaker’s search for the right words rather than my own. “I’m glad to be here, too.” I try to remind myself that if I put the weight of the Church on their shoulders, they will put the weight of Jewish peoplehood on mine.
Still, I find myself looking among my colleagues for a friend with whom I can laugh at the absurdities in which we are all complicit, a friend who will not assess the meaning of my presence, who will not analyze the reasons why I have been brought into their lives. The friendship that I am searching for is one that takes my Jewishness for granted, that relishes the unlikelihood of our friendship, that doesn’t predicate it on a precondition and doesn’t seek to solve the problems that entangle our people.
Until I find another friendship like that, I will be glad to sit with people who are happy that I’m with them. And I’ll thank them for having me.
Malka Z. Simkovich, Ph.D., is the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.