Jewish at Grinnell

My Experience: Deborah Rabinowitz Ericson ’71

Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 2:23 am | By Deborah Rabinowitz Ericson ’71

 

I am writing because I am intrigued by The Grinnell Magazine’s call for stories about the unique perspectives of Jewish students on the Grinnell Experience. I am a secular Jew who graduated from Grinnell in 1971. I was born in New York City and lived there until I was 12. My Jewish identity was then something I took for granted as so many other Jews lived there. After this period, my family moved to a town west of Chicago where people were churchgoers and there were only a handful of Jewish families. My Jewish identity became problematic because I did not go to church like everyone else; it was not something I cared to talk about.

When it was time to apply to college, my Jewish identity had nothing to do with my choice, Grinnell College. Thinking back, there was very little that was Jewish at Grinnell: I was able to take a literature course on writers from the South but no course on Jewish writers, courses in French but no course in Yiddish. There was no Jewish club or Jewish worship on campus. There were, however, numerous Jewish students, imported from New York or California. Some of these became my friends, while others were campus stars, well-known names because of their particular personalities and interests. The lack of Jewish culture at Grinnell never bothered me, as I was used to living in a non-Jewish community and wasn’t looking for Jewish culture at school.

I do remember two experiences at Grinnell that were related to an interest in my Jewish identity. The first is a rather dim recollection of participation in a Jewish holiday at a synagogue in an Iowa city: I don’t recall exactly where. A group of Jewish students took a bus there in the evening. It must have been a conservative synagogue, as I remember sitting upstairs with women in a cramped space and that there was a lovely yellow glow from ornate lights on the ceiling. I didn’t know any of the people I went with, and the event didn’t feel meaningful: this was the only time I participated in Jewish services there.

The other Jewish experience occurred in my senior year at Grinnell when I applied for a culture stipend. The previous year I studied in Tours, France, as part of my French major. During the summer I visited Scandinavia, since I knew nothing about those countries. I also visited a cousin from Chicago who was just beginning her life in Israel. There I met Sephardic Jews and read a book about their second-class status in Israel. This topic introduced me to another Jewish identity, and I was disturbed that Jews mistreated other Jews, something that I knew nothing about. I chose to apply for Grinnell’s culture stipend with a project on Israel’s Sephardic Jews. Unfortunately, I formulated my application too naively. Instead of writing neutrally that I wanted to study the Sephardic Jews by doing fieldwork, I said that I hoped to do something to improve their social status. I came close to getting the stipend, and was interviewed by the committee, one of which was a Jewish political science professor. He seemed mostly uncomfortable having to discuss my application. The winner of the stipend was one of the Jewish campus stars who had a project on comic strips, a topic less provocative than mine.

Although I didn’t receive that stipend, I was later able to do fieldwork in a Jewish community, not in Israel, but in Stockholm. Instead of going to Israel on a stipend, I went back to Sweden to study for a year on an exchange program. My stay has been much longer, and I’m still here in Uppsala, Sweden. After a couple of years in Sweden, I decided to continue university studies: I completed the equivalent of a major in social anthropology at Stockholm University with a fieldwork study on Jewish identity in Stockholm. Using that, I was accepted to the Ph.D. program where I replaced Jewish identity with Swedish artists, and I wrote my thesis, “In the Stockholm Art World.” After that I worked at the department of social anthropology for many years doing research, teaching, and working as dean of undergraduate studies. I am now retired. I wonder if I would be living in Israel and working in other ways if I had received that culture stipend at Grinnell. That project was, in any case, the fi rst impulse for my career as a social anthropologist.

By the way, Uppsala has a very small Jewish community, so my Jewish identity is as low-key as ever. Maybe that’s why I responded to Grinnell Magazine’s call for Jewish stories.