My grandfather turned 100 this summer. When he was born, Czar Nicholas II was still in power, World War I hadn’t started, and William Taft had recently finished his term in office. My grandfather’s parents and oldest brother came over from somewhere in Eastern Europe earlier in the century to escape anti-Semitism and get a new start. He turned 16 in Philadelphia when the stock market crashed, but he sold hot dogs at Phillies games and put himself through Temple University, becoming a dentist. He met a woman at a picnic for single young Jews, and he married her. She got pregnant with my uncle, and right after he was born, my grandfather shipped out to Europe to be a dentist with the Army Corps of Engineers, landing in Normandy three days after D-Day.
After he came back, they moved to a suburb of Johnstown, Pa., with a sizeable Jewish population, where they had two more kids, my mom being the youngest. My grandmother died of breast cancer the year my mom married my dad, 28 years ago. My grandfather’s had another life since then, and he took trips around the world every year until recently. When I was born, he was already 80.
When I was growing up, he always used to come to High Holiday services with my mom, my sister, and me. A few years ago, he decided that he no longer believed in Judaism and stopped going to services. But while he may not believe in the Ten Commandments and Abraham anymore—and I don’t know if he ever really did—he’s a Jew through and through. Judaism is his culture—it’s what raised him, it’s been the common thread through his life, and it’s an essential part of his identity. He always asks how often I go to Carnegie Deli, and he orders eggs with lox and onions when we go out to breakfast. He’ll talk about how he became a dentist instead of a doctor because medical schools wouldn’t accept Jews. He grew up in a time when being Jewish meant that your entire community and circle of friends was made up of Jews, your community was based around your synagogue, and Yiddish was still spoken. His mother kept carp in the bathtub to make gefilte fish.
Identity, for good reason, is always one of the central topics of discussion around Columbia. Identity is how we cope with the problem of existence, because it’s how we define ourselves among the absurdity and the madness and keep some degree of stability, whether we’ve lived 21 years or 100. And identity is both an internal and external thing, because it’s how we treat ourselves. It’s how we group and understand and rationalize those around us.
But identity at Columbia seems always to be simplified to the categories of race, sexual orientation, and gender. There’s a reason those are the big three—they’re by far the most visible. And this is often why they have such a big impact on one’s identity—they’re some of the main influencers in how people treat you.
I’ve struggled a great deal with this, and I talked about it in my last column, because my categorization for these three categories—whiteness, cisgendered straightness, and maleness—are the equivalent of Wonder Bread here at Columbia: completely devoid of flavor and nutritional content. But I really don’t feel like white bread—I’m at least a good light rye.
How do we form our identities? Using broad delineations like “white people” and “people of color” may be a good start, and useful in certain contexts, but it quickly becomes lazy and superficial. And this is a problem that we have always faced and will continue to face for the rest of our lives—the superficiality of our interactions with and our understandings of each other.
We don’t have the chance to get to know the vast majority of people on campus beyond a superficial level, because that’s the way things are. But in those limited interactions, we form our personal views of their identities. And it’s easy to form lasting conceptions of people based on these broad, readily visible categories, and to judge them based on those categories, and to never really try to understand them beyond those categories.
I consider my Judaism to define me in the same way it defined my grandfather—I stopped subscribing to the actual religious component of Judaism around the time of my Bar Mitzvah (a little before he did), but the culture of tradition and community and success and perseverance has defined a great deal of my life experience. Judaism is a major part of how I view my identity, along with my stubborn and intensely rational personality, my charming sense of humor, my atypical political views, my fervent loyalty to Boston and its superior sports teams, and endless other facets of my life and experience.
We all have an incredible depth to us that goes beyond a few categories of identification. We have deep wells of experience that we rarely share, as well as our own personal tragedies that have shaped us. Columbia has a vast problem of superficiality and categorization—we place people into boxes. I’m not saying we should have deep and lasting relationships with everyone we meet—walking to class would be a disaster—but we can at least try to understand that people have more to them than meets the eye. And then we can go from there.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Fridays.