A Double-Edged Sword: Living as a Jewish College Student in New York City

A Double Edged Sword Living as a Jewish College Student in New York City by Judy Goldstein - Photo by Lydia Miller

I made a playlist as soon as I found out I was moving to New York City for college. I listened to it on the way to the drugstore, the mall, and the gas station. I listened to it on my way home from senior prom, and after my cliché high school breakup. I fell asleep listening to it every night, letting the sound waves carry me off to sleep. Sometimes, I would wake up having dreamed of subway murals and Central Park. Nothing made me more excited than the idea of moving to New York City.

Of course, I was also terrified. Terrified not only for the typical reasons like roommate drama and academic rigor, but because every other day I was hearing about vicious New York City hate crimes on Jews. A writer I follow on Twitter posted on social media about his experience being followed and shouted at because he was wearing a Magen David. The headlines seemed incessant, and given that I would be enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I grew nervous that I had a target on my back. The idea of going to school in a visibly Jewish institution felt dangerous, especially after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh.

Since going to college, I’ve experienced both sides of the double-edged sword of being Jewish in New York City. I am blessed with the opportunity to learn Hebrew and study Torah with my Jewish peers. I’ve gone to incredible High Holiday services throughout the city, and traced my fingers along the ancient menorahs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I did tashlich in the Hudson River and danced with the Torah on the steps of Columbia University for Simchat Torah. On Saturdays, I teach at a synagogue in Brooklyn, explaining to second graders what I love so much about being Jewish. I led Reform Jewish services for the first time in October through Hillel, and there was a sukkah in the main quad of Barnard that I got to walk through on my way to class. I have never had so much proximity to Jewish life in America before.

And yet, I endure antisemitism amidst the Jewish joy. On the bus to the Jewish Museum with my mom, a man accosted us, insisting that Jews built the government and the criminal justice system and that “the world is finally waking up to their evil behavior.” On the subway, I am constantly told I need to convert to Christianity and that Jesus will save me if I repent, repent, repent. On my way to classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I go through a metal detector and a bag check, to prevent potential intruders from entering the building. I go through no such security protocols for my secular classes—it is only a necessity for such a prominent Jewish center. In New York City, the inner turmoil I experience is stronger than ever. I get emotional whiplash from experiencing antisemitism and marveling at Jewish art in the span of 45 minutes. How do I reconcile this dichotomy?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a poem by the late David Meltzer in the Reform siddur. I’ve read this poem over and over since I was in kindergarten, flipping through the prayer books at too-long services, but it never seemed to click for me until now. “Tell them I’m struggling to sing with angels,” Meltzer writes, “who hint at it in black words printed on old paper gold-edged by time.” Every day of my Jewish learning, both in school and out of school, I struggle to sing with angels. I think that this is the point. The Jewish literature I grapple with for class would not exist without the endurance of Jews amidst antisemitism. Jewish culture is stronger than those who wish to see it destroyed, and New York City is a perfect example. Meltzer ends his poem, begging the reader to “tell them there are moments when it’s all perfect; above & below, it’s perfect, even in moments in between where sparks in space (terrible, beautiful sparks in space) are merely metaphors for the void between one pore & another.” Every Friday night, I hear the bar’chu at Shabbat services, and I can watch the sunset while we pray and listen to the soft din of New York City street noises and it’s all perfect, above and below. And I experience, too, the moments in between, where I am forced to see the dark side of the Jewish diaspora. This is the secret of it all: the perfect moments would not exist without the void. New York City Jewry is a double-edged sword of holiness and fear, and those of us who live here have no choice but to learn to wield it.

This piece was originally submitted to the Hadassah Essay Contest 2021. 
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Judy Goldstein is a member of the class of 2025 at Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. She is originally from Bethesda, Maryland, where she did stage crew and made short films. Now that she’s at college, she takes photos for the Columbia Spectator and does a lot of scrapbooking.
Accompanying photo: “New York Skyline” by Lydia Miller