Friday, October 13, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: My Jewish Punim

Old School
Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn


“Dos lebn iz nit mer vi a kholem—ober vek mikh nit oyf.”
Nahum Stutchkoff
Der Oytser fun der Yidisher Shprakh (1950)

When I was a student at McGill University, I applied for a part-time job at the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association (“the M.A.A.A.”) for a front-desk position. This was around 1981, when the principal was David Lloyd Johnston, who later became Governor-General; and the chancellor Conrad Fetherstonhaugh Harrington. McGill was every much an elitist British institution of higher learning.

It was established in 1821 from a bequest of land and money (£10,000) from James McGill (1744–1813), a fur trader originally from Scotland. The university was originally called the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning before it bore the name of its benefactor. I happen to know a lot about McGill, because I was a tour guide—giving tours peppered with facts to prospective students and their parents—for many years.

The M.A.A.A. was equally British, equally elitist, and considered a pre-eminent place to play squash, have a few drinks and conduct business and, perhaps, make a few ethnic jokes. It dated to June 1881. It was, after all, a private men’s club for the anglo elites. I paid this no mind, since I was referred to this position by the university’s job-placement service for students. It was also then that I admired the British, which I wrote about in a previous post for this column. I thought that I would make a good impression.

I was met by a tall thin man with a thin mustache; he was impeccably dressed and well-mannered. The interview took place with both of us standing up in the lobby; it was short and perfunctory. I knew right after that I had no chance of getting the job, even though I was dressed appropriately: white shirt, classic blue McGill tie (with diagonal stripes), grey slacks and blue blazer with black oxfords on my feet. My hair was combed, my nails trimmed, my teeth brushed. All this could not compensate for one thing. I guess that he didn’t like my Jewish punim.

My mother had told me that McGill University had a quota system in place for Jews, and that Jews had to get better marks than non-Jews to get admitted; this lasted from 1920 till after the war, and for medicine until the 1960s. Many universities in America had similar restrictions, chiefly as a way to keep universities white Protestant; merit and marks were not as important as appearance.

To be fair, my personal experience took place decades later, and at a private institution, not a public university, and nothing of this sort happened to me at McGill. It was a relatively minor form of anti-Semitism, closer to bigotry I think, and I hardly gave it much thought afterward (I had, after all, suffered much worse as a child, including name calling and physical attacks.) That’s the way it was back then, and sad to say it was expected and no one made a fuss about it. I did not tell anyone this story, until recently.

I guess that this is the primary meaning of Old School.

—Peretz ben Ephraim, October 13, 2017

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