The Third Rule
Before I left for college, my grandfather gave me three rules to follow:
- Never fight over a woman (the right woman won’t let you fight over her)
- Don’t become brainwashed (don’t lose pragmatism among a sea of idealism), and
- When in Rome do as the Romans (don’t state your own opinion or identity if it’s different from the prevailing one; it’s not worth it, just blend in).
I repeated these rules to myself as my plane took off from the cool JFK airport and once again as it landed in humid RDU, making sure I wouldn’t forget. It has been a year and a half since I started my Duke journey. In that time, I managed to not fight over a woman and maintained an undying sense of pragmatism alongside an ever-growing idealism. But, although I tried, I couldn’t “be Roman,” sorry grandpa.
It’s not that I disregarded the third rule the moment my foot reached my freshman dorm, rather it was only within the past few months that I began to take off my figurative pileus and reveal the figurative yarmulke that always lied beneath…
No that’s not completely true. I never had the courage to willingly “take off” my pileus, knowing I’d be so many people’s “first Jew.” I didn’t want to be thought of as “one of those rich people who’s really good with money” (a stereotype that I had been associated with a surprising amount since revealing my Jewish identity at Duke). Rather, there was one moment at Duke that brought forth a “spirited wind” strong enough to “knock off” my pileus. And, since then, I have had the courage to not put the pileus back on.
It was a sunny afternoon when the news reached me and the Duke Jewish group chat exploded. First with questions, then with concerns and finally with pictures of the huge, blood-red swastika that desecrated the gold colored mural we had painted commemorating those who were murdered during the Pittsburgh shooting weeks before. Robert Frost famously wrote “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” In this moment, I understood what he meant. The beauty that was so delicately crafted was destroyed by another act of hate on campus that directly targeted my community and by extension that directly targeted me.
Being on the Jewish Student Union Executive Board, the act created a crisis that required each board member’s level-headed response. During our board meeting, the conversation centered around “how we could best represent the needs of our Jewish friends and peers amid the inundation of emails and phone calls from concerned parents and newspaper articles that repeatedly highlighted the desecration.” However, all I could think about was how could this happen on my campus, and how can I make sure something like this never happens again?
In that moment, I wasn’t sure of the answer, but I did know that hiding my Jewish identity certainly wasn’t it, and, I recognized that in the times when my community hurt the most, it is crucial to show solidarity. Instead of hate becoming a suppressor, hate became my catalyst. My figurative pileus was blown off my head, and I have no intention of ever putting it on again, sorry (again) grandpa.
Since then, I have been on a mission to spread awareness about Antisemitism and prevent acts of hate on campus. I have begun an independent research study focusing on Antisemitism on college campuses that will culminate in policy recommendations. I have advocated for campus wide events and speakers educating people on Antisemitism. I have worked on a taskforce with peers, Professors and Duke Administrators to create a culture of intersectionality among various minorities on campus… And, I have gone from being Jewish only around other Jews, to being proudly Jewish wherever I am.
So, grandpa, while I won’t fight over a woman and I won’t become brainwashed, I can never “be Roman.” Why would I want to take after a now fallen civilization, when instead I could proudly be part of a people that have thrived for thousands of years despite countless acts of hate? Sure, it might be easier, but convivence doesn’t build resilience. Through challenging my own beliefs, I have learned the power of identity, and I look forward to exploring it further as I progress along my college journey.
 A pileus is a hat that was worn in Ancient Greece and later in Ancient Rome
 A yarmulke is a religious skullcap worn by Jewish people