The University of Georgia spread out before me and everything seemed possible. It was 1967 and the fall quarter was to begin in a few days. I had driven up to Athens from Columbus with a friend, his ’64 Chevy filled with several bags of luggage and an old metal footlocker held together with a tangle of rope and masking tape.
It was a lengthy trip. At the time there was no simple way to make it from central Georgia, through Atlanta and on to Athens. The state’s massive interstate system was still mostly an idea in somebody’s desk at the DOT, so we were forced to ramble along winding secondary roads and through tiny towns – Waverly Hall, Warm Springs, Greenville and Moreland, Jonesboro, East Point and Lawrenceville, Dacula, Winder and Statham. By the time we limped into Athens we had been on the road nearly four hours and it was growing dark.
No matter. I was 19 years old and entering my sophomore year of college. I had arrived – finally! My parents had wanted me to stay home my freshman year and attend the local community college – Columbus College, now Columbus State University. I grudgingly caved in after much wailing, but continued to complain until they grew tired of my moaning. First my mother, then my father agreed that I could go away to school the following quarter. But it was too late to apply for admittance to Georgia, my school of choice, so I did the next best thing and applied to Georgia State in Atlanta. After the first week of classes, I realized I liked the city but wasn’t thrilled with an urban campus. So once again I was on the move and returned to Columbus, with plans of transferring to Athens the following fall.
That’s how I managed to attend three different schools in my first four quarters of college. But as I strolled across North Campus, the weight of the university’s history hanging heavily in the air, mixed with the rich smell of magnolias and the musty scent of aging wood and brick covered with ivy, none of that seemed to matter. I had more important issues to ponder. It was rush week and my future hung in the balance. At least it seemed that way at the time.
In 1967, the Greek system was a vital part of the university, a social network of fraternities and sororities that was both genteel and raucous. Frat houses and sororities – ante-bellum mansions with soaring columns and wide verandas – spilled across the campus. There was an “old south” vibe about the place that only occasionally seemed bizarre – rebel flags draped across the front of houses, frat guys exchanging their preppy attire for confederate battle dress. Go figure. But it all made a weird sort of sense, especially when the first chill of fall turned the campus’ leafy canopy a flaming golden orange.
The fraternity I was hoping to pledge, Tau Epsilon Phi, was quite literally at the heart of this Norman Rockwell vision, just west of the intersection of Lumpkin and Baxter Streets. The frat house was only a decade old at the time and had a distinctive look – sleek and modern, two stories of sculpted brick and glass. The university’s main library, business and journalism schools were ten minutes away on North Campus; the coliseum and schools of math and science ten minutes away on South Campus; and, most importantly, Sanford Stadium with its legendary hedges – home of the Georgia Bulldogs – was an easy five minute walk due East.
I was assigned to Payne Hall that first quarter and was in the process of unpacking when I met my roommate, Phil, from Tifton. He was a huge, beefy sort of guy, quietly intense and planning to play freshman football – yes, in those days freshmen didn’t automatically become part of the varsity squad. His hope was to win a scholarship and glory on the gridiron. After spending a few days with him, I realized that was going to be his best, perhaps only chance at finding success.
In that first getting-to-know-you week, we didn’t so much have conversations as question and answer periods. Perhaps because he was shy and away from home for the first time, Phil would begin just about everything he said with the parenthetical musing, “I was just wondering, but …”
So Phil was wondering where the book store was and when lunch began each day and when classes would start and where a guy might get change for the laundry and how much detergent was needed if you were just going to do a small load of wash and, well, where was the laundry room anyway?
And then there was the issue of religion. Phil was a Baptist and I was Jewish. He certainly didn’t have anything against Jews. In fact he told me so. It’s just that he’d never really met a Jew before. I realized that the theological gulf between our two worlds would probably never be bridged when I explained to Phil that I would be going home at the end of the month to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New year. Phil was quiet for a moment, then asked a question that has remained with me for over four decades. “I was wondering,” he began, “if you celebrate the new year now, in September, when do you celebrate Christmas?” Didn’t have an answer then, don’t really have a good answer now.
The lasting image I have of Phil, at once humorous and melancholy, is finding him in our dorm room after an exciting afternoon of football between the hedges. He was sitting on his bunk, carefully turning through the pages of the day’s program. I can only guess at what he was thinking. As I was hustling around the room, getting ready to meet some friends, I glanced at him and noticed sweat stains on both legs of his pants. After a moment, I could make out the shape of hand prints and realized he must have sat in the stands under the hot Georgia sun, sweating but unwilling to move, his hands clutching the top of his thighs. The sweat stains, it seemed to me, were a kind of silent prayer, both a testament to his intensity and his frantic hopes and dreams.
It was around this time that fraternity rush took off. There had been some informal parties and gatherings, but the actual handing out of bids was finally about to happen. I made my way to Memorial Hall, at the time the focus of most student activities, and joined with dozens of other young students in this fraternal rite of passage. I found my way to an upstairs room filled with card tables. Taped carefully to the front of each was the name of a fraternity and seated nearby were several frat guys, most in sport coats and ties, khaki pants and saddle oxfords.
I glanced around the room. The names were all familiar – Kappa Alpha, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Phi Kappa Theta, Alpha Tau Omega. Yet something wasn’t quite right. I surveyed the room again and, yes, something was missing. Among all the Greek letters, I didn’t spot any combinations that I was most familiar with, the ones I knew I’d be rushing. No Tau Epsilon Phi, no Alpha Epsilon Pi, no Sigma Alpha Mu. As other potential pledges made their way to nearby tables and the chatter in the room grew, I began feeling a growing sense of embarrassment and the notion that I had stepped into an unfamiliar, unfriendly place. I was just about to leave when I noticed a fellow at a nearby table trying to get my attention. He was shaking his head, pointing and staring at a doorway at the other end of the room. I followed his gaze, not at all sure what he was trying to tell me, and then began walking in the direction he was pointing. That’s how I discovered the Jew room.
Clustered together in this smaller area were three card tables, just like those in the larger room, staffed with guys who pretty much looked the same as the fraternity men nearby. But I recognized the people in this room and immediately saw the names of the fraternities I had so desperately been seeking just moments earlier. We were all Jewish, most of us knew one another, and the fraternities had all been founded decades earlier as Jewish organizations. This room was comfortable, safe, where I belonged. And what astonishes me most about this remembrance today is that I wasn’t at all bothered by this “separate, but equal” treatment. Why would I be? I had grown up in the South and realized at an early age that there were certain things you simply accepted and didn’t question.
When I began the first grade in Columbus, I learned the Lord’s Prayer so I could recite it along with my classmates each morning. The next year, I took my turn, just like my Christian classmates, reading a morning devotional from the New Testament. I was one of the three wise men in the annual school-sponsored Christmas Pageant when I was in the third grade and for years went caroling with my friends and neighbors during the holiday season. Of course the prayers and pageants and holiday singing meant nothing to me. My God was to be found at Shearith Israel Synagogue, not in any church, and each Saturday I walked to shul with my brothers where we proclaimed the oneness of Hashem, the Master of the Universe. We celebrated our holidays, never mixed milk and meat products, shied away from pork and shell fish and attended Hebrew school two days a week.
I was, aside from my religion, exactly the same as my neighbors and we got along – except when we didn’t. Every so often I had this sense of being different, of not quite fitting in, of being the other. Children can be mean, occasionally cruel. If angered, they will lash out, looking for that one word or phrase that they think will do the most damage. So the overweight friend is taunted as “fatty,” the short child becomes a “shrimp,” the quiet, intelligent student, a nerd. Me? The operative phrase was “Jew Boy”.
The world changes, often for the better. But some things in life linger. Even though there was little anti-Semitism to face in the late ’60s at the University of Georgia, many of us “Jew Boys” felt safe and secure in our separate little room in Memorial Hall. That’s just the way it was. The world has continued to change, barriers and boundaries of all sorts falling, painful memories fading from sight. And from a distance, the nonsense of the past seems of little consequence. Often, when recalling those days, all I can do is shrug my shoulders and laugh, happy that my daughter and her generation will never feel the need to hide who they are or hide away in a separate, but equal room.
Occasionally, however, there’s a hiccup in our collective move forward. It’s not the deeply ingrained anti-Semitism that festers in some parts of the world that bothers me, but the subtle forms of the disease that pop up closer to home. Just a few years ago my wife and I stopped at Brewster’s, an ice cream shop in our neighborhood in East Cobb County, one of Atlanta’s northern suburbs. While my wife chatted with some friends, I went to order our treat. No one else was around, so I stepped up to the window. I waited a few minutes for someone to take my order, but all the help seemed to be busy or taking a break in a backroom. So I called out, wanting to let them know they had a customer.
“That’s not the way we act down here,” I heard someone behind me saying. I turned around and saw a man and his wife standing there with another couple. They were nondescript, casually dressed in jeans and sports shirts. Just your average suburban folks, out hunting for a little snack. The only lasting detail I recall is the man who was doing the talking was wearing a red cap with a capital “G” on its front.
“I beg your pardon,” I said.
“Just like a New Yorker,” he responded, “we don’t yell at people down here.”
I backed away, shaking my head, puzzled at what he was saying. “New Yorker?” What exactly did that mean? I was born in Columbus, 100 miles to the southwest in Muscogee County. My father was born there, along with his five brothers and a sister. I had aunts, uncles and cousins who had grown up and lived in Georgia, Alabama and Florida for decades. I had lived in metro Atlanta for nearly 30 years and graduated from the university this bully apparently supported. How much more southern can you be?
After a moment’s reflection, I smiled and suggested he and his friends go ahead and place their order. There seemed little point in discussing the matter. After all, bigots who climb out from under rocks usually aren’t interested in the truth. And, besides, this “New Yorker” had been raised a southern gentleman and taught the best way to deal with trash is simply ignore it.