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Book Reviews : The Jewish Experience at Yale University

April 04, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale by Dan A. Oren (Yale University: $29.95)

The venerable Yale University Press has itself joined a kind of publishing club by presenting this formidably detailed account of the Jewish experience at Yale as if it were a broad social history, which for all its virtues it is not.

Back when such specialized books appeared with titles like "Intolerance and Esteem: Two Centuries of Academic Ambivalence," you knew what to expect. But now that university publishers have adopted sophisticated commercial techniques--glossy dust covers, catchy titles and provocative jacket copy, the impulsive buyer may find himself dutifully plodding through a worthwhile, scholarly, meticulously documented manuscript originally meant only for the author's peers, mentors, colleagues, grantors and examiners.

When such meritorious academic exercises are accepted by frankly commercial publishers, they're often pepped up with anecdote and a modicum of wry wit, but the august university presses are usually above such concessions. The general reader gets the pure unadulterated version: appendices, prefaces, introductions, conclusions, charts, statistics, 60 pages of chapter notes, voluminous bibliography, and in this case, a quixotic final acknowledgement in which the author admits the obstacles inherent in his subject.

"Had I appreciated how difficult it was to find Truth, I might never have begun my search for the interrelated history of Jews and Yale . . . I have not succeeded in my quest. At best, the research may have brought me closer to 'Truth.' "

Through no fault of Oren's, the history of Jews at Yale is riddled with lacunae and obscured by reticence. Primary sources for the early years are few and vague; time has blurred even more recent memories. For an entire century, from 1701 to 1809, there were no Jews at Yale at all; the two Pinto brothers in the class of 1777, generally assumed by previous historians to have been the first, turn out upon closer investigation to be Congregationalists in good standing, their ancestral ties left behind when the family left Portugal for the American Colonies.

Little is known of one Moses Simons, who graduated in 1809 and died in London in 1822. Seventeen years later, the eventually illustrious Judah Benjamin, secretary of state for the Confederacy, entered the class of 1829 as a 14-year-old freshman but left at the end of his second year. There would not be another Jewish student until 1852, when New Haven had acquired a small Jewish community, a few of whom lived at home but attended lectures. Since these pioneers vanished after class, few resident students seemed either aware or disconcerted by their ghostly presence.

By the time the scions of the German-Jewish bankers and merchants began arriving after the Civil War, there was apparently no discrimination at all, mainly because "they constituted too small a group to be noticed. They had occupied a middle-class position for many years and offered no target for jealousy because of either their numbers or their achievements." According to Oren, this era of good feeling ended around 1878, when Yale gradually evolved from a meritocracy to an aristocracy, dominated by preparatory school alumni, fraternities and the exclusive Final Clubs.

Thereafter, increasing numbers of Jewish students, mostly commuters from New Haven and its immediate environs, were regarded with disdain and trepidation by faculty and students alike. In the words of historian John Hingham they were "the quintessential parvenu," and the ambivalence quickly spread to the nation's other prestigious universities.

By the end of the 1870s, Catholics and Jews were companion targets for slurs and invective, the Yale News announcing, "The Pope's wealth is said to amount to $24,000,000, which is mostly in the hands of the Rothschilds at Paris." Because the day students were generally poor and obliged to work to supplement their tuition grants, they seldom were able to participate in extra-curricular activities, a circumstance that effectively isolated them from their more fortunate classmates.

The stereotypes flourished unchecked by familiarity or even acquaintance; virtually no effort was made to remedy matters from either side. During this period, admissions officers at the Ivy League institutions wrote to one another advocating various forms of a quota system; some discriminating subtly, others more overtly. This unhappy state of affairs remained until World War II, when the G.I. Bill of Rights radically transformed every American university campus.

Until then, disdain had characterized majority-minority relations. During the 1920s and '30s, Jewish fraternities and other social societies designed to counteract discrimination flourished and faded, each traced here from its beginnings with the same care given to other aspects of the work.

While Oren has fleshed out his book with personality profiles of Yale faculty and administrators, documenting the gradual liberalization of various departments and including capsule biographies of Yale's many distinguished Jewish alumni, the exhaustive study seldom catches fire. Placed in the larger perspective of 20th-Century anti-Semitism, social discrimination against Jews at Yale seems an inconvenience rather than a major disaster.

Though there are undoubtedly those who suffered mightily, the author has uncovered far more discomfort than misery; and the last third of his book becomes a celebration of change in which any Eli can take pride. The entire process has taken three centuries and perhaps is still neither perfect nor complete, but "Joining the Club" is a chronicle, not a tragedy or even a melodrama.

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