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"Dar Schicken to Yale": a wartime seder (Mar/Apr 2005)

This is a story about philosemitism at Yale 60 years ago. At that time, Yale policy did not forbid either quotas for the admission of Jews or restrictions on Jewish students' participation in extracurricular activities. Indeed my own experience with Yale anti-Semitism occurred when I was still a senior in a suburban New Jersey high school. Another boy in my area called and asked me, because of Yale’s quota on Jewish applicants, to withdraw my application; he thought it would ensure his own acceptance. Three months later, we were both admitted.

But this is a different story. It took place in 1943. I was a sophomore, in my last civilian term, and had invited a Christian friend and classmate to my home; the visit would coincide with a Passover Seder. Shortly before the visit my friend, slightly embarrassed, inquired whether his older brother—a Yale divinity student—might also attend the Seder, to enhance his studies of Jewish religious practices.

As a result of many years of organization our family Passover Seder functioned with military strike-force precision. Guests and family gathered in the living room from 6:15 to 6:44. At exactly 6:45 the butler opened the dining room doors and the assemblage proceeded to a festive dinner table. My father conducted the Seder from 6:47 to 7:14, reserving the Hebrew readings in the Haggadah for himself. Family and guests participated, in order of their seating, by reading paragraphs in English. To maintain schedule control, my father would skip as many pages in the Hebrew readings as were necessary to compensate for slow readers and desultory conversations. At precisely 7:10 the butler would crack the pantry door to make eye contact with my mother, who would respond with a discreet nod to signify that the progress of the Seder was satisfactory. Dinner was served at 7:15, on the minute.

The night of the 1943 Seder, family and guests all gathered in the living room at the correct time. Among the company was my brother, Gilbert, ten years my senior and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School. Social, gregarious, and known in our family as the Ivy League maven, he had guided me into the world of higher education. When I was in high school he took me to football games at Princeton, Penn, Harvard, and others. Prior to my matriculation he supervised my college wardrobe, giving me my first white shoes and dark blue silk knit tie while discreetly eliminating some rather garish neckwear he said might be appropriate for New York City but hardly New Haven. He also dispensed basic knowledge: which York Street clothiers to patronize (Fenn-Feinstein and J. Press, yes; Langrock, no), guidelines for weekends in the big City (the Oak Room at the Plaza, yes; the Astor Roof, no), and the difference between Norman Buck (dean of freshmen) and Fi’ Buck (a secondhand clothes dealer near Yale Station).

The Ivy League maven was on form that night—complimenting my classmate on his choice of TD as a residential college, commenting to the divinity student on the beautiful architecture of the Yale Divinity School. At 6:45 the dining room doors were opened. The Seder began smoothly. My father read his pages in Hebrew and family and friends followed in English. The last person in the first sequence was the divinity student. He asked permission from my father to read his longish passage in the original, and then proceeded, to the astonishment and delight of all, to deliver flawless Hebrew in a pure Main Line Philadelphia accent. It was a scholastic tour de force. My mother, in a stage whisper, said to no one in particular, “Dar schicken to Yale”—which, loosely translated, can mean that to bring home such refined and well-educated guests was precisely why I had been sent to Yale.

On the next round of reading my father began to omit pages to maintain the schedule. When his turn came, the divinity student asked if my father might not go back to one of these, saying that he had been taught at Yale that this portion of the Haggadah had special significance. My father politely suggested that the divinity student read the page and explain its significance. He promptly read it in that wonderfully accented Hebrew, and then proceeded, very earnestly, to explicate it.

At this point, a jokester in the company asked about Yale positions on other Seder practices. The divinity student responded solemnly. More questions followed from one or two other jokers; more  answers from the divinity student. My mother began to examine her wristwatch pointedly and to shoot meaningful looks at my father, who signaled, with upturned palms and shrug, his unwillingness to rudely interrupt our learned guest. The divinity student then stated, in a most ingratiating way, that he had heard that a true Seder had the give-and-take of a Talmud class, and he was delighted to see it in action. And then, in a very proper spirit of academic inquiry, he posed a question to my father about his interpretation of a specific Haggadic paragraph.

My father did not immediately reply. He clearly had not misinterpreted the jokers' badinage. As he stared for a moment at his wine glass, I felt I could read his thoughts. Can it be that a shaygitz, even a Yale Divinity School shaygitz, is teaching me how to conduct a Seder, when I learned to conduct a Seder as a boy in chaider? Then he said, “Before I reply to your question, let’s hear what some of the others have to say.” In a professorial manner, he called upon each of the jokesters. They proffered vague answers, like students ill prepared for a class. My father then expounded on the paragraph brilliantly—to the fascination of all who knew him but had never heard him hold forth as a scholar. The suburban dinner party became my father’s seminar. There were a few questions, to which he gave clear and insightful answers, and a brief but spirited group discussion. Even my mother entered into the moment. When the butler peered in at exactly 7:10, she airily, and much to his astonishment, waved him off.

Dinner was delayed ten minutes. Following the meal, grace was said. Then, in a radical departure from previous Seders, my father asked all to remain seated while he gave a homily.

In 1943, informed persons in the United States had some knowledge of the Nazi brutalities. For my father and his friends, the atrocities were a subject of much anxiety. He spoke now of the meaning of Passover during the Second World War. The Seder had significance for Jews and Christians alike at this time, he said; it symbolized a struggle against both Nazi anti-Semitism and Nazi anti-Christianity. He likened the evil Hitler and his fascist followers, “who had hardened their hearts” against God-fearing peoples, to the biblical pharaoh and his minions. He saluted those at the table who were in uniform and those who were about to go on duty. Interweaving religion and patriotism, worship of God and service of the nation, he joined the ideals of free religious expression and defense of country into a single moving theme of Passover in World War II.

The brief homily concluded, my father sat silent. I sometimes wonder now if he was thinking of past Seders in nineteenth-century Austria, where he had been born and raised, or of the mortal perils faced by his many relatives who had remained there.

My mother led the way to the living room. The evening reverted to a commonplace suburban gathering. As I looked back from the living room door, I saw that my father had not moved from his chair and that my brother stayed beside him. The Ivy League maven had placed one arm about my father’s shoulder and with the other was raising his wine glass in a toast. “To our Passover Seder during a time of war,” he said, glancing at me. “For God, for country, and—from Yale.”

N. Joel Ehrenkranz ’45W, ’49MD, a retired physician and professor in Florida, is active in home health care issues. This article originally appeared in the March/April 2005 Yale Alumni Magazine.

Filed under 1940s, Passover, religion
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