A Serious Case of PDSGD: Post-Day School Guilt Disorder
10/15/2012 - 08:06
Michael Snow
Like the fiddler on the roof, day school graduates in secular universities struggle to find their balance.
Like the fiddler on the roof, day school graduates in secular universities struggle to find their balance.

“It’s times like these that I wish I went to Stern,” my friend Laura says, referring to Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. I’m confused. Laura has one side of her head shaved, the other dyed pink. She’s majoring in women’s studies with a minor in sociology. That is to say, she hardly fits the mold of the typical Stern girl: denim skirted, physical/occupational therapy major, enthusiastically - if naively - Zionist, thinks of herself as modern because she’s up to date with Grey’s Anatomy, named Sarah/Chava/Rebecca, depending on which part of Teaneck she’s from. I ask her which part of the Stern experience she suddenly feels she is missing out on in our bucolic public state school.

The homogeneity? Or perhaps the religious paternalism?

“The chagim, dude, the holidays.” Laura explains: “I have two choices here: I can either go to my classes, stay up to date with my work, and maintain friendships that don’t exclusively revolve around Chabad or Hillel. That way I get to be a real student,” her eyes sparkle a little, “almost a real American even.”

“Or?” I ask.

“Or,” Laura says, the spark her eyes held fading, “I can go to shul and avoid the guilt. I can avoid lying to my parents about keeping Chag. I can actually have a meal in the Sukkah. With all the Jews.”

Classic PDSGD – Post-Day School Guilt Disorder.

But in seriousness, the dilemma Laura and I face is not uncommon. For all observant Jewish college students, this season is one of reckoning: Am I a student or an observant Jew first? How much school work can I comfortably miss or delay? How much can I compromise on my observance?

Though difficult, these questions encapsulate the experience of being an observant Jewish student at a secular university, bringing to mind the Soloveitchikian notion of ‘dialectics without synthesis.’

What is a college student to do? Sadly, many have taken the easiest path: totally sacrificing one identity for another. This response is intellectually and morally cowardly – no matter which singular lifestyle you choose.

But the battle cry of balance has lost favor, leaving the proponents of harmony between Torah and this worldly obligations few and far between. On an institutional level, there are those who argue that the move to the right in Modern Orthodoxy has given up on the notion of balance. The Modern Orthodox flagship institutions, critics claim, have prioritized Torah over Mada and Derech Eretz, privileging religious insularity over scientific study and intellectual honesty.

Yet the quest for harmony reigns on among young observant students at secular universities. It would be simplistic and too convenient to dismiss Laura’s and my dilemma as the battle between assimilation and Yiddishkeit. In other words, I think the questions and decisions Laura and I face every day are real and worthwhile.

True, upholding traditional observance during this season is often academically taxing. Tishrei is not very conducive to keeping a good attendance record. The tension in values is palpable. But the quest for balance is nothing new. As Tevya claimed, each of us is in a precarious position, fiddling away on a rooftop, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.

I value being an observant college student in a secular university – it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. The mere fact that my struggle concerns whether I should go to class (to learn about the construction of gender in 19th and 20th century Europe), or go to services and lunch at Chabad, is mind blowing, given the scope of Jewish history. Previous generations likely couldn’t comprehend the privilege we take for granted in having access the world of academia, ideas, and knowledge.

More so, the tension is often enriching. To struggle with Jewish and this worldly responsibilities and aspirations represents the complexities of an honest, thoughtful, ultimately meaningful approach to both Judaism and modernity. 

Michael Snow is a junior at Binghamton University where he is studying philosophy, English, and Judaic studies. 


I am a girl who goes to stern and i approve this message!

I think that while many of you are busy chirping about your problems with Mikey's stern stereotype, you are missing a point that I think he's trying to make. While all Jews struggle with observance and the secular struggles of day to day life, going to a school such as Stern takes some of the challenges away. In a school where dorms are not co-ed and boys aren't even allowed upstairs, classes are not in session on Jewish holidays, and there is an abundance of appetizing Kosher food at your disposal, the challenges are not on the same level. Going to secular school provides new challenges and temptations that young adults who have gone to Jewish day school, Israel for the year and stern do not necessarily face and definitely not in the same capacity.

First of all, this is the real Laura's mother. I want to say that I could not be prouder of my pink haired, half shaved headed daughter who has taught me what excellence and integrity truly means. Neither she, nor my other two kids, have ever needed to hide anything from or lie to me, so I assume that part of your article was poetic license. That being said, I loved your article. I think that you truly describe the dilemma and conflict that young, Jewish, Mod Orth kids who are trying to bridge the gap between being both religious and citizens of world face. And your writing is just superb. Bravo, Mikey, on a job truly well done.

I find the authors' characterization of Stern women to be patronizing, hurtful, mean and quite frankly- obnoxious. He considers himself a liberal-minded thinker? Get out of YOUR narrow box, sir...its robbing you of badly needed oxygen.

You know, articles that start off with grossly ill-informed stereotypes of perfectly dignified human beings don't deserve to be read past the offending nonsense. I however ignored my better intuition and proceeded anyway, and thus discovered why it is so many Jewish men and woman in their middle age who pay close attention to contemporary Judaism are so dismayed by our generation.

There are many horribly compelling quotes to react to, but this one angers me the most:

"What is a college student to do? Sadly, many have taken the easiest path: totally sacrificing one identity for another. This response is intellectually and morally cowardly – no matter which singular lifestyle you choose."

I hope your horse is high enough to see all the generation of Jews who struggled and sacrificed to allow you mangle the very concept of engaged and intellectually honest collegiate Judaism from what I imagine is a very comfortable perch of ignorance and oh-so-soothing hot air.

It's really too bad that the author's ability to maintain a complex, multilayered identity comes at the cost of his ability to appreciate nuance in groups different from his own. In case readers are wondering: Stern College students are people, not the uniform automatons this writer imagines us to be. We struggle with our religious identities, consider our political affiliations, and have interests that (shockingly!) range well beyond Grey's Anatomy. Some of us have pink hair (a distinction that is apparently a clear indicator of depth and complexity,) some choose jeans over denim skirts, and yes--some of us major in sociology. This shouldn't be even mildly surprising to anyone who's ever bothered to spend an hour in the halls of Stern College, but then, why bother with real life conversation with people who are obviously more useful as stereotypes?

I have no problem with an article that largely revolves around self-congratulation for making decisions of the type that just about every religious adult faces at some point or another, but I find the need to mischaracterize the members of an entire student body as thoughtless drones appalling.

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