Years ago I attended a Catholic university in Los Angeles. I had no intention of joining their religion, but I did my best to assimilate into mainstream campus life. Tanned from working as a lifeguard, hiking in the mountains on weekends and playing tennis, I had sun-bleached hair and looked like countless other young men who enjoyed the Southern California lifestyle (though a bit sensitive about my obviously Jewish last name).
In the fall of my senior year, I happened to see a notice on a bulletin board for a weekend backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon. It was for college students from around the country and I decided to go.
The drive from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon was about eight hours, and the only form of entertainment I had back then was an AM radio in my 1969 Chevy Nova. When I arrived at the canyon's southern rim, the sun was still high in the sky. Twenty of us gathered together and the group leader had us in turn introduce ourselves and name our respective schools. As we finished introductions, the leader looked at me and asked if I would be willing to take up the rear of the group to make sure no one got separated. I was happy to oblige and the group started down the trail into the canyon.
The Grand Canyon is a wonderful place to visit any time of the year, but winter is particularly special. A small fraction of the summer's visitors come to the park, there is far less traffic on the trails, and the crisp, cool air is much more pleasant for hiking than the desert sun that often reaches into the 90s during the summer.
About 10 minutes into our descent to the canyon floor, a member of our group began to slow down, and as he fell back in the line and reached me, he picked up his pace, walking right next to me.
I was considering changing my last name to a less obviously Jewish one.
He was short – a bit taller than 5-feet. A shock of thick red hair protruded from under his cap, and he had an energetic stride to his step. After a few minutes, where the only sound was an occasional bird calling and boots crunching on the dirt and gravel trail, the redhead turned to me and asked: "Hyman, that's a Jewish name isn't it?"
Not sure what his agenda might be, I answered, "Yeah, my grandparents were from Russia."
He stuck out his hand and said with a big smile, "Andy Weiss, Stanford."
We exchanged the obligatory Jewish geography questions (i.e. "Do you know so-and-so?") and as we continued walking, I mentioned that I was considering changing my last name to a less obviously Jewish one.
At that comment, he jumped in front of me and stopped. "How dare you!" he said, jabbing his finger into my chest. "Just because you find your last name inconvenient, you’re going to wipe out 3,000 years of your heritage with the stroke of a pen?"
I was shocked. Here was a total stranger, who believed so strongly in his message that he was willing to confront me, regardless of what the fallout might be.
I thought about his comment for few moments and faced the reality that he was right. In my desire to assimilate, I was about to sacrifice the last vestige of my heritage.
I looked into Andy's eyes, and in a voice barely above a whisper, said, "Thanks. You're right." It was a turning point that made me realize who I was – and would propel me to discover my Judaism in earnest a few years later.
Andy's reprimand was the right message at the right time.
On Campus 2010
I thought about this story again recently when I read an article* describing a focus study group that a prominent pollster had conducted with students from MIT and Harvard. He gathered 35 students – about half Jewish and half non-Jewish – under the pretense of speaking about “Iraq, Iran and the Middle East.” Actually, the real focus was Israel.
Within 10 minutes of the focus group, some of the non-Jews started in with accusations of “Israeli war crimes,” “the Jewish lobby,” and “Jews controlling the world.”
As this invective was being leveled, the Jewish students – from some of the best schools in America – did not challenge the assertions nor utter a peep. In fact, one of the students in the group – the leader of the Israeli caucus at Harvard – took 49 minutes before responding to anything.
After the focus group ended, the pollster asked all the Jewish students to remain in the room. He then revealed to them how he had observed their unwillingness to stand up in defense of Israel and the Jewish people.
“Oh my God, I didn’t speak up. I can’t believe I let this happen.”
As this failure dawned on them, two of the women in the group started to cry. One student said, “Oh my God, I didn’t speak up. I can’t believe I let this happen.”
These are trying times for the Jewish people. Whether it is Jewish apathy, or demonization of Israel, there is no shortage of opportunities to stand up and challenge the misconceptions, lies and slanders that abound about our people.
Granted, it is not comfortable to take a stand. But this unwavering commitment to the truth is a legacy instilled in our people for millennia, back to the day when Abraham stood against a world of idolaters and said: There is one God.
Indeed, one well-placed comment can turn the world around. It’s a lesson I learned years ago, one winter day at the Grand Canyon.
* David Horovitz, "The Word According to Frank," Jerusalem Post, July 16, 2010.