Playing the Kosher Card

By Helene Schwartz Kenvin ’62 / September / October 2003
June 22nd, 2007
I came to Brown an unsophisticated sixteen-year-old utterly terrified by the scene I found on campus, where people dated, smoked, made out, drank to excess, and ate ham. I don’t know which of those things startled me the most.

I was from a Jewish ghetto in New York City, and on my first day in Providence I met more Christians than I had known in my entire life. One of them was University Chaplain Charlie Baldwin, and as he led us in a prayer that invoked Jesus and the Holy Ghost to bless our college careers, I wondered what my God would make of this. After all, He had smote Uzzah, whose only sin had been to touch the ark to keep it from falling. What might He do to me for suffering the ministrations of this alien priest?

Pembroke’s dining hall was a revelation to someone whose previous diet had included kasha and chopped liver. Ham, Spam, or pork was on the menu in thirteen out of twenty-one meals. Our mandatory meal contracts meant that new and sometimes unendearing smells assaulted me every day.

I was so hungry during those first days at Brown that I overcame my natural shyness and went to speak to Dean Nancy Lewis. Supremely courteous and thoroughly intimidating, Dean Lewis epitomized being a lady, something to which we were supposed to aspire in that anemic era. In her soft but steely voice, Miss Lewis reminded me (as if I needed reminding) that Brown was not a Jewish school and that I had no reason to expect kosher food. I agreed but objected to compulsory menus both boring in their repetitiveness and inherently out of step with my religion. Where I got the chutzpah to say such a thing to this paragon of 1950s gentility, I still don’t know. As a result, I was issued Pembroke’s first “kosher card,” entitling me to get a stale American cheese sandwich any time my classmates were being served pig.

During four years at Pembroke, I learned to sing the familiar Christian hymns. I also became an accomplished diva of the Christmas carol, thanks to my devotion to the Latin Christmas Service. At the Gracious Living Dinner we Pembrokers attended on Wednesdays and Sundays, we were required to wear stockings and heels, though many of us tore off our knee socks and entered the dining room with naked feet ensconced in penny loafers. Properly attired or not, we’d stand behind our chairs and sing grace:

Be present at our table, Lord.
Be here and everywhere adored.
These mercies bless and grant that we
May be strengthened for thy service be.

It seemed innocuous enough, until one day I discovered that the melody was, in fact, part of the Protestant doxology. Worse yet, in the real world the last sentence was “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” I considered standing silently as grace was recited, but I knew God must have been as charmed as I was by the sweetly chanted praises of several hundred young women and by the beautifully harmonized amen at the end.

I majored in religious studies, a department staffed by lovely, scholarly men, half of whom were Protestant ministers. When one gave me an A in New Testament studies, his colleague objected that my work could not have merited it because as a Jew I could not possibly “have the Pauline grace necessary to truly understand the New Testament.”

My immersion in what one dean called “an Episcopal girls’ finishing school” seemed to reinforce at least one aspect of my Judaism. Thanks to my youthful confrontation with the Pembroke administration over the dining-room food, kashruth came to symbolize front-line Judaism to me. Four decades later, although I may be lax in other aspects of my observance, my home remains devoutly kosher. As a rabbi friend once said, “Helene’s kitchen is going to heaven; we’re just not sure about the rest of her.”

Helene Schwartz Kenvin is president of a rescue organization active in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
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September / October 2003