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Thomas Devlin: Gallatin, Good English

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For my last piece in WSN, I thought about writing a sentimental reflection on my time at NYU. Every time I started, however, the piece transformed into a sappy, trite mess. Instead, I decided to finally put to paper one of my earliest experiences in college — the Shabbat Dinner.

When I arrived at NYU, I had only one friend in the city, Rachel, who I knew from high school. I was bad at meeting people, so during Welcome Week I attempted to get out of my comfort zone by attending several events. Rachel texted me about an NYU improv event on Friday, which sounded like a very New York thing to do. I also saw on the Welcome Week website that there was a dinner before the show at the Bronfman Center, so I suggested we go for the free food.

In retrospect, I should have looked up what a Shabbat dinner was beforehand. Before college, though, I had met exactly one Jewish person because I come from a very, very, very Catholic town. Therefore, I went in blind. I arrived exactly when the dinner was scheduled to start and texted Rachel to see if she was there yet, because I didn’t want to go in alone. She responded “Yes, I’m inside!” So I walked in.

She was not inside. In fact, she had gone to a completely different building.

When I entered I saw a very long table with all of the seats taken. I moved to go stand on the side, but no, the man at the head of the table kindly offered his place so that I could sit down, visible to everyone. It was then that I realized that this was, in fact, a slightly more religious event than I had anticipated. And that’s when everyone started singing together in Hebrew.

Perhaps were I less embarrassed I could have handled the situation better, but my first reaction was to hide my face with my hand and start mumbling the one bit of Hebrew I knew, which was “Hava Nagila.” As the song ended, Rachel finally arrived. I then looked over and saw, way across on the other side of the table, one of the only people at NYU who could at that point have possibly recognized me — my CAS college leader. We made eye contact and he started waving excitedly, as I slowly died on the inside. He came over and said, “I didn’t know you were Jewish.” I cleverly replied, “I’m not, but I know someone who is.”

At this point, I had made my way over to a group of friends with a plate of food in my hand, hoping to avoid talking to anyone else. That immediately failed when the rabbi came over to talk to us. Rachel and I exchanged a quick glance that said, “OK, let’s pretend we’re Jewish.” The rabbi asked about our religious communities at home, at which we mumbled something about there not being a lively synagogue scene. She then asked where we were from, and after we replied she said, “Oh, I lived there for 20 years!”

By now, I was sure I was close to death. But then, out of nowhere, someone accidentally put a napkin into a candle and a table was suddenly on fire. People tried throwing their grape juice onto it to no avail, and the rabbi announced, “I have to handle this,” and hurried away.

I am not a religious man, but looking on at the fire, I could not help but think of the burning bush that spoke to Moses. And from that moment, I learned a valuable commandment that I followed for the rest of my college career: thou shalt not pretend to be Jewish.

Email Thomas Devlin at [email protected] 

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About the Writer
Thomas Devlin, Editor-at-Large
Who is Thomas Devlin? Unfortunately, we may never know the full answer. Apocryphal information, however, can lead us to some reasonable guesses. Born in the late 20th century (stringent estimates place him in 1995), Devlin grew up in the small conservative town of Douglas, Massachusetts. Studying migration patterns, we assume he moved to New York...
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