From the team behind Unorthodox—the #1 Jewish podcast—comes a new eight-part series detailing the hidden history of Jews and the Ivy League.
Gatecrashers tells the story of how Jews fought for acceptance at elite schools, and how the Jewish experience in the Ivy League shaped American higher education, and shaped America at large. Hosted by Mark Oppenheimer, each episode focuses on one Ivy League school: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Columbia and Its Forgotten Jewish Campus
Isaac Asimov was one of the most prolific authors in history. He was best known as a pathbreaking sci-fi writer, but his more than 500 books also included volumes on the Greeks, the Romans, Shakespeare, the Bible, and much more. He was one of the most learned men in history.
But in 1935, 15-year-old Asimov was rejected by Columbia University. Admissions officials instead directed him to Seth Low Junior College, a separate campus in Brooklyn, 11 miles from Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus.
What was Seth Low Junior College, and why was the brilliant Isaac Asimov sent there instead? Seth Low Junior College, which existed from 1928 to 1938, was one of Columbia’s many attempts to deal with a changing student population that they felt was contaminating its pristine, Protestant campus. And it’s part of the bigger story of how the Ivy League resistance to outsiders shaped all of higher education as we know it.
In the first episode of Gatecrashers, a new podcast from Tablet Studios, you’ll hear about the lengths Columbia went to in order to limit the number of Jewish students. The invention of the college application itself, the admissions interview, the push for geographical diversity, and more—all elements of the college admissions process as we know it today—trace back to Columbia’s effort to keep out the Jews. You’ll hear from NPR’s Robert Siegel, former Columbia College Dean Robert Pollack, historian Robert McCaughey, sci-fi scholar Alfred Guy, and Dr. Leeza Hirt, whose undergraduate reporting unearthed the history of Seth Low Junior College.
Princeton and the ‘Dirty Bicker’ of 1958
Back in the 1950s, the Princeton eating clubs were essential. The dining hall was only meant for freshmen and sophomores. The club you joined as a sophomore became not just a place to eat but the center of your Princeton social life, a place to hang out, nurture friendships, and make connections.
According to one estimate, by the late 1950s, the school was about one seventh Jewish. But the Jewish students were about to find out that just because you’re admitted doesn’t mean you’re accepted. In February 1958, at the end of the bicker process—like fraternity rush, but for eating clubs—there were 35 sophomores who got no bids at all. And most of them were Jewish. The scandal was immediately dubbed “the dirty bicker” by the national press; it was reported in the New York Times, the New York Post, Newsweek, and more. It nearly caused the downfall of the eating clubs.
In Episode 2 of Gatecrashers, you’ll hear about the dirty bicker from students who were there, and learn what it tells us about class, acceptance, and belonging. You’ll hear from best-selling author Michael Lewis, Steven C. Rockefeller, novelist Geoffrey Wolff, Abby Klionsky, who wrote her senior thesis about the development of Jewish life at Princeton, Joel Davidow, Paul Rochmis, Jerry Spivak, and more.
Dartmouth and the Jews who Loved it
On the surface, all-male Dartmouth in the 1940s and 1950s seems like it would be deeply unappealing to Jews: rural New Hampshire campus, no Jewish girls within miles, a history of antisemitic fraternities. But Jewish alumni from that era seemed to love Dartmouth. Why?
Something about Dartmouth—maybe it was the bucolic campus, the mountains, all that fresh air—made for a more laid-back environment than at the other Ivies.
In Episode 3 of Gatecrashers, you’ll hear from Dartmouth alumni including journalist David Shribman, actor Stephen Macht, screenwriter Steven Geller, and Richard Press, Jewish scion of the preppy clothier J. Press, about how Jewish students embraced the great outdoors—and learned to love Dartmouth College.
Yale and the Slow Death of Quotas
It’s accepted as gospel—or at least reliable urban legend—that at nearly every Ivy League school in the mid-20th century, there were limits on the number of Jews admitted each year. The Jewish population, it was said, was capped at 10 percent of the student body. But was that true?
Episode 4 of Gatecrashers investigates the real story of Jewish quotas, examining the practice at Yale University. You’ll hear reflections from Sen. Joe Lieberman (Yale ‘64), Benjamin Zucker (Yale ‘58), and Tim Oppenheimer (Yale ‘67, and father of Gatecrashers host Mark Oppenheimer). You’ll also hear from former Yale admissions director Henry “Sam” Chauncey, who shares what he was told when he started his job in 1957, and Dan Oren, author of Joining the Club: A History of Jews at Yale.
How did Jewish quotas start at Yale, and how did they finally end? Listen and find out:
Brown University and Mrs. Smith’s Kosher Kitchen
While today most American universities offer all sorts of dining accommodations, the on-campus dining scene in the 1950s was far less welcoming for students with specific dietary needs. For students who observed the Jewish dietary laws known as kashrut, and therefore didn’t mix milk with meat or eat pork or shellfish (among other restrictions), their options for elite colleges were narrowed even further, often to schools in big cities where kosher meat and other offerings could more easily be procured.
So when a kosher-keeping high school senior from New York City wanted to attend Brown in the late 1950s, he was directed to an observant Jewish home near campus in Providence, RI, where Miriam Smith cooked kosher meals for him and, soon, an increasing number of observant Brown and Pembroke students.
Episode 5 of Gatecrashers features reflections from Meryl Smith Raskin (Pembroke ‘66), Herschel Smith (Brown ‘62), Richard Hirsch (Brown ‘63), and others about Mrs. Smith’s kitchen and the fight to get the campus to provide—and subsidize—kosher meals. Scholars Rachel Gordan of the University of Florida and Zev Eleff of Gratz College offer a broader look at mid-century American Jewish life and the growth of America’s kosher food industry in the post-war period.
Cornell and its Off-Campus, Off-Kilter Jewish Commune
In the fall of 1970, a group of Jewish Cornell students did something radical. Energized by a Freedom Seder on campus led by Arthur Waskow and the countercultural movement sweeping a country, they created a Jewish communal house. The Cornell Havurah was an “an anti-establishment establishment,” completely independent with no deans, resident advisors, or national organizations overseeing it.
The havurah was a residential component of the Jewish counterculture, a larger movement that included Jewish feminism and a Jewish anti-war movement. Translating literally to “fellowship,” the havurah was outside the synagogue structure, a place where Jews would come together for prayer, classes, meals, hiking, folk-singing, and more.
At this time of great turmoil in the country, and in the Jewish world, Jewish students at Cornell responded by seeking shelter from the storm ... together. To live intentionally—and communally—as Jews was a brave and original act in 1970. It was a statement of ethnic and religious pride, made by a group of college students who wanted to live their Judaism every day. As the rotating cast of residents proved over the years to come, a Jewish house can be a space where Jews of all kinds, of all political persuasions and sexual orientations, and of every shade of religious observance, could find themselves and find joy with others.
Episode 6 of Gatecrashers features Arthur Waskow, and a host of residents and regulars of the various iterations of the Cornell Havurah including Carl Viniar, Naomi Guttman-Bass, Reena Sigman Friedman, Judy Feierstein, Howard Adelman, Naomi Levy, Susan Lehmann, Richard Lehmann, Shari Edelstein, Bruce Temkin, Joe Avni-Singer, Alan Edelman, and Erica Edelman.
Amazing lens through which to dissect the Ivy League
I learned so much by listening to Gatecrashers and was also entertained. The podcast feels especially insightful and poignant given current world events. The only thing I disagreed with as a fellow Yalie was Mark’s statement that Harvard is the most prestigious US university. 🙄
Thank you Mark and Tablet for creating a compassionate and compelling narrative around this topic! Very timely and the commercials are not too annoying. I binged all the episodes on a Saturday and was sad it was over!
An essential listen!
“Gatecrashers” is one of the best podcasts I’ve ever experienced. Absolutely fascinating. I attended an Ivy League university (Cornell), so it’s especially interesting to me. But you absolutely do NOT need to be a graduate of an Ivy to appreciate the shocking stories of how the highest rated schools in our nation actively and intentionally worked to keep Jewish students (“…they just don’t have the same social skills…”) out of the hallowed halls and off the lush quads.