31: One Click

31: One Click

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

One Click

Life is partly what we make it, and partly what it is made by the friends whom we choose.

~Tehyi Hsieh

Students of every color and rung on the socioeconomic ladder came together to receive a faith-based education at my high school. Many of my St. Ignatius classmates were the Spanish-speaking children of immigrant parents. We had a higher percentage of African Americans than any other private high school in Chicago, and our valedictorian lived in Chinatown with her grandparents, who barely spoke English. In addition, a large percentage of students were awarded full-tuition scholarships or substantial financial aid. I was happy to go to a school with a diverse community, and graduated with the belief that never again would I learn among students of such differing backgrounds.

My first year at Boston University forced me to reassess my definition of diversity. I realized with shock that I had never attended a school with a large Jewish population. In fact, my experience with the religion was limited to a two-week unit in high school religion and frequent ingestion of Jewish deli food. Somehow I doubted my affinity for potato latkes made me any more culturally adept.

During the chaos that is freshman year move-in, my dad, ever the chatterbox, discovered that one of my Claflin Hall floor-mates, Danielle Chelminsky, had spent the past year living in Israel, during which she voluntarily went through basic training for the Israeli army. I had been a BU student for less than twenty-four hours, and already I couldn’t believe that while I had been hanging candy canes on a Christmas tree, my future best friend was learning how to shoot an AK-47 in a Middle Eastern desert.

A few weeks into the year, Danielle introduced me to her friend Thalia Rybar, who, despite growing up in predominately Catholic Guatemala, was also Jewish. Although she speaks fluent English, her first language is Spanish. Grabbing dinner in the dining hall with Thalia, Danielle, and other “Latin Jews” at BU was always riveting. Perhaps my major, journalism, played a part in my intense curiosity — for the longest time, I took on the role of Dinner Interrogator. I wanted to know everything.

Thalia and her friends never ceased to entertain me with tales of growing up in developing countries. I learned that while there are a sizeable number of Latin Jews around the world, each country’s individual community tends to stick together. The low cost of living means nearly all Latin Jews employ a full-time staff that includes maids, drivers, landscapers, and sometimes bodyguards. The maids, non-Jewish natives, must learn to prepare kosher meals. The bodyguards protect the families from kidnappers, who take wealthy members of the community for ransom. Sharon Malca, from Colombia, endured six months without her mother when she was taken hostage in the Colombian mountains.

Junior year, I moved into an apartment with Thalia, Danielle, and another friend, Pamela. By this time, aspects of Judaism that had once seemed foreign now felt commonplace. I learned the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, the proceedings of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, countless Yiddish terms (chutzpah is a favorite), and the important role of Israel in the Jewish community. I attended Passover Seder at Danielle’s house twice. Her family invited me to read the haggadah, or book containing the Passover story. Normally I would feel like an idiot stumbling over Hebrew words, but the overwhelming sense of encouragement I felt made me realize what an honor it was to be included in the tradition.

Thalia and her Latin friends often talked about their weekly get-togethers, which they call “Latin Shabbat.” Shabbat, the Hebrew word for rest, takes place each Friday, and includes a special dinner. At Latin Shabbat, all the college-aged, Spanish-speaking Jews in Boston congregate for a huge meal. When Thalia invited me and Danielle, I had no clue what to expect — I had never been to any Shabbat dinner, much less a bilingual Shabbat.

If you think you’ve seen it all, work up an appetite for challah bread and attend Latin Shabbat. When I say I felt like a foreigner, I mean it. I was the only natural blonde, I don’t speak Spanish, I didn’t know the etiquette, the night’s schedule, the words to the prayers, the lyrics to the songs, or even how to toast. I couldn’t believe I was a mere hundred yards from my own apartment.

Hanging tentatively behind Thalia and Danielle, I entered the apartment. Immediately, the unfamiliar bombarded each of my senses: the strong scent of just-out-of-the-oven brisket mixed with red wine and expensive European perfumes and colognes. Loud, loud, Spanish, my gringa cheek being pressed against those of strangers in the customary Latin air kiss greeting. Thalia’s stiletto-clad friends quickly maneuvered around folding chairs and tables to welcome me. What did I want to drink? Could they take my coat? My purse? I barely had time to respond before I was being ushered by five glamazons to meet David, the host.

Thalia, Sharon, and two other friends, Karina, and Sarah, spent the next ten minutes teaching me to salsa. I am admittedly a pathetic dancer — the type who bops to the right when everyone else is boogieing to the left — but I was a novelty to these girls, a project. We salsa-ed until we were all on the floor with tears in our eyes.

The dancing, the Spanglish banter, the delicious smells — I was having the time of my life, and for the first time in my life, I was the minority.

I left Latin Shabbat feeling exhilarated and full of energy, liberated at such newness. That night and many days after, I thought about what had been most special about that night, and why I had reacted so strongly. It took several days to realize that my amazement stemmed from the reverence and seriousness with which this group protected their religion, traditions, and culture.

Amidst the eating, the games, the goofing off, the drinking, and more eating, David stood at the head of the table. Instantly, the group silenced. In English, David earnestly thanked everyone for coming, specifically praising the girls, Thalia included, who had spent all day cooking the massive trays of brisket, potatoes, rice, chicken, salad, and desserts. I knew Thalia and her friends cooked for Shabbat every week, but I hadn’t realized the extent of the meal. Like their mothers and grandmothers at home in Guatemala, Mexico, or Peru, and great-grandmothers in Eastern Europe and Israel, my friends were maintaining a tradition, and taking on a role. It was beautiful to see a group of modern, well-educated young women embrace their history.

Next, David read a prayer in Hebrew. It was flawless, not only in his delivery, but in his sincerity. I attended Catholic school for twelve years and had not once been to a gathering in which someone my age stood and recited a prayer. I can’t even think of one friend who brought a Bible to school, let alone read from it on a regular basis. David’s reading, and the subsequent explanation of its meaning, made me reassess the importance of organized religion. I have, at times, been skeptical of Catholicism. Suddenly, I felt compelled to embrace it.

Opening myself to the experience of another religion and culture has been the single greatest decision of my college experience. There is so much to learn, so much to absorb, so much to take away. Living with Thalia and Danielle was the result of a simple click on the housing website. That one click altered my worldview forever.

~Molly Fedick

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners