A Jew Learns Arabic at a Catholic University


Note: This summer Campus Confidential will explore the many ways Jewish students are spending their vacation. Have a great summer story? Send it to rubinink@gmail.com.

When I introduced myself to my summer housing roommate as a student from Brown University with a Jewish heritage studying Arabic for the summer at a Catholic University founded by Jesuits, the first response I got was the ever-articulate “Wow!” His next question was “Why?”

After all, Arabic has the somewhat deserved reputation of being a “hard language.” Why am I spending 2 hours and 45 minutes each day in the challenging — and at times, frustrating — exercise of training my tongue in these strange, foreign sounds? Why am I submitting myself to our encouraging, but firm, taskmaster of a teacher who strictly enforces his “No English” policy?

I should have an easy and ready answer, but I don’t. For those easily satisfied with a brief answer, I simply respond that Arabic is a beautiful language. For others, I explain that my love for languages comes not simply from the aesthetic beauty of a language, though Arabic is truly a beautiful language, but from the core ability of language to promote communication across borders, across nationalities, and across cultures. By studying Arabic, I have been opened up to new groups of individuals and to the cultures they represent in a way that allows me to better understand and appreciate the subtleties and nuances of those cultures that I have come to truly admire and respect.

I have been somewhat horrified when my questioners have joked that I am studying Arabic “to better understand the enemy” or, even worse, that “I must be the worst Jew ever.” I am hurt by the suggestion that by studying Arabic I have either turned my back on my heritage or used it to so prejudice me against a people that I would learn a language only to better learn how to manipulate.

To those people, I adamantly respond that I see no inherent contradiction between my heritage and my passion for Arabic , that my love for the language stems from the language itself and the people who speak it.

To those who suggest that I have turned my back on my heritage I would tell them that I have never been stronger in recognizing my Jewish identity. This summer, I was very fortunately accepted into the Taglit-Birthright Israel program along with my younger brother. Through the program Amazing Israel, we will travel to Israel to explore its historical and religious landmarks. This program is designed to reach thousands of young adults ages 18-26 with a Jewish heritage to “diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities… and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.”

By spending part of the summer learning about Arab culture and then getting in touch with my Jewish identity — and hopefully picking up some Hebrew — I am bringing together two seemingly contradictory aspects of my identity. I truly look forward to both of these experiences and see the incredible value that they will have in helping me to shape myself and to pursue a life in which I am able to bring communities together.

I have already learned that the Arab and Jewish cultures, though seemingly different, are in some ways very similar. In my opinion it just requires more students like those in classroom 217B and those young adults on Birthright to find some understanding and common ground.

My friend Avi Schaefer, who began his freshman year with me at Brown University after completing service in the Israel Defense Forces, once wrote, “An enemy is only someone whose story we have not yet heard.” Avi was killed by a motorist last winter but his words live on and still ring true to me. With my knowledge of Arabic and Hebrew and my newly gained cultural perspective, I will be ready to hear that story and to understand it.

Spencer Parsons is a rising sophomore at Brown University.