Jewish gatecrashers in the Ivy League

“Harvard’s run by millionaires,
Yale is run by booze,
Cornell’s run by farmers’ sons,
Columbia is run by Jews.

Give a cheer for Baxter Street,
another one for Pell,
and when the little sheenies die,
their souls go straight to Hell.”

[Popular song at Ivy League colleges in the 1910s]

Disturbing song, isn’t it? For more information—and a larger context—you will want to listen to the new 8-episode podcast, Gatecrashers.

But first, let’s clear up a few misunderstandings about the Ivy League:

  • First, the quoted song does not reflect current sensibilities: note that it’s from 110 years ago! Things have changed, although issues about student demographics have not gone away.
  • Second, too many people have no idea what the Ivy League even is; they think it’s a vague term for “prestigious colleges,” including Stanford and Chicago! Actually, the Ivy League is a football league of eight very old private universities in the northeast: Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell, Penn, Columbia, and Princeton.
  • Third, these eight are not particularly more prestigious or “better” than many private alternatives, such as the aforementioned Stanford and Chicago or smaller colleges like Amherst, Williams, and Swarthmore, not to mention public alternatives like Berkeley and Michigan.

So what is this podcast series really about? Tablet Magazine, the publisher, describes it succinctly as “a podcast about the hidden history of Jews and the Ivy League.” Now you see why they opened with the song quoted above. You can also see why there are eight episodes: one for each college. So far they have released two—Columbia and Princeton. So those are the only ones that I can comment on at this point.

With just 50 minutes per episode, you can’t expect an in-depth analysis. But you do get an appropriate combination of an overview and a focus. I was particularly interested in the Columbia episode, since I’ve long wondered how my dad managed to be admitted to Columbia; I figured it must have been in the days of the tiny Jewish quota there, so how did he get in? I know about the quota from the autobiography of the brilliant and accomplished Isaac Asimov, who did indeed attend Columbia University but had been rejected from the flagship college there (Manhattan-based Columbia College) because he was Jewish; instead he was shunted to the Brooklyn branch, Seth Low Junior College, which was designed primarily for Jews and secondarily for Italians and other undesirables. I learned from the podcast that my dad’s admission actually preceded the Jewish quota by a decade. It wasn’t until the end of the 1920s that the administration at Columbia decided that they had too many Jews and needed to do something about it, presaging Hitler’s designation of The Jewish Problem a few years later.

The Princeton episode focuses on “the Dirty Bicker of 1958,” described by Tablet as “the curious social scandal that left Jews out of—and nearly upended—the school’s exclusive eating clubs.” That event was one of several reasons that I didn’t apply to Princeton when I was considering colleges six years later.

Anyway, that’s just a taste. From what I’ve learned in these first two episodes, I eagerly await the remaining six. I’ll write about them after they have been released and I have had a chance to listen to them. I will leave you with more-or-less representative photos of Columbia and Princeton:

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning