Jewish at Smith
Gertrude Weil, 1879 - 1971
Keeping up Jewish observance at Smith was sometimes difficult. As Weil comments in this letter, the president of the College required students to attend a religious service. Although High Holiday services did exist in Northampton, it appears that no regular Shabbat service took place. Some Jewish students went to the Unitarian church, but this option must have been unsatisfactory to many. Eventually, Weil went to see President Seelye about the matter*:
It took a terrible amount of courage to speak to him. But I did manage to screw it up to the necessary pitch one morning after his lecture on the college, & was ushered into his office. Such an awe-inspiring chamber. Of course, he said that I needn't go if I didn't feel like it, but that he thought it was a good thing to worship with other people once a week. I believe I have been once since.
Even during the High Holidays, when regular services were available, Weil struggled to adjust to new forms of worship, as described in a letter to her parents about her first Yom Kippur in Northampton*:
It was the queerest day I ever spent—at least, I never spent one like it.... I did go to College on N.Y. day. It was the first day of regular classes and I thought it would throw me back a good deal.... [On Yom Kippur], we went...to a Mr. Cohen's store....[T]he young Mr. Cohen told us that the evening service was over...and that the day service would be held from 7 o'clock over a certain store on the next block.... Mr. C. asked us if I'd like to go up and meet his sister who would be going to service. They are froum enough not to have had any light in the hall, so that we were lucky to escape with our lives in going up the two flights.... I could only see well enough to tell that Miss C. was no startling oriental beauty, and no New England one either.... The service is held in a very small room...just an ordinary sized living room. When we went in, there were people lining the walls all around. There might have been three families with a few extra men thrown in. In the middle of the room was a dining table with a red cover on it and on one side of the wall was a rough box with a curtain for the Torah. The older men, enrobed in great wide 'tallas' (is that right?) stood up most of the time—one, apparently the reader, who wore no shoes, stood all the time. There were two young boys about 13 or 14 and one little fellow of about 6, who ran across the floor most of the time. We had to go out of the room once, which, I suppose, was something like memorial service, only it lasted only 5 or ten minutes. It was about two o'clock when Miss C. proposed going out for a while & I was not sorry—I inwardly decided that I would not go back, for I didn't really feel like praying or anything else amid such surroundings, & such noises....
As for fasting—I never fasted better in my life. Indeed I didn't feel hungry or empty or weak the least bit any time in the day.
Excerpts from Letter from Gertrude Weil to her family, September 26, 1897
View the full letter.
* Letters from Gertrude Weil to her family, December 14, 1897, and September 7, 1897, in the Gertrude Weil Papers at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.