Jews at Williams: Inclusion, Exclusion, and Class at a New England Liberal Arts College by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft is both an interesting read and a source for dozens of fascinating anecdotes. Let’s spend a month or so going through it. Today is Day 2.

The book is divided into a series of chapter written by Wurgaft, interspersed with reminisces from various alumni. This organization works extremely well. The forward (Confessions of a Jewish Elitist), by Sigmund Balka ’56, sets the stage wonderfully. He writes:

I think of myself as having become part of a “double elite” during my time at Williams; elite because of my family’s place in Jewish circles in the Philadelphia area, where I grew up, and because of my later professional accomplishments that Williams made possible.

I was drawn to Williams because of its academic excellence and small size—and by the tranquil environment of Williamstown. I knew that the college had few Jewish students, and was reputed to be an upper-class institution open only to students from high-society families who had attended leading preparatory schools.

The fraternities were such a dominant presence on campus that, when Jewish students were rejected for membership, they could view it as a rejection by Williams itself. Though many of them came from established families, perhaps the Jewish equivalents of the Social Registrants of Boston, New York, or Philadelphia, this meant nothing to the fraternity brothers. Being part of a Jewish elite was meaningless at Williams.

Indeed, only years after graduating would I learn how many Jewish classmates I had really had.

All the while I was conscious of the toll anti-Semitism had taken on many of my fellow Jewish students, … and aware that it did not have the same emotional impact on me.

These passages hint at a recurrent theme throughout the work, a theme mirrored in the larger society: the difference between German Jews, many of whose families were already elite by the early 1900s, and newly arriving Eastern European Jews, many of them poor and less acculturated to the mores of upper crust US society. Balka, like the vast majority of Jewish students at Williams before the 1950s, was a German Jew, someone whose family’s wealth made the transition to Williams much easier.

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