October 27, 2005

Bernankeís Brandeis Envy

From my friend, the Brandeis undergrad-turned law student-turned priesthood candidate Joe Koczera, we get the news (via the New York Times) that President Bushís nominee to succeed Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, had higher aspirations than attending his alma mater, Harvard. Where did he really want to go? Thatís right, Brandeis.

He applied to Brandeis University, which was founded by Jews and named after Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court. Harvard, which he ended up attending, was an after-thought. His parents still keep kosher, and their son learned Hebrew partly from a grandfather who lived with the family - enough Hebrew to officiate at the bar and bat mitzvahs of his children, Joel and Alyssa, without the help of a rabbi.

The synagogue in Dillon was too small to support a full-time rabbi, so a student rabbi conducted services on the High Holy Days and stayed at the Bernanke home. One evening at dinner, the visitor suggested that Ben apply to Harvard.

"We were talking about Brandeis," Mrs. Bernanke recalled, "and the rabbi said, 'If he can get into Brandeis, he can get into Harvard.

Now I have no idea what the admission standards were like at Brandeis then, vs. now. But this story tells us a lot about the difference between Jewish attitudes towards education, in the Ď60s vs. today.

Iíd say right now that the assimilation of the Jewish community has reached a level at which itís unlikely that any parent- much less a rabbi- would vociferously recommend that that child attend Brandeis when they have a chance to go to Harvard. Parents may wish for their children to experience the combination of the vibrant Jewish community and academic rigor at Brandeis, but I still think Harvardís reputation would outweigh that, for the vast majority of Jewish students, parents, and rabbis alike.

I certainly donít remember anyone from my class at Ďdeis who had chosen Waltham over Cambridge, though I do remember literally dozens of Brandeis students who were bummed about not getting into Tufts. And yes, I could see Catholics choosing Notre Dame over Harvard (did you know anyone who did, Joe?). But then, ND is much more Catholic than Brandeis is Jewish, and even more importantly, Notre Dame has a football team, and we donít.

And besides, much like "Goldman Sachs investment banker" and "íSaturday Night Liveí writer," "Federal Reserve Chairman" is one of those jobs where you pretty much have to have gone to Harvard. And Iíd imagine that in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, Bush would prefer to steer clear of Republican Brandeis alumni for the time being. (To say nothing of Republican SMU Law School alumni).

Iíd love to hear what my blogrollís resident Harvard men, Ben and Ross, think about this.

Posted by Stephen Silver at October 27, 2005 11:14 PM
Comments

Very interesting...I agree about the ND comment. I know lots of catholics who worship Notre Dame and love that they went there and are so proud it makes me ill. I would have prob. chosen Harvard. Give me intellectualism over binge drinking and football any day.

Posted by: A at October 27, 2005 11:33 PM

Good post, Steve. As far as Catholics choosing ND over Harvard, I can't think of any in my acquaintance who did. I know of a case of an ND undergrad who transferred to Harvard, and while I was at ND I knew some law and grad students who'd done their undergrad at Harvard, but as far as people who picked ND over Harvard I don't have the data to say. Interesting question, though.

Posted by: Joe Koczera, nSJ at October 31, 2005 11:55 PM

Brandeis is full of smart Jewish (and non-Jewish) kids who didn't get in to Harvard.

I know -- I attended Brandeis for freshman and sophomore years, 1976-78. For various reasons I quit halfway through and went to work for two years. Then transferred my credits to Harvard and finished up.

My mother was thrilled that her son attended Brandeis; my father was happier to put the Harvard decal on his Cadillac.

But as far as Jewish life goes, I think it was far more satisfying to be a Jew at Harvard, a member of a large minority group there, than another MOT at Brandeis. For one thing, most of the students there, from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, have ALWAYS been part of large Jewish cultures, even majority cultures. For them, Brandeis is just another shtetl. For me, as a West-coast Jew who was always a member of a small minority, both campuses offered some exciting culture shock. Being at Harvard, famous for its turn of the century exclusion and mid-century admissions quotas, was just a little more satisfying.

Posted by: DIS at November 11, 2005 10:51 PM

Brandeis is full of smart Jewish (and non-Jewish) kids who didn't get in to Harvard.

I know -- I attended Brandeis for freshman and sophomore years, 1976-78. For various reasons I quit halfway through and went to work for two years. Then transferred my credits to Harvard and finished up.

My mother was thrilled that her son attended Brandeis; my father was happier to put the Harvard decal on his Cadillac.

But as far as Jewish life goes, I think it was far more satisfying to be a Jew at Harvard, a member of a large minority group there, than another MOT at Brandeis. For one thing, most of the students there, from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, have ALWAYS been part of large Jewish cultures, even majority cultures. For them, Brandeis is just another shtetl. For me, as a West-coast Jew who was always a member of a small minority, both campuses offered some exciting culture shock. Being at Harvard, famous for its turn of the century exclusion and mid-century admissions quotas, was just a little more satisfying.

Posted by: DIS at November 11, 2005 11:27 PM