It was early December in Tucson, Ariz.—45 years and 1,600 miles from our undergraduate days at Vanderbilt.
We came together, this graying group of sexagenarians, to recharge our connections to each other and to celebrate four decades of friendship.
Not everyone was present in Tucson that weekend; regrettably, some had passed away. Their absence underscored our own finite existence. Indeed, the inevitable tug of mortality was a magnet that pulled us together again.
We graduated in ’64, ’65 and ’66. We were physicians, attorneys, professors and assorted business types. Many had retired to savor the joys of grandparenting plus a heavy dose of travel.
We were not so different from any other Vandy fraternity group of the 1960s. Except for one thing: We were all Jewish.
The memories flowed endlessly for nearly four days. We reveled in old war stories—of parties, professors, football games and spring breaks. We shared updates on our lives—health, careers, children, grandchildren.
What we did not talk about was the unique position of Zeta Beta Tau, a Jewish fraternity within a largely Protestant undergraduate population. And the fact that fraternity rush prior to the late 1960s included a mandatory separate system called “Jewish Rush.”
Vanderbilt undergrads in 1964 were white, Christian and majority Greek. Our fraternity members were predominantly Southerners, comfortable with—or at least acclimated to—the mainstream religious traditions of the region.
Growing up Jewish in the Old South was a complex cultural experience. There were daily public school prayers and church-based school events. We attended Christmas parties and Easter parades and shared family occasions with non-Jewish friends.
We were aware in high school of Jewish fraternities and Gentile fraternities at Vanderbilt and most other universities of the era. This distinction was not at all offensive to us; in retrospect, though, one might question the sociology of separation.
Ironically, ZBT thrived under the old system. We were separate but perhaps even a little more than equal. Because we did not compete for pledges with a dozen mainstream fraternities, we were free to form multiple alliances across the campus—political, social, academic and personal. ZBT’s campus leaders enjoyed a unique neutrality.
“The ZBTs excelled in every way, and there were deep friendships between Jewish and non-Jewish students which endure to this day,” remembers Joe Martin, BA’64, president of the Interfraternity Council for 1963–64. “But when it came to rush, the Jewish students went one way, and everyone else went another. No one seemed to give it a second thought at the time.” (Martin, of Atlanta, also was president of the Vanderbilt Alumni Association in 1977–78.)
The years 1964 and 1965 were a triumphant time for ZBT. The Vanderbilt chapter was twice named best in the nation by the fraternity’s national leadership. Through 1967 the chapter was the perpetual winner—eight consecutive semesters—of the Vanderbilt Interfraternity Council’s Scholarship Trophy, and individual members held major leadership positions in student government and publications.
Nonetheless, we were always Jewish, individually and collectively. We were the largest Jewish presence on the campus, different in some basic ways from the rest of the student body.
I remember a spring day in 1964. The chapter had a new home at 2419 Kensington Place. Rabbi Jerome Kestenbaum, DDiv’70, of West End Synagogue blessed the new building and affixed a large mezuzah to the upper right doorpost of the house. (A mezuzah is a piece of parchment in a decorative case placed on doors of Jewish homes.) Few of us were particularly religious in those days, but we were Jewish and this was our tradition.
There were other traditions, perhaps less overt but equally compelling. The Civil Rights Movement of the early ’60s revealed in us an almost genetic compulsion for human rights.
There was the episode involving The Campus Grill, on 21st Avenue South at Scarritt Place, just across the street from the library. The owner of the popular hangout refused to serve two black graduate students. “It’s just the way I run my business,” stated the proprietor, quoted in The Vanderbilt Hustler, Nov. 1, 1963.
“We’re not trying to hurt your business,” one of the students said. “We just want something to eat.”
This glaring discrimination in the middle of our world drew an immediate response. A ZBT editorial writer for the Hustler urged a boycott of the establishment. Picket lines were set up, and student volunteers from Vanderbilt and Fisk maintained a vigil outside the restaurant. Several weeks later The Campus Grill was open for everyone.
The annual IMPACT Symposium brought major national figures to campus. Featured speakers in 1965 were George Wallace, the first-term (then-segregationist) governor of Alabama, and Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP. Wallace had been invited to lunch by one of the other fraternities, and ZBT voted to invite Roy Wilkins for an informal “lunch and learn.”
Roy Wilkins was a thoughtful, articulate man who exuded calm and confidence. I’ll never forget his reply to what appeared to be an academic question posed by a perky Vanderbilt cheerleader: “But Mr. Wilkins,” she asked, “wouldn’t intermarriage ultimately help your movement?”
Wilkins responded with eloquent wisdom. “Young lady,” he said, “I would never advocate marriage for a cause, no matter how just.”
Why did ZBT host Wilkins that day?
Perhaps it was because we understood—innately—the challenges of the outsider.
We, ourselves, were outsiders seeking acceptance by the majority. And to a large extent, we succeeded; Vanderbilt in the 1960s was a remarkably nurturing environment, both academically and socially.
Oh, there were occasional slights when a co-ed’s parents disapproved of their daughter’s ZBT date for a sorority ball at the country club. We came to understand that such preferences were institutional and likely generational.
The ZBT Class of 1959 will become Quinqs this year at the university’s Reunion Oct. 16–17. “Almost the entire class will be there,” notes ’58–’59 Chapter President Gary Cohen, BA’59, now an attorney in Washington, D.C. “Sixteen of 19 classmates have already signed up to attend.”
Cohen and Rodger (Buddy) Cooper, BA’61, of St. Louis are part of a network of late 1950s/early 1960s ZBTs who have remained steadfastly connected, even more so in recent years with the help of the Internet. Cooper says, “I was the only Jewish football player on the freshman team. I knew I wouldn’t be rushed by the mainstream fraternities, but my experience at Vanderbilt was wonderful, and I had many pals across the campus through intramural sports.”
Another rising Quinq, Bob Royal of Memphis, came to Vanderbilt from Red Bay, Ala., where his was the only Jewish family in town. He recalls the onset of rush in 1955. “All freshman men went to Memorial Gym to learn about rush procedures. At the end of the talk, the 50 or so Jewish freshmen were asked to stay,” says Royal, BA’59, JD’62. “I’ll never forget my reaction to seeing 50 Jewish boys all in one place—and the very different reaction of a freshman from New York City. I exclaimed, ‘Wow, 50 Jews!’ and he said, ‘Whoa … only 50 Jews?’ I pledged ZBT. He joined Alpha Epsilon Pi [the other Jewish fraternity on campus].”
There was also a Jewish sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, which had opened a chapter at Vanderbilt in 1925; entertainer Dinah Shore, BA’38, was president of the chapter during her senior year. The sorority no longer has a chapter at Vanderbilt, but Zeta Beta Tau, now a nonsectarian fraternity, is still going strong on campus. Alpha Epsilon Pi continues to pledge mostly Jewish members.
Ultimately, having a separate rush system was troubling to both Jews and non-Jews. “It wasn’t right,” says former Interfraternity Council President Joe Martin, who was a member of Phi Delta Theta.
New York attorney Steve Gross, BA’60, describes the concept of “Jewish Rush” as “not very flattering.” He adds, “By the time my son got to Vanderbilt, Jewish rush was no more, and the old rumor of a ‘Jewish quota’ seemed to have gone away.”
Chapter President Alan Elsas, BA’62, of Atlanta is essentially in agreement with Gross. “I felt as a freshman there was an unnecessary separation. My Atlanta friends were joining other fraternities and jokingly offered to make me an ‘honorary member.’ But I joined ZBT and had a terrific four years at Vanderbilt.”
Former ZBT President Dr. Ralph Lampert, BA’61, of Williamsburg, Va., came to Vanderbilt from the piney woods of rural Louisiana. “For the first time in my life,” Lampert says, “I was a participant in a small Jewish community—the ZBT fraternity. It was an eye-opening experience to associate with this eclectic group. You could find the urbane, the witty, the sophisticate, the athlete, the brain, even the religious zealot—all in a Jewish context. And 50 years later, I highly value those friendships.”
“After graduation I slipped back into a secular mode,” Lampert continues. “My cultural heritage is to be found more in William Faulkner than Saul Bellow. My religious philosophy is better explained by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. But despite my lapse from tradition, I believe those four years at Vanderbilt and ZBT were the most valuable and transformational of my life. I did not consider the separation demeaning, nor did my Christian friends. We were not victims.”
Seated L-R: Dr. Richard S. Lasky, ‘65, Dr. Robert A. Schriber, ‘66, Henry R. Bauer, Jr., ‘64, Dr. Jay A. Katz, ‘66
Row 2 Seated, L-R: Dr. Daniel P. Mandelbaum, ‘65, Marshall J. Feldman, ‘66, Allan B. Ament, ‘64, Dr. Mark A. Doyne, ‘64
Row 3 Standing, L-R: Dr. Barry A. Friedman, 65, G. Marc Hamburger, ‘64, Dr. Lawrence E. Holder, ‘64, Dr. James A. Borger, ‘64, Dr. Stuart J. Goldstone, ‘64, Alan J. Rose, ‘64, Dr. Myron H. Jacobs, 66, Herschel M. Bloom, ‘65, David J. Leibson, ‘66, Alan S. Cooper, ‘64, Thomas B. Benham, 65, Dr. Norman B. Seltzer, ‘66,
Row 4 Standing, L-R: William B. Pomerantz, ‘64, Howard G. Safer, ‘65, Rodney M. Rosemblum, ‘64, Clement Shugerman, ‘64, Dr. David B. Arkin, ‘65
Attending but not in the photo: Dr. Theodore E. Eisenstat, ‘64, whose wife is Sharon Leonard Eisenstat, ‘65, and Lon D. Zimmerman, ‘64.
© 2015 Vanderbilt University
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