The Oberlin Stories Project

On growing

Althea Lamel ’13

“I realized I had come a long way from the student who sat in that class three years earlier doubting herself. I had become the articulate college student who had intimidated me so much in my first semester of college.”

Group of students in a museum

There are a lot of things about my Oberlin experience that my parents don’t fully get: “mom jeans,” for one, but also my interest in Jewish history. It happened by chance.

I had just been accepted to Oberlin and was flipping through the fall 2009 course catalog. I made a list of all the courses I wanted to take and was trying to narrow it down. “I would take What is Cinema? before taking Eastern European Jewry,” my dad said looking over my shoulder. “That sounds so boring.”

He might be right, I thought. After all, it was from my dad’s side of the family where I got my Jewish roots, he knew more about it than I did. But come September, I had an unanticipated amount of difficulty registering for more sought-after classes, which is how I ended up in Professor Magnus’ classroom at 9:35 in the morning one Tuesday.

It was a very small class, only seven students total. There were three freshmen other than myself and if weren’t for them, I probably would have been too intimidated to stay in the course at all. Unlike my other classes, which were all intro classes, JWST 276 was small enough that everyone had to talk every class. In high school, I’d never had a problem talking in class, but for the first time in my life, I felt dumb when I raised my hand. The older students were so articulate and I wasn’t used to thinking so much before I spoke. My sentences were full of “likes” and “ums” while other students sounded like they were reciting their dissertations. And there were a lot of readings for each class—and a lot of that reading went way over my head, something I was well aware of. I don’t think I got through one class where my face didn’t turn red and my voice didn’t shake. But I did well on my essays and continued to speak because for whatever reason, the subject was riveting. Four months later, I was done with the course and had worked harder than I ever had in any class in my life and for the next three years, I continued to take courses in the Jewish studies department, intending to double major.

The coolest thing about a studies major is that you can take so many different classes—history, religion, language, literature—but with Jewish studies particularly, that’s hard to get across to people outside of Oberlin, which has led to some funny misunderstandings. All anyone seems to hear when I say Jewish studies is religion, which is not even what I study.

“So wait, you want to be a rabbi?”


“She’s majoring in theology at Oberlin.”

“No I’m not, Dad.”

My personal favorite was when my Irish Catholic grandfather offered to send me a copy of the catechism of the Catholic church along with his next letter, since I had developed such an avid interest in religion. I chose to let that one go unanswered.

At school I got to do so much. I took more history courses with Professor Magnus in which I got to explore my feminist side through the lens of Jewish history. I took literature courses (that I loved) where I got to read funny Israeli stories by authors I never would have heard of if it weren’t for Professor Ofengenden. I did take a religion course but ultimately withdrew when I realized that I was so uninterested in Judaism from a theological perspective.

This past spring, I took a seminar with Professor Magnus called Germans and Jews in which there were only three other students. I spoke a lot in class and was always confident when I had the floor. I realized I had come a long way from the student who sat in that class three years earlier doubting herself. I had become the articulate college student who had intimidated me so much in my first semester of college. That is not to say I am done, or that I am not still learning. I don’t think there are any sentences that come out of my mouth that sound like a dissertation, and I certainly still have my fair share of “like” and “um” moments. But in spite of that, I am proud to have realized how much I have learned and grown as a student.

In the end, I will not be able to complete my second major in Jewish studies due to a lack of planning on my part, but that is okay. It is through Jewish studies that I was able to find strength and a voice as a college student. Finding my inner Jewish historian is something that I stumbled upon through Oberlin and it will always be a special part of my experience at this school, a fact that I would not have predicted three years ago. To anyone coming to Oberlin, I would suggest stepping out of your comfort zone and taking a class that catches your eye even if you can’t quite figure out why it does. It’s not every day that you get the opportunity, and you never know what will whet your intellectual appetite until you get a taste of it all.