Friday nights at Brandeis were strange. Come sundown, there was a palpable sense of conflict among some of the freshmen: How seriously should I take the Sabbath situation? These were the in-betweeners. Not the ones from traditional Jewish homes, whose routines were set; not the ones who paid attention only on High Holidays or not at all. The in-betweeners were still figuring their shit out. And I mean, good God, so were we all, but specifically they were figuring their shit out Judaism-wise. They were away from home for the first time, saw the trappings of their more devout classmates, and needed to try them on. So they wouldn't turn their lights off.
Among the modern interpretations of "no work on the Sabbath" is that no electricity should be implemented. Some students used only candlelight after sundown on Friday. For the in-betweeners, this meant they could touch no power switches, but if someone else touched some power switches ... After a few weeks, we knew which ones would ask the Gentiles in the dorm to turn their stuff on and off for them. "Hey, could you hit play on my stereo real quick?" they'd say. "I just want to listen to some Cranberries while I read." Later, they would ask someone to turn off the stereo. And the overhead lights.
Not too long ago I coughed up something like eight thousand words prattling on about the University of New Hampshire, but I actually transferred there after a year at Brandeis. It was my brother who suggested I apply. He nearly went there himself, and drove me down for a tour. We saw the Celtics in their on-campus practice facility. It was the only time I ever saw Kevin McHale in person. The school stunned us with their financial aid offer, and suddenly I was packing for Waltham.
Brandeis isn't technically a Jewish institution, not in the sense that, say, Boston College is a Jesuit institution. But man, it is pretty darn Jewish. As a Catholic who had just added "former" to the title, I was solidly in the minority. Which was cool, to be honest. Not that it came up all that much, but when it did, it made me seem half a percent more interesting. Probably less interesting than my hip-hop Texan Vietnamese roommate, but half a percent is better than nothing. Plus, it made not being Catholic anymore super easy.
The power switch requests dwindled to a stop by Thanksgiving, and besides, that wasn't even the weirdest thing going. Every day in the dining hall, you could watch the Kosher Cops.
They weren't actual cops of course, nor were they security guards, nor really any position of any authority at all. They were simply cafeteria workers. And I'm not 100% sure they knew we called them the Kosher Cops.
Kosher meal plans were available to all students, though you had to specify your choice, as if it were a long flight or a wedding reception or whatever. Once you chose, they expected you to stick with it. There was a little sticker on the student ID cards, lamb's blood upon the door to mark the chosen — at least until the semester ended and you could switch if you felt like it.
Despite the university's demographics, the Kosher split was closer to 50-50. Sherman Dining Hall had separate service counters, each with its own menu. The Kosher trays had angled corners so that you could tell them apart. (This always seemed unintentionally cruel to me. Kosher food had to stay on the trays because the tables weren't Kosher, so why give them the trays with less surface area?) Pretty soon, we all knew who lined up on which side.
That's where the Kosher Cops came in.
It was the unofficial job of the cafeteria staff to make sure no one strayed from their flock. Some were, shall we say, more zealous in their charge than others. Anyone looking to bend a rule had to know the location of these individuals before the planned infraction. That was how the title was born — "I'm making a break for it, keep an eye on the Kosher Cops for me. Should I never return, know that I loved you as brothers." (may reflect some dramatization)
The Kosher students got the worst of it obviously, because they were the ones with rules to follow. My friend Maya once got into, seriously, like a five minute argument with the Kosher Cops because she wanted ice cream. The Kosher menu alternated meat days with dairy days. This was a meat day (ew?), but she had not taken any of the meat dishes, and made a move to grab some soft-serve from the machine. Boom, nailed by the Kosher Cops. No soft-serve on meat days. Yet how could it be a meat day when she had eaten no meat? No matter. Meat Day. Move along.
She was pissed, you guys don't even know.
For us non-Kosher types, there was only one little problem, and that problem was a massive problem. To put it gently, the non-Kosher desserts were bland. And sucked. They blanded suckly. Sorry, that did not turn out to be gentle. The non-Kosher kitchen baked desserts on-premises, and did a valiant job of it, but the results were nothing to blow your hair back. However, the Kosher students ... they simply got Entenmann's.
Box. After box. Of Entenmann's.
Somehow that was cheaper than baking Kosher desserts, or maybe the school had a deal with a distributor. Regardless, there was a table whose sole purpose was to house Entenmann's products. Naturally, this epic table was right next to the counter, in direct sight of half the cafeteria workers.
I would like the Kosher Cops to know that in two semesters at Brandeis, I never once took any chocolate chip mini-cookies from the table, never once took a fudge mini-brownie, never once took one of those little donuts that are basically perfect. But whether a certain friend named Maya smuggled me certain items from time to time, that I cannot say.