This weekend was my 25th college reunion. The big one.
Reunions at Princeton is a big, big deal. I use the singular because “Reunions,” which is also capitalized, is an event, a time, a place, an institution among the old Tigers, in a way that, I am told by alumni of comparable schools who also know Princeton Reunions, is not comparable to anything else.
As an undergraduate I dreamed of attending Reunions as an established alumnus of Old Nassau. Reunions gears up late Thursday the weekend before graduation, peaks on Friday night as everyone checks in from their week of work and gets local accommodations (on campus or off) and hobnobs under the orange-and-black tents spread throughout the residential areas of the campus, and is capped off by breakfasts and brunches and catching ups Saturday morning until it’s time for the P-Rade, a procession of alumni from oldest to youngest in their official Reunion togs (“beer jackets”) up and through the campus toward something vague that happens at the end somewhere.
I’m the kind of guy who really loves to “stay in touch” (perhaps to a fault). The idea of a structured, socially accepted way to keep acutely enjoying Princeton, which I enjoyed a lot, for the rest of my life appealed to me strongly. That only increased when I experienced it for the first time the weekend before graduation.
For all kinds of reasons, I decided at the last minute that, instead of cross-country drive with an old friend, to go to Aish HaTorah after graduation, before continuing with my law school plans the next fall. (If I haven’t already written that post, well, this isn’t that post.) And while my worldview changed, and continued to change, as did the place of Princeton in that worldview, I did go to Reunions twice after that.
The first time was our first Reunion — not a “major Reunion,” of course (i.e., not an increment of five), but it was major for me. I guess I felt I had to “go back,” I think I felt, in order to reassure myself — and my old Princeton friends — that I was still “me.” And I did, and I think, mainly I was. I threw in my lot with the orthodox Jewish students on campus, who had a very respectable presence on campus, and had a great Shabbos with a bunch of people whom I had gone to college with but who knew me little, and I them, and who all of a sudden had this “frum” classmate in their midst. It was great fun, and the people at what was then known as “Stevenson” (the name of the building where orthodox Jewish life resided in Princeton in those days) made me feel great. They were supportive, welcoming, warm. During Shabbos I had very little or nothing to do with Reunion events on campus, which I thought would not be appropriate. On the other hand, after havdalah [the Shabbos-ending ceremony] … I kind of left Stevenson behind.
I didn’t come back to Reunions again until my Tenth, and this I did only after saying havdalah in Passaic, a healthy hour north of Princeton. I was an alumnus now also of a famous “black hat” yeshiva in Brooklyn now; married, with children; and I wasn’t going to uproot my fundamental approach to Shabbos for Reunions. But I had made a commitment. I did not leave “Passaic” behind, as I had done at during that first Reunions after Shabbos, when I arrived at the Tower Club, where I used to “eat.” There, in the upstairs leather-and-paneling library, a claque of my old friends impatiently nursed beers and pretended to enjoy cigars as they awaited my arrival so that we could proceed as we had all solemnly arranged ten years earlier. We had business to do: The “Survey.”
The Survey was a series of questions we had distributed among ten or so of us Tower Club friends, all men, mostly Jewish, in the spring before graduation, in which we predicted all sorts of things about ourselves and each other ten years hence. It was kind of a dress-up version of the Game of Life, if you remember that Milton Bradley board game, but instead of proceeding through a formulaic “life” step by step and pursuant to the arbitrary spin of a dial, we predicted our respective way stations, circumstances and foibles for review at our Tenth.
It was a warm, fun time evening with a bunch of guys with whom my relationship had not advanced a whit since 1985, in which we determined that most of us had ended up more or less along the lines of where most of us thought most of us would be. No, no one had predicted Aish HaTorah, or what followed, for me, but my otherwise bourgeois existence in the ensuing decade had followed what was the predictable course of a kind of square, gregarious Jewish guy going to a good law school after college. Most of the other guys had taken similarly standard paths (a lot of them to medical school) and there wasn’t all that much “play” there, either. We didn’t quite talk about just how fantastically wealthy a couple of the fellows had become, which hadn’t even been a subject on the Survey, as I recall. And I didn’t exactly make a point of noting how far off my own expectations were that ten years after Princeton I would be, at least, financially comfortable. I was happy that the guys had waited for me, and were happy to see me, and we could share the whole thing together as we had planned. They even were at pains to use more refined language — well, certainly more refined than the way we expressed ourselves “in the day” — but even, as I recall, more family-friendly vocabulary than they might otherwise have employed even as thirty-somethings in the mid 1990’s.
We went through the Surveys and the answers in an informal but efficient manner, and agreed that we should distribute another set for our Twenty-Fifth, and that seemed like something right up my “staying in touch” alley, and I volunteered to do it, and all assented, and that was that. We broke up, and that was the last anyone heard of the idea.
And a month or two ago I got emails from all those guys talking about our Twenty-Fifth, and who’d be staying where, and who would be coming or not coming due to conflicts, and it was a warm moment of reflection of the Best Years of Our Lives, as it were, and the warm, friendly celebration of them we’d had a decade later, and then the radio chatter stopped.
And of course there’s no more Reunions for me. It’s not something I “can’t do.” It’s something I can’t do. Princeton and my Tower Club boys will always be a part of me, of course — a part I never stopped wanting to treasure and never felt I had to be ashamed of. Those four years made me who I am today, and I do not doubt that though I have a long way to go in my avodas Hashem [service of God], I am not entirely dissatisfied, at the admittedly superficial “Survey” level of inquiry, with who I am.
But due tribute having been paid to Auld Lang Syne at The Tenth, I’m finished with all that. What I discarded from Princeton is, I think, gone forever; what I still ought to jettison is still hanging on, a tiger-striped but not life-threatening plaque on my persona; and, as I said, what I took from the “Best Old Place of All” is just plain “Ron Coleman ’85,” which is to say, Ron Coleman.
And those friends are, despite a finger-wagging lecture to the contrary I received from a leading figure in kiruv [Jewish outreach] many years ago, always going to be regarded by me, if only viscerally, as friends.
Because they are.
Still, there will be no more paneled libraries, no more tents reeking of stale beer, no more comparative life surveying. The fifteen years that have passed in my life since the Tenth took me across a divide I can never traverse again. This year, like a more famous classmate, I didn’t “go back to Nassau Hall.”
It’s a bittersweet resolution. I’d love to see “everybody,” in theory. But keeping away certainly makes it easier for things, in my mind’s eye, to remain just as they were, too. I consider myself fortunate because I negotiated a balance among what was, what is, and what will never be that works for me and keeps one file folder full of conflict relatively at bay.
And with apologies to those baalei mussar [proponents of demanding Jewish disciplines of self-improvement] who may disagree with the approach, if I refuse to deny completely the old me, but instead use it as a platform on which to stand a hopefully better new one, is this such a terrible way to capture and preserve, tolerably harmless, that side of Paradise?