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JZ’s 12 Commandments for Incoming College Freshmen

Campus Week: Good advice, bad advice, and other words to live by

Jonathan Zalman
August 23, 2017
Photo: AF archive/Alamy
Photo: AF archive/Alamy
Photo: AF archive/Alamy
Photo: AF archive/Alamy

1) Go buck wild. Your guardians are nowhere to be seen, so party—and I mean party—like nobody is watching, not even God. But that hangover, or that person next to you this morning, or the fact that yesterday was Friday and today is somehow Sunday, is your responsibility. And, oh yeah, that whole school thing—that studying of Rashi (who rocks) or Plato (who rocks) or the Dome of the Rock—is on you, too. Yep, welcome to the shit that is adulthood. It only gets … more consequential.

2) Never, ever, ever smoke cigarettes. Do they look cool? Yes, they sure do. Do they go hand in hand, quite literally, with a cocktail? Sure do. Did Mila Kunis chain-smoke to lose weight for her role in Black Swan? She sure did. Does the image of her smoking cigs make her hotter? Sure does. But—and I speak from experience here—smoking is a hell of a love affair to give up. And trust me, you’ll eventually want to: They make you and everything around you stink, and, like, after a while it gets annoying to have to sneak out during seders to have a puff. Oh, and, despite their lusciousness, they kill you, leaving your wallet empty along the way. And nobody wins there. (Smoking weed, though? That’s another story. See No. 5.)

3) When in doubt, go to the gym or library (or shul). That whole Freshmen 15 thing? It’s true: Many young kids off-leash put on weight. It’s not rocket science. If not into academics or creative pursuits, how else are 18-year-olds supposed to channel their hormones and emotional immaturity? College is an escape—it can be the ultimate place to repress things from back home—so why not fill those voids with free cruise-ship buffets of fried foods and all-you-can-serve soft-serve ice cream? You’ll probably also be able to find plenty of kosher options to stuff your poor, poor, rotting soul.

When I was a college freshman, I walked on to the crew team, my WASP-iest pursuit to-date, which mitigated the eating habits I formed through the winter. In fact, I came home for Thanksgiving looking great, thinner and fitter than ever. But when I couldn’t deny any longer than I sucked at rowing—short arms, short legs, a complainer—and quit later that year, all hell broke loose. I packed on the weight like Jabba the Hutt, leaving nothing in my sights uneaten, undrinken, unsmoked, unconsumed.

In short: Go to the gym instead. Or the library. Or daven like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t listen to your bubbe. Don’t clean your plate.

4) Do Shabbat, in whatever form. One could argue that the aforementioned Freshman 15 and other “bad habits” can be avoided by having and sticking to a routine. But that requires a level of maturity and foresight I believe few college newbies possess. Still, it’s worthwhile to commit one day, or a half day, or even a few hours, to pampering or enjoying yourself every week. A personal Sabbath.

And if it’s Sabbath you’re going to have, go and have it. This, of course, could be traditional and observant—going to shul, avoiding spending money and transportation, shutting off your phone, etc. Or if could be more secular, simply more of a purposeful commitment to chillin’ the fuck out. The point is to commit first, then figure out the method to finding your shanti.

A young cousin of mine, without fail, takes a long, long bath every Sunday night. A friend of mine finds solace in cooking. Another smokes a little herb and goes for long, long walks calling people along the way, ending up in a solarium or arboretum or park. Others read, masturbate, play cards, bike, make new friends, write, learn to juggle. Whatever it is you choose, enjoy it and worry about nobody. Shut that noise off. I promise it’ll be there when you return.

5) Learn how to roll a joint. Better yet, a blunt. Are drugs bad? They can be, sure, but this is the wrong question. Can certain drugs be beneficial? This is the right question, and yes.

So I don’t waste any more space here, from this point on I will cease any hedging and eschew my anticipation of those who will read this and freak out and call it irresponsible to encourage a little bit of kosher drug use. I won’t front and neither should you: A little pot can’t hurt.

It’s not for everybody, but weed is just fantastic, especially when you’re young. And let’s be old-school here—I’m not talking about vape pens (or even edibles). I’m talking about a good old-fashioned joint, a bowl, a blunt, a bong. Light it up, rip it in, and let it out. Laugh so hard that tears stream down your face and your brain is filled with wonder: Why can’t I feel this way all the time? Reread a favorite book, and hear how cool language sounds. Or dim the lights and put on some music. Maybe some Leonard Cohen. Or Phish. Or Pink Floyd. Or Led Zeppelin. Or Nate Dogg. Conjure up a Reuben sandwich. Eat it. Stare somewhere, think about nothing.

Don’t worry, the cops aren’t coming.* Neither are your parents.

6) Major in—and study—whatever the heck you want. Luckily, I never felt the pressure to become a doctor or lawyer or however it is that Jewish stereotype goes. I ended up a writer, so maybe this was for the worst. Whatever the case may be—and, as far as I know, I’m not your parent—heed my advice: Take classes that excite you, that challenge you, that spark your curiosity. Apply these rules to professors as well.

College is, if not a big financial and societal scam, a place to explore yourself, and the incredibly vast world of human knowledge that lies entirely outside of you. Even if you plan to major in communications or mathematics or Greek mythology or education or international relations—or whatever it is that you think you want to do—take a course, if you can, that is completely out of your realm. Maybe this is a class on Ancient Sumerian inscriptions or mysticism and drug use or the Armenian genocide or film editing or classical Arabic philosophy—just do it. Maybe it’ll change your life. Maybe not. Fortune favors the bold.

7) Become a Renaissance woman/man. College, if nothing else, is a lot of free time, so use it in a fun and wise way. Consume everything you can—TV series, movies, books, essays, reported narratives, graphic novels, comics, short stories—everything you’ve not consumed before, and be strategic about it. Start with “best of” lists, some with weird headings, which’ll start you off right—The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sunset Boulevard, Raymond Carver, A.M. Homes, Fun Home, Gay Talese, Alice Munro, Joan Didion, David Lynch, Isaac Babel, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, Art Spiegelman. Invite friends over. Don’t. Spend days in the dark, reading, watching, eating, sleeping, repeating. When you emerge, you’ll be well-versed. Schooled, perhaps, more so than four years in college will provide.

8) Have lots and lots of sex. Try it all. Good sex, bad sex, weird sex, calm sex, half-sex, crazy sex, OK sex, sex for sex’s sake, sex with self. Just go and have yourself an orgasmfest—because you’ll never look better than you do now. It’s a mitzvah. I said so.

Just, ya know, use condoms. Be smart and respectful and consensual about it, both of you, all of you. Having more Jews is this world is good thing, but let’s not get too crazy here just yet. Wait until you have that creative-writing degree.

9) Get a part-time job (or volunteer). I said it once and I’ll say it again: College, if nothing, is a lot of free time. When I was in college I worked a number of jobs—as a campus tour guide, running suites at our stadium during games, in packaging in our library’s basement. I lasted not long at each because I was an irresponsible mess and couldn’t be counted on worth a damn. Don’t be me.

If you’re job-averse, at the very least, grab a tzedakah box and walk door-to-door in your dorm asking for loose change. Raise some money for some good Jewish causes, or for Parkinson’s disease, or Guillain-Barré syndrome.

10) Celebrate holidays. College, like New York City, can be a lonely place. When the dust settles, you’ll miss your family and hometown friends—and that’s OK. There’s no shame in love. Undoubtedly there will be breaks—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Passover, Easter, etc.—during which it’s not feasible to return home (if you’re lucky enough to be able to call a place that).

If you get an invitation to go home with a friend, take it. You’ll likely travel to a new place and maybe even celebrate a holiday you’ve never had the chance to observe or learn about. You can rely on your good friends at Hillel or Chabad to feed you a nice warm meal.

11) Make new friends, make new enemies. Surely, and hopefully, you will be engaged in political discussions at school. Maybe, if you feel so inclined, so passionate about a cause, you’ll engage in some activism. The world needs, always, active proponents for worthy causes—human rights, world peace, better health care.

The topic of Israeli statehood—vis-à-vis Palestinian statehood—will likely come up. And it should. In this discussion, I don’t believe that my opinion on this matter—on the Jewish state’s right to exist, on BDS—would be beneficial to you. Who cares what I think? You probably know even less than I do.

So what’s important, in my opinion, is that you—college students around the U.S.—can think and speak freely. Don’t take dictation, unless you’re going to secretarial school. Learn to listen to people whose opinions you might disagree with, and feel free to passionately disagree with them or change your mind. If you see yourself as a future leader of socialist America, listen to people you might think of as bullying capitalists without shouting them down or calling the cops. If you see yourself as the next Milton Friedman, try listening to a few collectivist snowflakes.

Above all, it’s important to understand the forces that often try to govern and limit free speech on campus today, and how best to traverse, and find yourself, in this landscape of heated campus controversies and identity politics. Begin here.

12) Make mistakes. Say it with me now: I will fuck up, I will fuck up, I will fuck up. And guess what? This is A-OK. In fact, if you’re messing up, especially by taking calculated risks, you’re doing something right. Learn from your mistakes, then go fuck up doing something else. Growth is the product of failure, which sometimes involves sin. Don’t worry, you can atone at the end of September.

*(Well, maybe Jeff Sessions.)


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Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.