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Comparative Literature

Eric S. Yanoff ’98

Rabbi

“Eric—to know the path you’re traveling, you need to look back at the steps you’ve taken, while looking forward to what lies ahead.”

My great-aunt, a respected Jewish educator herself, told me this in my junior year at Princeton—and only then did my path become clear. I had arrived as a first-year student with a declared intention, largely unchanged since middle school: I would major in molecular biology and pursue a career in medicine. I had shadowed doctors and focused on the sciences for years, with this singular goal in mind. But my adviser—a molecular biology professor herself—suggested that I broaden my early academic experience in college. This advice cost her department a student concentrating in molecular biology (probably a good thing for them!) and completely redirected both my Princeton experience and my life’s journey.

An unconventional route

I enrolled in a freshman seminar on “The Sporting Experience,” during which I reflected on my time as the Princeton Tiger mascot. (I was there for the 1996 upset of UCLA in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament!) In the seminar, I pondered what it meant to represent and literally embody an institution, its values, and its spirit—and how, in one incident during the football season, a fellow student Tiger mascot of mine had been attacked by students of a rival school momentarily forgetting that it was a human being inside that costumed symbol of Princeton! I also began taking more classes in literature—developing my awe of the written word, and honing a scholarly yet heartfelt study of biblical texts that I had once read as dogma and children’s religious stories. Additionally, I signed up for the coursework in Princeton’s fledgling Program in Jewish Studies (now the Program in Judaic Studies).

Outside of class, my activities were atypical for a pre-med student: I worked at a local synagogue, running a junior congregation; I spent summers as a Jewish educator at a Conservative Jewish experiential camp; and I learned the power of laughter (and the challenges of predicting an audience’s reaction) as a writer, performer, and ultimately president of the Triangle Club. Throughout the early years of these experiences, I convinced myself that my pre-med “path” remained unchanged. I learned that certain medical schools looked with interest on unconventional academic routes toward medicine, provided that the required science coursework was completed (as mine was). And so I maintained my pre-med status, while concentrating in comparative literature, with a certificate in Jewish studies.

Accepting my calling

Eventually, my love of the written word and of educating and inspiring communities of Jews won out. I spent months convincing myself that my seven-year assumed pursuit of a career in medicine remained a goal, while gradually deepening my Jewish commitments and experiences. I remember the moment: At Camp Ramah, at the outdoor synagogue, the sun setting with Shabbat about to begin, and for once, I was not thinking about what I should do with my life, and the idea entered my mind, of its own accord: “I should do this.” I spent months coming to terms with the realization that “this” meant a calling as a rabbi. 

I was confused, but relieved. Could I make this change from my assumed path? And then my great-aunt asked me to review my story: countless positive experiences in Jewish education … comfort as a symbolic exemplar of a larger community … a commitment to a lifestyle and study that brought me joy and purpose … a desire to share that love with others and to build communities of such purpose and meaning. And then: “Eric,” said my Aunt Shulamith, “to know the path you’re traveling, you need to look back at the steps you’ve taken, while looking forward to what lies ahead. You’ve been on this path to the rabbinate for some time, even if you’re just uncovering it now.”

I applied to the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary and was fortunate to be accepted. I continued uncovering my unexpected path. Now, as the rabbi of a 700-family community, with a wonderful wife and two beautiful boys, I feel so blessed to say that every step along this path has been a confirmation of all the previous steps—and has provided direction for the steps to come. 

Yanoff-Eric