When Sera Schwarz, BC ’15, was twelve she stole a copy of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo from the library. She feared being caught thieving less than she feared being caught browsing.
It is a story that seems too fantastic to be true. But you must understand, Sera grew up in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, a hamlet in southeast New York State. She lived above a Hasidic synagogue. Her father was the rabbi.
As we discussed her background while walking up West End Avenue, we happened to pass my old conservatively clad Orthodox Jewish pediatrician. “That’s a good example,” Sera remarked.
Education among the Orthodox community in Monsey is sex-segregated; men and women walk on different sides of the street. Enrollment in the ultra-Orthodox schools requires signing contracts that prohibit watching movies, owning a TV—and going to the public library. The potential punishment: expulsion.
So when young Sera got lost in Nietzsche’s book, joining the library wasn’t an option. Instead of checking the book out, she tossed it out the window to read later. For Sera, philosophy was radical. Through philosophy, she says, “I began to lose my mooring in the only world I knew.”
The texts had a power for her that they probably don’t for your average CC student. As Sera puts it, “Metaphysical beliefs that are concomitant with the Orthodox Jewish faith really do translate very distinctive ways of life that are not just ways of life, but ways of shaping the world.” In response, Sera “started in the Cartesian vein by trying to think about my reasons for being certain of certain certainties.”
This is how she talks. To speak with Sera is to speak with someone fully conscious of what words and language mean: her sentences often veer into correcting clauses that tune the course of her initial thought.
By the end of high school, having skipped two grades, Sera wanted to go to college. It was not a normal move: her high school principal even attempted to dissuade her. She started at the M/TS Honors Program at SUNY Rockland, paying for tuition by doing odd jobs. After getting her AA degree in in Liberal Arts and Sciences, she transferred to Barnard, where her father was more inclined to support her financially than at a co-ed university. Sera arrived in Morningside Heights a 17-year-old sophomore.
Her first semester, in philosophy professor Katja Vogt’s 70-person lecture, Sera was one of a handful of active participants, according to her friend Daniel Listwa, CC ’15. Professor Vogt put her in touch with two seniors who were currently applying for graduate degrees in philosophy, each of whom conferred academic career advice to the new student.
The day of our interview, she had just finished applying to a round of Masters’ programs. According to Sera, she’s not yet applying to Ph.D. programs, partly because at age twenty, it would be a big decision to commit herself to what could be ten years of study that set the course of her career. She also hesitates at the politics of the academic philosophy departments, which can encourage producing work for the sake of producing it.
Of the three friends’ names Sera gave me to speak with for this article, two, like Sera, were on this year’s early Phi Beta Kappa list, while the other was last year’s salutatorian. Bwog comments on the post that announces the list of names often remark, “I’ve never heard of them.”
But perhaps they are simply their own club: like Sera, the smartest people on campus you’ve never heard of.