If there was ever a shining example of why one should study the humanities at UCLA it can be found in the volunteer work that Elizabeth Ho has done in order to bridge cultural gaps at the university. An undergraduate in the Jewish Studies program, Elizabeth is a true humanist in regards to stripping away fears, and assumed differences, between ethnic groups at the university, going so far as to establish, from scratch, The Hebrew Café, which is a student cultural program that mixes, for one evening, delicious food with the languages of two cultures, such as Chinese and Hebrew, and Persian and Hebrew. The café has been a game-changing club on campus and, like everything else Elizabeth does, she combines her love of language, culture, people and history in order to allow herself, and other students, to step outside their comfort zones.
We encourage you to read the below recollections, told by Elizabeth, on what led her to study at UCLA. A word of warning up front: this story will make you hungry for international cuisine, and, even better, thirsty for more knowledge in your own life.
“In my second year, I transferred from University of California, Santa Cruz, where I was also majoring in Jewish Studies. Before Santa Cruz, and right after high school, I had attended an unaccredited seminary for two years. While most people go to seminary to become a pastor, that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to know more about what I believed and why! I met a lot of people at seminary that were passionate about what they believed in, and it was incredibly encouraging to me to see young people who knew what they wanted.
My entire family has a strong background in faith, and I was born into a Christian family here in the States. Both of my parents were immigrants from Taiwan, so growing up in Irvine, California, was an interesting experience. Only now is the experience of growing up in a first-generation Chinese household while also being an American citizen being talked about more. There was this divide because at home you were Chinese and spoke in Chinese, but outside of the house you were American and spoke in English. At some point it was just easy to get confused. I was lucky to actually grow up in a community with a lot of children like me, who were also first-generation Americans. Many Asian immigrants have settled down in Irvine, so I had a community that understood. To us it seemed normal. It wasn’t until I left home that I realized it wasn’t the norm.
Israel, Jewish culture, and its history weren’t on my radar at all when I was growing up. The interest, I think, first developed when I was at seminary, studying the Bible. It’s impossible to truly study the Bible without also studying Judaism, and Jewish history, so I think that it was sometime during my two years at seminary that this interest began to take hold. I came to UCLA mainly focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—looking specifically at Israel and the two cultures that are involved in the conflict. Looking at Israel inevitably led me to think about the other side of things as well—the Palestinian side. I wanted an even education, wanted to learn about both peoples. That is why I learned Arabic. Language has always been something I’m naturally passionate about, which is why I’ve studied Chinese, Spanish and Hebrew. Hopefully by the time I graduate with a Bachelors in Jewish Studies, and a minor in Arabic/Islamic Studies, I’ll be on my way to gaining proficiency in Arabic as well!
In my time at UCLA, I was President of the Student Leadership Council at the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. As a councilmember, you get to brainstorm different programs to host on campus, which is how I began the Hebrew Café. The whole idea for Hebrew Café started because I was often the exception at Jewish Studies events on my previous campus, as the only Chinese person. I wanted to see more non-Jewish students at Jewish Studies events, just as I often saw non-Chinese students at Chinese events. That is why now, per quarter, the Student Leadership Council partners with the Hebrew Department with one other department on campus. For example, the first café I did was the Chinese-Hebrew Café. We invited students from all backgrounds, brought in kosher Chinese food, and taught them basic phrases in Hebrew and Chinese. The turnout was very surprising to me. We had over 80 students taking part in learning about each other’s cultures. It took a lot of time and a lot of energy to get the program started, but was worth it to see different cultures being brought together.
I’ve definitely felt like an outsider many times, but in a way that has only enriched my experience as a Chinese-American in Jewish Studies. Because of this, I have learned the importance of cross-cultural dialogue and relationship building, and also had the chance to begin the Hebrew Café. All languages are so loaded with culture and history, that learning a language also means learning something about the people who speak the language. I think that all students should learn a language — especially one that isn’t from their own cultural background. It’s important to learn about the other people around you, and their cultures.
All of the UC schools are devoted to helping students discover what they are passionate about in order to do something about that. At both Santa Cruz and UCLA, I’ve encountered really great professors and faculty that always go the extra mile to help and encourage me with that exact mission. That makes a world of difference to any student — to know that your faculty is supporting you. Each professor brings with them a different perspective that in turn helps you gain a new perspective, ultimately leaving you with a multitude of unique perspectives to think about.
I think that the Humanities teach us the framework of the world around us –history, culture, politics, modern and historical societies – all of which give context to our daily lives and our understanding of the greater community. In the midst of all that, the Humanities also promote the study of expressing yourself through writing and speaking. That, particularly, is important no matter what field you end up in — you may have the greatest ideas, but it’s crucial you know how to express those ideas clearly.”