By Leon A Smith
April 5, 2011
Childhood experiences can shape one’s attitude to life in later years. Having been brought up in a provincial city with a minute Jewish community, I often felt different at school to those surrounding me. The reason for this was not, on reflection, hard to fathom! I was the only Jewish child in a school of 1200 pupils. In one sense, there was something rather self satisfying about being “different” but on the other side there was certainly something of a stigma attached to being “different”.
From an early age my friendships at school were created amongst another small group of people – the Roman Catholic children. This was because both they and I were the only pupils who were excused from the morning act of religious assembly.
When I think back, this whole arrangement was rather odd and most unpleasant. I also think of other situations in life where Jews may have been in an extreme minority. One of those situations is clearly being a supporter of Bristol Rovers (currently struggling at the bottom of Division 1). I am aware of three other Jewish supporters but once again whilst religion has no bearing whatsoever on football, it is an interesting feeling.
Now in later life I am totally immersed in the Jewish world running Nightingale, the country’s largest care home for older people – everybody living here is Jewish. Some of the staff are Jewish, volunteers relatives, donors and others with whom I come in contact are also Jewish. And here, I am one of many and do not in any way stand out because of my religion. That, indeed, is how many of our residents feel. Increasingly, residents coming in to Nightingale come here primarily because they want to be with other Jewish people. Our residents come from a wide range of religious backgrounds – some Orthodox, some not so Orthodox, Reform, Liberal and nothing. Yet what drives all of these people to come to a Jewish home? For some it is access to our religious facilities and for others it is the comfort being surrounded by other Jewish people. There are of course many reasons why people feel this way, not least perhaps traditional Jewish insecurity and comfort in numbers!
It is fascinating to see a totally different group of people from a mix of professional, socio-economic, political backgrounds all coming together because of two common themes – religion and culture, culture being almost more important than religion. It’s also quite interesting to try and define “culture”. What does Jewish culture mean? To many of these people is it is the occasional gefilte fish ball or kneidlach? Is it seeing people in fancy dress for Purim, or the Home bedecked with Israeli flags on Yom Ha’atzmaut? It’s probably all of these and none of these. There is an indefinable common bond that brings in many cases a very unlikely group of people together. What makes life even more interesting is effectively Nightingale, despite its inherent Jewishness, is a very cosmopolitan community. Large numbers of our staff from cultures other than Jewish or British blend together with a wealth of other backgrounds and experiences – all of which goes to create a rich and fascinating melting pot.