A generation ago, I was deeply opposed to Jewish schools. I didn’t send any of my children to them because I believed they could not possibly live in a world where their neighbours were not Jewish but where they never met a gentile in the classroom.
That concern did not extend to the next generation. All my six grandchildren have gone or are going to Jewish schools and I am delighted. Remembering my own experience of being one of just six Jews in school, my immediate reaction was to be glad that they would come home singing Maoz Tzur and not Away in a Manger. But there’s more. They are supposedly conscious of their heritage, of the Hebrew language, of Jewish history.
Jewish history? Well, yes, they have heard about the Rambam; I suppose (I hope) they know about Theodor Herzl and the establishment of Israel. But what do they know about Moses Montefiore or about the Montagus, Lily and Edwin, about Herbert Samuel, Selig Brodetsky or Joseph Hertz, about Moses Gaster — or even about Menasseh ben Israel?
In other words, what about Anglo-Jewish history? I once had a colleague on my radio programme who was intrigued by a guest talking about the historic Bevis Marks synagogue. “I’ve never heard of your shul,” he told him. We were dumbfounded. Not only was this such an institution in our community, but to think it normal to use the word “shul” when talking about a Sephardi synagogue was amazing. Even more so, this fellow was “educated” at the Hasmonean School. In other words, he know a bit of gemorrah and could quote from Ethics of the Fathers. But did he know anything about the “fathers” of our own tiny stretch of the Jewish world?
I’ve been doing some research into our Jewish schools — some wonderful places of learning, where fine teachers work with attentive children in superb buildings that, in my day would have seemed as fanciful as Dan Dare’s spacecraft. They might well have the odd lesson in which the expulsion of Jews from York is discussed, or possibly discuss Jewish population trends (again, I would hope so). But, to the best of my knowledge, not one of them has a lesson in the story of our community as part of the regular curriculum. This is a little short of a shame, if not quite a calamity.
Should JFS pupils not go into the reasoning behind their own school — how when it was formed it set out to make immigrant Jews into good British citizens, the reverse of today’s Jewish schools?
Why don’t they hear about the Jewish soup kitchens or the Jews’ Temporary Shelter? About Zionism in Britain, about Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president who had led the campaign for a state from his bases in the UK? Why don’t they learn about Portsmouth and Chatham and Plymouth and Llanelly — places few today think of as having a Jewish story of their own.
Do they know about the Jewish pedlars who sold nails and bits of cloth, trudging through the rain-sodden streets of the provinces at the turn of the last century? Should they not be told about the Great Synagogue destroyed by enemy bombing and the community that surrounded what, by all accounts, was a wonderful spiritual place?
Or how a mosque in Brick Lane that started as a Huguenot chapel and before its present incarnation was the open-all-hours Machzikei Hadas synagogue? Have they heard anything about the Board of Deputies, let alone the United Synagogue or any other religious organisations?
Why are they being denied the tales — some quite colourful, some disgraceful, all fascinating — about the rows? The fights between Haham Moses Gaster and those Jews who thought Zionism was a curse that would spoil forever the integrity of Anglo-Jewry. Or perhaps the snobbery of the “Cousinhood” who opposed the immigration of those nasty, smelly Jews from Eastern Europe; or the ones who established little shops called Marks and Spencer or helped discover penicillin.
I discovered those things because I was interested in reading the right books. What an opportunity is being missed — not just for kids in our schools, but also for our future.
PS: Since writing this, I’ve heard that JCoss is taking a party of pupils to York because they say it is an important centre for learning about British Jewish history. A start perhaps, but still not part of a regular curriculum.