Life & Culture

Taking Notes: Simchahs are more important than grades

School years 7 and 8 can be expensive for parents - but nothing beats the joy of your children's and their friends' bar and batmitzvahs


Last Monday morning, a Jewish girl in one of my classes mentioned a barmitzvah she’d been to the night before in Bournemouth. Our school is in central London, so I was impressed she’d made it in. “It’s fine, “ she said.

“It finished at 12 and I was allowed to come in a bit late.” I don’t how fine I would have found the drive from Bournemouth to London in the wee hours before a school day.

It reminded me of my children’s schooldays. When we returned from Jerusalem in 2009, we moved to north London, and they joined Orthodox Jewish schools. The girls went to batmitzvahs almost every weekend for a year, so in terms of learning anything — or for teachers, teaching anything — the whole of Year 7 was wiped out. For the boys, it was Year 8.

As a teacher of tired, predominantly non-Jewish kids, I can’t imagine what it must be like trying to teach constantly yawning kids who are even more exhausted than the ones I currently have in front of me.

Parents liaised with each other if they had children with the same birthday so their simchahs wouldn’t clash.

My older son had three separate weeks off in Year 8 because he was exhausted after the late nights and got every virus going. I was called in for a meeting with his teachers at one point because he’d fallen below the threshold of the acceptable government percentage of absence.

Mind you, my son might have been a special case. I did most of the pick-ups to bring him home, and at every one, there he was, right in the centre of the dance floor, either doing backflips or holding the barmitzvah boy’s arm in the air and jumping up and down with him.

He was always dancing, jumping, flipping, red-faced, hot, singing at the top of his voice until he was hoarse.

At one barmitzvah, I was waiting — because obviously you have to wait, acutely aware of how underdressed you are, there’s always the inevitable “Can we stay a bit longer — it’s the best part!/But we haven’t had dessert yet/Asher’s lost his phone …” — and I saw one of his teachers, the excellent Rabbi Taubman for those who know him. He said, “Your son! He hasn’t stopped! Where does he get the energy?”

I replied, “I know! But he’s exactly the guest you want at your simchah,” and Rabbi Taubman said, “Oh, 100 per cent.”

It’s a flipping expensive time too.

One must buy gifts for the newly bat and barmitzvahed. That’s a relatively expensive gift purchase most weeks for a year, and a more expensive one for good friends.

I have four children: that’s the buying of relatively more expensive gifts most weeks for four years. And then there are clothes, and then you have a simchah to make yourself, which is never exactly cheap.

However. And there is a huge however. What a year it is. The joy, the journey, the incredible change in your child as they take on the challenge of learning and leyning, and the obligation of being a Jewish adult.

And then have a celebration that’s all about them.

It can’t be easy for non-Jewish teachers in Jewish schools to grasp what’s going on in their Year 7 and 8 classrooms, but equally, I can’t imagine what it’s like being a Jewish child in a non-Jewish school and this year of years being an independent and distinct part of their life rather than a collective, communal rite of passage.

The kids in my school know I’m Jewish and they love telling me about their Jewish lives beyond school. Too much so, sometimes. I know whose aunts and uncles were drunk and dancing to Jump because kids have no filter, and these are things I do not need to know.

What I do know is that some things are more important than grades and academic progress.

The privilege of seeing our children welcomed into and continuing their heritage, their rising to and overcoming of a very public responsibility and challenge, and the nachat and pride it gives parents, families, and the children themselves goes beyond anything they could learn in the National Curriculum.

There’s a difference, my mother always says, between the cost of something and the value of something.

Never mind the expenditure, late-night taxi-driving and Florence Nightingale duties, I loved those valuable years, too, and seeing who my children were and what they were capable of was an added bonus.

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