Life & Culture

Why I’m fine with my secret inner Christian


With the chagim upon us, my thoughts always turn - naturally enough - to the Harvest Festival at church.

OK, I'm exaggerating a little here. Really, my inner life at this time of year is an entirely conventional mixture of Yomtov recipes, attempts at moral improvement, and questions about how we're going to get the kids to go to shul six times in three weeks without starting an actual riot.

But the thing is, I went to a Church of England school and somewhere in my subconscious the rhythms of the Christian year are always present.

In common with everything that was repeated again and again through my childhood, I can effortlessly recall countless snatches of prayer and of hymns. "For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful…"; "For thine is the kingdom…"; "There is a green hill far away…." They come to me as easily the words of skipping rhymes, or which days Grange Hill was on TV.

My three brothers all went to Sunderland Menorah School but, by the time it was my turn to be educated, the dwindling Jewish community meant it had to close; so off I went to Sunderland Church High School.

The first Harvest Festival came at the beginning of my Reception year, and everyone was asked to come in with an offering of food to be given to charity. All the children turned up with wicker baskets, piled high with exquisite displays of seasonal fruits and vegetables, wrapped in cellophane and ornately beribboned.

Meanwhile, my mother, not yet used to the culture of the school, sent me in with a paper bag full of apples.

My mother is the last person in the world to care about fitting in with the crowd; nevertheless, she still talks about the embarrassment of that particular school drop-off.

For me, though, the Harvest Festival has only happy memories. I can still feel the atmosphere of standing in church with the rest of the school, an autumnal chill in the air, belting out "We plough the fields and scatter…" with the harvest gifts all beautifully displayed at the front (my bag of apples included).

I was the only Jewish child in the school, and I rather liked it. It meant that I was different and got attention. Lunch-time was the point of the school day where my religion really made a difference. One of the school staples was chopped pork, baked beans and chips - a combination to make Jamie Oliver wince.

On chopped-pork days, the kind dinner ladies would make me a fried egg. This must have been a complete pain for them, given that they were trying to mass-cater for several hundred children. Fortunately, they loved me. All dinner ladies love children with red, curly hair: it's in the dinner-lady gene.

The only problem was that I hated fried eggs - I still do - but felt it would be really rude to say so. So term after term, I dutifully choked down my egg and the dinner ladies were satisfied.

At Christmas-time, I took part in the Nativity play with everyone else. I had zero acting ability, and there was therefore no risk at all of me being cast as Mary, or even as a peripheral inhabitant of Bethlehem. Instead, I have memories of being a tree - and even then I had trouble working out how to sway convincingly.

Yet despite joining in with all this Christian ritual, I never had the slightest confusion about my Jewish identity, even from the very youngest age. At home, we were strongly culturally Jewish, though not Orthodox; we always had "proper" Friday-night dinner and kept the main chagim, and although that was pretty much it religion-wise, it was more than enough.

So even as I sang All Things Bright and Beautiful in morning assembly, then put my hands together and closed my eyes to pray, I knew perfectly well that this wasn't really for me.

Then, at the age of nine, I moved to a more secular school with many more Jewish children. The Jewish kids sat out assembly and were left to their own devices in the classroom. There, we chose to gain spiritual enlightenment by playing hand-held computer games filched from the other kids' desks. We became a dab hand at Snoopy Tennis and Mario's Cement Factory, while the rest of the school recited the Lord's Prayer in the assembly hall.

But although my Christian education stopped at that point, it has never completely left me. Underneath the layers of my own personal Judaism: the kugel and tzimmes-making, the leyning and shlicha tzibur-ing, the Biblical Hebrew lessons and Limmud-ing… nestling in a deep corner of my brain, is that early Church of England influence.

It means I can still belt out an excellent Morning Has Broken, and sometimes do, without any sense of cultural dissonance.


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