I went to Withington Girls’ School, a posh all girls’ school in Manchester. I loved it!
I still have fond memories of my time there. The assemblies, the hymns, learning Latin and other totally useless and inappropriate things for a nice Jewish girl. It never occurred to me to miss out on any of these things because I was Jewish. I even took part in the odd nativity play and carol service.
Looking back, I can see how absurd that was. Why was I so desperate to fit in? Didn’t my parents mind? What was I/were they thinking?
In fairness to me, there was a Jewish assembly to which I went once a week. I also went to cheder sometimes on a Sunday morning, where I learnt the aleph bet and the phrase ‘sheket bevakasha’, but that was about it.
Oh yes, I also went to shul 3 times a year, twice on Rosh Hashanah and once on Yom Kippur.
And of course, there was the odd Bar/Batmitzvah thrown in for good measure.
As you may have already gathered, I didn’t come from a religious family. I suppose you could say that, if anything, we were ‘traditional’, whatever that means.
For me, that meant that I was Jewish, yet I wasn’t really ‘out and proud’. I’d never deny it, but I was also very keen to fit in with everything else that was going on around me. Some might call it FOMO (fear of missing out).
I didn’t want to be the one who stayed in the classroom during assembly and miss all those lovely hymns. I wanted to be a part of it. No one ever questioned that…not me, not my parents and not my friends.
At university, although my carol singing days were over, I carried on in much the same way. I did, however, join the Jewish society. I went to some of their dos, mainly to find a husband. That was it.
No student rallies or protests for me. I was very happy floating round campus with my friends, without a care in the world. Being a Jew wasn’t something about which I even gave a second thought while I was there.
I spent my 20’s as a young, working solicitor. Again, I wanted to fit in. I looked forward to Friday night when we’d all go for a big night out after work. I did, however, start to feel a twinge of remorse as Friday nights and partying began to feel wrong somehow. Friday night was family night. It didn’t stop me though.
Eventually, I met my husband.
Like me, he was Jewish. Like me, he was a lawyer from south Manchester. On the face of it, we were from similar backgrounds. One marked distinction, however, was his attitude towards being Jewish. While I always wanted to fit in, he had no desire so to do. Whereas he had zero tolerance for antisemitism, I, to my eternal shame would often look the other way.
Once I’d married and settled down, however, being Jewish started to mean more to me too. Our lives began to centre around it.
My husband had a young son when we met and I became a stepmum, literally overnight.
In the early years of our marriage we had 3 more children in quick succession, 2 boys and a girl. There was no question in our minds about their education. They all went to King David, the local Jewish school. They started in the nursery and stayed there until we made aliyah in 2016.
I now realise that sending them to a Jewish school was the best thing we could have done for them. Apart from the fact that it’s a great school academically, it provided the kids with something which no amount of shul going or cheder classes could give them.
It provided them with a sense of belonging.
Being Jewish was a big part of their daily lives. They started the day with assembly in which they sang beautiful Jewish songs and recited Jewish prayers. Each had his/her own siddur (prayer book). They learnt to read and write Hebrew and finished early on Friday for Shabbat. They bentshed (said grace after meals) after lunch and celebrated Yom Hatzmaut, Israel’s birthday.
As the school year revolved around the chagim (Jewish holidays), there was never an issue about having to ask for time off, ‘because we’re Jewish’.
Our children were ‘out and proud’ Jews from the start and yet they didn’t even know it. It was simply part of their upbringing, their education, their lives. They didn’t struggle with whether or not to sing the hymns in assembly or to take part in the nativity play. They didn’t even know what Christmas was until they were a bit older.
Their Jewish identities were consolidated from the start.
Some of my contemporaries argued that it was important for their kids to experience life outside of the Jewish bubble and for that reason they chose not to send their children to a Jewish school. Unlike mine, their kids grew up with a sound knowledge of Diwali or Eid for example, yet they knew very little about their own heritage and religion. They were more comfortable sitting around a Christmas dinner table than they were a Seder table.
I, on the other hand, believed that it was important to instill in my children a sound knowledge of their own religion and heritage, before introducing them to others.
A Jewish education played a significant role in that. Everything else would come later when they went out into the big wide world, as proud Jews, sure of their own heritage which they would hopefully, one day, continue with families of their own.