by Tony Pearce
My encounter with Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys began in the summer of 1976. I needed a teaching job and, as I was living in Golders Green at the time, the London Borough of Barnet was my first port of call. I rang up the Education Department and asked if they had anything going for the autumn term.
“They need a French teacher at Hasmonean,” said the voice on the other end of the line.
“But I’m not Jewish,” I replied.
“Doesn’t matter,” said the voice.
So I sent off an application form with letters of reference and waited to see what would happen.
In fact the very next day Mrs. Hepner, the school secretary, came round to our flat with a letter inviting me to an interview with Mr. Stanton, the headmaster. It was a bit of an embarrassment because it was one of the hottest days of the year and I was in the back garden sunbathing with only a swimming costume on. She had just come from a wedding. As we lived in the top floor flat there was no way for me to slip in the back door and put something else on. So there I stood, on the doorstep, in my bathing costume with this elegant Orthodox Jewish lady dressed up to the nines. My wife said I blushed from head to toe, but Mrs. Hepner seemed quite amused about it at all and as far as I know did not hold it against me.
I turned up at the interview with Mr. Stanton and Rabbi Roberg, who asked me various questions and seemed quite impressed with my academic qualifications (public school and Cambridge). “I see you went to Bedford School,” said Mr. Stanton. “Did you know a Mrs. Freyhan there?”
“Yes, she taught me music in the primary school,” I replied. Turned out she was a German Jewish refugee he helped come out of Germany in the thirties, so he seemed quite chuffed about the connection and I felt I was on to a good thing.
“We would like you to have the job,” he concluded, “but we have a rule that every teacher must be interviewed by Dr Schonfeld, the founder of the school. He was a great man in his time, but he is a bit elderly now.”
Without being critical of the great man, Mr. Stanton was clearly trying to convey to me that this would not be a normal interview. So the next day, with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, I went to be interviewed by Dr Schonfeld, this time at Hasmonean Girls’ School. He was not there at the appointed time and I hung around wondering if I had lost the plot somewhere. About half an hour later he came in and said, “I’m late.”
“Never mind,” I said, trying to be conciliatory.
“‘Never mind!’” he snorted indignantly. “He says ‘Never mind’ to me!” This one was not going to be so easy. He then began asking me all kind of questions which had nothing to do with teaching, and writing things down on a scrap of paper. Finally he said, “I see you are a Christian. What kind of Christian are you?”
Funny thing happened then. At the very moment he asked this question, the door opened and a man came in whom he obviously had not seen for a long time. He stood up and began talking excitedly in Yiddish and the conversation went on for about ten minutes. Meanwhile I am sitting there wondering how to answer this question. Should I be theological, evangelical, talk about Christian-Jewish relations? I needn’t have bothered because the Yiddish-speaking man then went out, and Dr Schonfeld turned to me and said, “All right, you’ll do,” and walked out without ever finding out what kind of Christian I was.
So I became a member of the staff at Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys. I had the summer holidays to prepare for this unique cultural experience and, at the beginning of September, I found myself in the staff room looking out of the window on the boys arriving for school. The only other teacher there was Jeff Soester, who started chatting to me. “Look at them – the cream of North London Jewry,” he said. “They can be mischievous and play you up, and they’re by no means all geniuses, but they’re not violent.”
Nice to know, as one of my previous teaching assignments had been at Tulse Hill School, a monstrous eight-storey slab of a building between Brixton and Tulse Hill in South London (now mercifully demolished). There, 1,800 boys, mainly from Brixton, fought their way through the educational system, and the teachers needed to know more about urban guerrilla warfare than the subjects they were supposed to be teaching. National Union of Teachers meetings were dog fights between rival groups of Trotskyite communists, and Mitch Taylor’s NUT meetings at Hasmonean were quite tame in comparison.
As far as I know I don’t have any Jewish blood, but I already had an interest in Jewish issues and people, and in Israel, long before I came to Hasmonean. In the sixties, I had been a student lefty and political activist (and an agnostic), during which time I came to know a number of secular Marxist Jews. And my studies in German had taken me on frequent trips to Germany, including attending a German school for a term. While I was there one of the big questions which came to me was, “How was it possible that these people who seemed so ordinary and not so different from us could have followed someone as evil as Hitler?” This raised another question, ”Why do people always pick on the Jews?” At school and at university I had Jewish friends and felt sympathy towards Jewish people.
In May 1967, I was revising for my second year exams when the news came through of the build up of Arab forces on the borders of Israel. The newspapers were predicting a war and I read of Nasser of Egypt threatening to drive the Jews into the sea. I felt deeply involved in the issue and for some reason, which I could not quite explain, I wanted to help Israel. One day I hitchhiked down to London, went to an Israeli agency and offered to go out to help Israel if there was a war. My parents were understandably horrified at this idea and as it turned out, when war did break out in June, Israel did very well in six days without any help from me. As the Israelis went into Jerusalem I knew that something very important had happened, although I did not know why.
In 1970, I became a ‘born again’ Christian. This followed a series of incidents including, in my first teaching post, two boys who were committed Christians challenging me on the fact that I professed atheism but had not read the Bible. One of the boys, Alec, in a debate I challenged them to, in the school library, spoke of prophecies: “It says in the Bible that the Jews will go back to Israel and that there will be a lot of trouble over Jerusalem and then Jesus will come back.” Israel, Jerusalem, the Jews. My mind raced back two years to the 1967 Six Day War and I wondered if that was the reason I had felt that there was something so important about that event. I decided I ought to read the Bible to check this out for myself.
I then met Nikki, who had also been in the Communist Party but then become a Christian, who was to become my wife. Through her I met a man called Richard Wurmbrand, who made a great impression on me. He was a Romanian Jew who had suffered under the fascists during the Second World War, then read the New Testament and become a believer in Jesus. After the War, he became pastor of a Baptist Church in Romania, now a Communist state in the Soviet bloc. When he refused to declare his loyalty to the state underneath a large picture of Stalin, but publicly proclaimed his loyalty to the Lord, he was arrested and spent 14 years in prison. He then came to the West to tell the story of what was happening to Christians under Communism. He spoke of the evils of the system but also preached that we should love the Communists as people. Under his influence, Nikki and I set up a Christian outreach to the radical left in London and also a support group for Christians persecuted under Communism.
This brought us into contact with Jewish people on two fronts. Firstly, there were many Jews in the Communist Party at that time and we often ended up having interesting discussions with left wing Jewish atheists, including members of Young Mapam. Secondly, our campaign for Christians in the Soviet Union brought us into contact with The 35s (Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry) who were incredibly active in pursuing visiting Soviet delegations to London and telling them to release Natan Sharansky and other Soviet Jews imprisoned for seeking to emigrate to Israel. We often joined them and they were pleased to have us alongside them. We even encountered Gorbachev before he became President.
We also ended up living in Golders Green, in a flat in The Drive, where most of our neighbours were Orthodox Jews. From time to time the family over the road would knock on our door on a Friday night to ask us to come and switch on an electrical appliance after the Sabbath had come in.
By this time I had read the whole of the Bible, learned a bit of biblical Hebrew and studied something of church history, finding out about the oppression of Jewish communities in Europe by the professing Christian church. I knew that for Jewish people in general Christianity was not good news and was horrified to read of pogroms and persecutions against the Jews led by church leaders. I was sickened by statements of contempt for the Jews by such leaders, who stood Jesus’ teaching on its head and left a terrible legacy of bitterness and hostility. I also learned about nineteenth century British Christians who were pro-Jewish and supported the idea of a restored Jewish state in Israel. I came to believe that the prophecies of the Bible point to the restoration of Israel as a significant event in the last days of this age.
So I did not arrive at Hasmonean as a complete ignoramus of Jewish issues and the Jewish community. Coming to the school was interesting because while I had met quite a wide spectrum of Jewish people, from Marxist atheists to ultra Orthodox, they had always been the minority. Now I was to experience what it would be like ‘on the inside’, as a minority Gentile.
I knew that most Jews had ‘issues’ with Jesus and that I would not be able to start a lunchtime Christian Union as I had at Tulse Hill, but I also decided that if anyone asked me questions about what I believed in I would answer them . . .
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part VIII: A Pearcing Insight (Part II)