During the recent festival of Hanukkah, we Jews celebrated the Hasmonean legends. But there are other, more modern – and, many would argue, more relevant – legends of Hasmonean, who had a profound and enduring influence (though not always for reasons they would have wanted) on the lives of thousands of London’s Jewish males. A Google search, however, sheds little or no light on these characters (in every sense of the word), former teachers at Hasmonean High (previously Grammar) School, known to all merely as “Hasmo”.
Memories of these pedagogues have lingered with ex-“Hasmo boys” for even longer than the aftertaste of Mrs. Bannister’s meat loaf, and we celebrate them no end whenever we get together (much to the annoyance of wives, and other non-Hasmo alumni, who may be present). But documenting them for posterity, and having a central site for ex-pupils’ comments and stories (though see “NOTE” below!), seems a most worthwhile undertaking for melchett mike. And I am certain that even the non-Hasmo alumni among you will enjoy being taken into “one crazy yiddishe mamma” of an institution (I use the word advisedly) . . .
The “fun and games” were largely attributable to the Chutzpah, and uniquely Jewish sense of humour, of the boys, who felt they could get away with most things in such familiar, safe surroundings. When, on one occasion, English teacher Mr. Marks (back row, second from right, below) asked “Has anyone got any work for me?”, one boy (the son of a well-known local Rabbi) replied “Yes, sir, you can go and clean the playground!” Moreover, many pupils would see teachers out of the school environment, in their communities and synagogues, and that reinforced a “What is the worst that can happen?” attitude in already Chutzpadik Jewish boys.
The entrepreneurial Jewish spirit also contributed to the lively atmosphere of the place, with many an Adidas holdall stuffed not with textbooks but, rather, chocolate (and, in the summer, ice pops ) for resale. The dinner hall, too, saw a brisk trade in soya rolls and chocolate rice crispies; while, behind it, pocket money was frittered away playing “penny (or, rather, 10p) up the wall”. There were also the self-mocking “cha’penny bundles”, in which a half-penny piece would be thrown in the air, with boys scrummaging for it as if their lives depended on it.
Rabbi Dr Schonfeld’s belief in the principles of Torah im Derech Eretz (literally, “The five Books of Moses with the Way of the Land”), a fusion of traditional orthodoxy and the modern world, was undermined by the total lack of Derech Eretz (more commonly used to mean decent, polite and respectful behaviour) displayed by so many of the pupils.
But how could any but the most mature boys be expected to behave with Derech Eretz, when confronted by the incompetence, lack of professionalism, eccentricity, and/or (in one or two cases) borderline insanity exhibited by such a large percentage of the teaching staff?! Of the 32 teachers in the photograph below, there are three I don’t recognise. Of the remainder, the number who most parents would have embraced as positive role models for their sons would likely have been in single figures.
To my mind, the main problem that beset Hasmonean was over-familiarity, and the blurring of the professional and the personal. As aforementioned, many teachers and pupils lived in the same communities, often attending the same synagogues. Even if they didn’t, we would often see other teachers when visiting different synagogues (when staying with friends, for example, or for bar mitzvahs).
One story, in particular, comes to mind when I reflect on such “blurring”. During much of my time at Hasmonean, I was convinced that a certain Rabbi Abrahams (standing furthest right, above), known to us merely as “Abie”, was picking on me. And I told him so on numerous occasions. He ardently denied the accusation, even mockingly using it against me when I really did misbehave. At the end of what was supposed to be my final day at the school, before moving to Haberdashers’ Aske’s for the sixth form (I returned shortly afterwards), Rabbi Abrahams offered me a lift home (something he had never done during the previous five years). Once in his car, he confessed to having picked on me, because I – or, more accurately, my parents (who wouldn’t have known him from Adam) – hadn’t invited him to my bar mitzvah. I was flabbergasted.
Though not, I suppose, an exclusively Hasmonean phenomenon, boys with brothers at the school suffered from continual, damaging comparisons, and just couldn’t win – they were damned for having a naughtier sibling (“you are just like your brother”), and damned for a cleverer one (“you are nothing like your brother”).
My cousin, Daniel, had, by the time I got to the school some two years after him, built up quite a reputation for mischief. Soon after my arrival, I was dragged before the then acting headmaster, Rabbi Roberg (front row, fifth from right, above), by the same Rabbi Abrahams (to be fair to him, this was before my bar mitzvah!) Looking at Rabbi Roberg, Rabbi Abrahams uttered a mere two words: “Reiss’s cousin”. The two Rabbis exchanged knowing looks, and – no clean slate, no judging on merits – my fate, for the next seven years, had been sealed. (Incidentally, I have bumped into Rabbi Abrahams on numerous occasions since, and bear him no ill will. That was just Hasmonean! He was also the only teacher who ever got me even remotely interested in religious studies.)
Nor was sympathetic counselling Hasmo’s strong point. One boy, who was a large hamper “short of a picnic” (and who, these days, would have been referred for special needs education), was told by a teacher that he was “sick and need[ed] help” (the same boy used to look up skirts of girls from the local comprehensive on the 240 bus home . . . so, perhaps, we were the ones who “need[ed] help”!)
My late brother, Jonathan z”l, had also been a pupil at the school. It transpired that he had been exhibiting worrying behaviour, and playing truant, for some months before the then headmaster, Mr. Stanton (front row, fifth from left, above), decided to alert my parents to it . . . not by calling them to the school, mind, but by waiting for a chance meeting at a dinner party! On the day after Jonathan passed away (I was 12 at the time, and my parents wanted to shield me from the funeral), not a single member of staff approached me about it. I remember bursting into tears on that morning and, for all any of the teachers cared, I could have still been sobbing at 4:30.
A wonderful story that I heard recently shows that Hasmo still excels in the lack of professionalism stakes. A boy was hauled before an external psychologist for supposed behavioural problems, only for it to be discovered, some twenty minutes into the discussion, that they had really wanted his younger brother. To add insult to injury (and, perhaps, also to prove that Hasmo can always go one better), instead of a teaching professional summoning said brother, the boy was told to fetch him, which he proceeded to do by entering a packed classroom and announcing to his brother that “The psychiatrist wants to see you.” The boys’ father, a friend of mine, was none too pleased.
If not unprofessional, many other teachers at Hasmonean were simply incompetent, bearing testament to the saying that “Those who can’t do, teach”. The fact that Hasmonean was (and still is) never far from the top of the various school league tables was in spite, rather than because, of those teachers. If you were not a self-starter, or were more interested in the arts, you could be left to stew. But a combination of most parents’ ability to invest in private lessons – though, alas, not in sufficient chairs for pupils (lessons were interrupted an average of once every three and a half minutes by a boy bursting in and squawking “Sir, have you got a spare chair?”) – and the Jewish emphasis on the importance of education ensured that most “Hasmo boys” did not suffer, in the long term, from such incompetence.
That is not to say, however, that all teachers were incompetent. The first subject of my series on, and arguably the greatest of, Hasmo Legends – former French master, Mr. Bloomberg (front row, furthest left, above), known universally as “Cyril” – was far from incompetent. But, what he lacked in incompetence, he made up for in eccentricity. Watch this space.
The next instalment, however, will conclude my introduction, by looking at other aspects of Hasmonean, especially its religious mix and attitude towards the State of Israel.
[NOTE: I have thought long and hard about whether or not to include actual names in this series of posts, not for fear of being defamatory (truth is an absolute defence), but because it is not my aim to be vindictive. With some reservations, I have decided to include them, because not to would detract from my purpose of “painting the full picture”. If you wish to comment on posts, kindly bear the defamation issue in mind, and don’t hide behind a veil of anonymity (please provide your full name and email address). As a general “rule of thumb”, if you stick to the facts (however extreme!) of your story , rather than resorting to opinion/name-calling, there should be no problem.]
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part II: Yids vs. Yoks – The Religious Mix