Anal (or Madam), Ant (or Veggie), Bacteria Boy, Bad Back (or Cliffhanger), Banana (or Gunga), Banquo (or Ghost), Beetroot (or Purée [yours truly!]), Bubble, Chips (or Gumface), Choirboy, Chuttocks (or, the rather less subtle, Massive Arse), Crab, Egg, Fish, Flake, Gnu, Gonzo (two boys), Gus, Jelly, Lanky, Magic (or Tricky), Monkey, Mosquito, Mouldy (two boys), (Paki) Mouse, Mutley, Ox, Potato, Rassen (Fassen), Robot, Lionel (Blair), Shitter, Slobbes, Slow, Sly, Smella, Spider, Stavros, Teabag, Tsoyvelah (or Waverleh Quaverleh).
These are the nicknames (not including plays on names) that I can still recall, from my year (of ninety boys) alone, some 24 years after leaving Hasmonean.
Piss-taking was rife at Hasmo, though it rarely crossed the bounds of acceptability (unlike the actions of the pupil living opposite the school, who took a pot-shot at Headmaster Rabbi Roberg’s office with an air rifle, penetrating the window). It wasn’t the piss-taking, however, which marked Hasmo apart. What made it the special place that it was, I believe, were the unique racial, ethnic, but especially religious, conflicts and tensions inherent in the school, its teachers and pupils.
While I understand that Sabbath observance is now a prerequisite for admission, until 1985 (when I left), at least, only around a third of boys were religious. To save time picking teams for playground football, we just played Yids against Yoks (pejorative Yiddish for Jews and non-Jews, respectively).
Around a quarter of teachers were not Jewish, while a similar number were merely Jewish “lite”. And all of them used to tear their hair out having to deal with the narrow-minded stupidity of the controlling religious “elite”. At one stage, for example, literature considered subversive – including, I seem to recall, George’s Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (about as sexually explicit as an illustrated Bible) – was banned from the syllabus and school library.
As with most things Hasmonean, however, there was usually a humorous side to the meeting of the secular and the religious. For instance, our non-Jewish fourth year form master, Mr. Joughin (back row, fourth from right, in the staff photograph in Hasmo Legends I), could not master the harsh guttural pronunciation (as in German) of Mincha (the afternoon prayer), instead calling us to prayer with his adapted “Minkerisation”.
Hasmonean’s emphasis on Jewish Studies – compulsory every morning, with an after-school Yeshiva Stream for those who couldn’t get enough (or, as in my case, parents who had had enough!) – resulted in an unbalanced education, to the detriment, especially, of the less bright and/or non-self-starters.
To make matters worse, the general level of teaching of Jewish Studies was appalling, with little or no thought given to what might capture the interest (and there are plenty of aspects of Judaism which can) of the less learned or diligent boys (myself included). All I can recall from seven years of Gemorah (Talmud) study are scenarios of one man’s ox goring another’s in a public or private thoroughfare, which had little relevance in 1980s Britain (even in the shtetl of Golders Green). Yes, I know, Talmud study teaches one logic, and how to think . . . but a half-decent educator should have had a ‘plan B’ to offer our recalcitrant Yeshiva Stream ‘B group’. When Rabbi Abrahams, remarkably progressively for Hasmonean, decided to devote one school year to an explanation of the Siddur (daily prayer book) – relevance! shock horror!! – there was a tangible spirit of revolution in the air (though it was one which, sadly, never took wider hold).
So, whilst the more serious, religious boys became more serious and religious, the less religious ones generally lost any interest they might have carried over from their Jewish primary schools or Sunday Cheders (Hebrew classes), which was an opportunity sadly lost.
The religious “elite” generally promoted a rather narrow, unhealthy view of the world (either reinforced or corrected in pupils’ homes). I will never forget our class being advised by Rabbi Schmahl – a kindly man, and otherwise one of the more normal members of the “elite” – that we should never stand too close to the tracks on the Underground, because there could always be a Goy (non-Jew) who wanted to push us on. That is quite shocking news for a 14-year old to have to absorb, especially since my father’s colleagues in the medical profession – who my folks used to entertain at our home – had not exhibited any obvious genocidal tendencies. Anyway, as a result of Rabbi Schmahl’s advice, over subsequent years, I proceeded to push non-Jews onto the tracks . . . before they could do so to me.
Amongst the religious “elite”, there was a small, but seemingly influential, number of anti-Zionists, who somehow succeeded in getting Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem) banned from school assemblies and speech days. They were led, it seemed, by Osher Baddiel (middle row, third from right), who, it was said, fasted on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). The ban represented pure spinelessness on the part of the school’s decision-makers, seeing as the vast majority of pupils and teachers staunchly supported the State (Rabbi Roberg would later retire to Jerusalem). And it only served to strengthen the Zionist spirit of the boys, who would smuggle in Israeli flags, and sing Hatikvah with renewed gusto, to spite the fundamentalists (yes, we have them too), who it was a joy to watch writhe in discomfort.
Many of the religious “elite” also exhibited a distinct sneering superiority (especially towards the less religious). Even as a young boy, I picked up on the irony of Dr. “Jerry” Gerber (front row, third from right) screwing up his eyes and addressing pupils as “You arrogant boy”. Gerber also somehow managed to take the word Goy – not one with particularly pleasant connotations at the best of times – to a new low, making it rhyme (in a uniquely horrible Golders Green way) with the French fauteuil.
A story comprising a mere two words best illustrates, for me, the arrogance of so many of Hasmo’s religious “elite”, and the oft-justified, Chutzpadik reaction of pupils thereto. On visiting the school, shortly after leaving, with Grant Morgan – my former partner in crime in Cyril’s lessons (though, sadly for me, not in business) – a newish addition to the teaching staff, Rabbi Fine, poked his head out of the Art Room Annexe window. Looking down his nose (both literally and figuratively) at us, while furrowing his brow, he queried “Yessss . . .?” (as if to ask “Who are you?”) Grant, never short of a riposte, looked up, and replied, conclusively, “No.”
Then, regrettably, there was Mr. Jacobson (front row, third from left), known to all as “DJ”, he of the sinister nippled forehead. Whilst the similarly benippled Stephen Berkoff is only a baddie on stage and screen, DJ’s persistent machinations and snide comments caused him to be widely detested by pupils – with the exception (one would hope) of his poor sons, who were also at the school – and, even, colleagues.
DJ seemed to consider himself de facto Headmaster of Hasmonean, which was odd, seeing as most didn’t even recognise him as Deputy (which, apparently, he officially was). And, if you weren’t “Golders Green religious”, or didn’t go on his summer walking trips – to be that desperate for a summer getaway, one would have to have had paedophiles for parents – he could be extremely vindictive. After I returned to Hasmonean, following a short spell at Haberdashers at the start of the sixth form, DJ delighted in constantly taunting me: “Isaacson, why don’t you go back to City of London?” He riled me and a friend so much, on one occasion, that we conspired to ambush him outside his home (a plot which, sadly, never came to fruition). In fact, when I first heard Morrissey sing “Hang the DJ”, I was convinced that he must have been a Hasmo boy.
Jack “on the gate”, an archetypal East End rough diamond if ever there was one, couldn’t resist attaching “the c word” to every mention of DJ’s name, which, naturally, we delighted in (and even encouraged). Indeed, I learned, and owe my love of, the word – surely the most expressive in the English language – to him. (Jack claimed to have fought in the Battle of Cable Street . . . though, if one believed every ageing East End Jew who has claimed that, and the related stories that they tell, Stalingrad, in comparison, starts to resemble a handbag tiff at a Wizo coffee morning.)
There was also the Ashkenazi/Sephardi (Jews of European/North African origin) thing going on at Hasmonean, with a sizeable minority of boys from Adenite and Indian families. Ethnicity, however, was never an issue at the school, and, until I made Aliyah (emigrated to Israel), ethnic Jewish stereotypes meant nothing to me; so much so, that I was completely oblivious to Eric Elbaz – easily the most mischievous boy in our year (and, arguably, the school) – being Moroccan. . . which, with the benefit of hindsight from my later experience in Israel, he so obviously was! Elbaz, after (inevitably) being thrown out of his own class, would utilise his considerable footballing talents to joyfully and tirelessly crash footballs against other classes’ windows, and then scarper before teachers could nail him. Naturally, Grant Morgan and I would inform Cyril – “Sir, it’s that wretch Elbaz” – but the boy had all the qualities of a Teflon frying pan.
Hasmo’s ethnic mix was further enhanced, in 1979, by the addition to every class of a sprinkling of refugees from the Iranian Revolution, their rich Farsi accents always giving them a wonderfully naive and startled demeanour. That was when we were in Form 2AB, representing the initials of our second year form master, a certain Mr. Alan Bloomberg.
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part III: Cyril, aka Mr. Bloomberg