My beach reading this past week, Coming back to me, cricketer Marcus Trescothick’s frank account of his battle with depression – which obviously proved an extremely therapeutic exercise for the former England batsman – far from depressing me, has caused me to become increasingly pleased with myself. And not because of my Hasmo Legends posts in themselves . . . but because they have served as the catalyst for online therapy for so many ex-pupils.
The trigger for the series was my realisation that the subject – and the many wild and wonderful Hasmo characters and stories – had, somewhat surprisingly, not been documented elsewhere. If anyone had predicted, however, when I published Hasmo Legends I, that the series would regularly be topping a thousand ‘hits’ a day, and soon a thousand comments, I would have said that they were suffering from a touch of the “King Paleys”. I have been reasonably successful in journalism and law, but making online self-help available to so many ex-Hasmo boys has given me a great (though not smug) sense of personal satisfaction.
I shared my Hasmo experiences with boys who are still my closest friends today, nearly a quarter of a century after we left. And my memories of the institution were largely positive – of a fun madhouse, if you like – but I have been given cause to revisit them by the emotional depth and honesty of some of the comments to Hasmo Legends, which have taken the series to another dimension. And some of the more serious issues which have surfaced have taken me by surprise.
But should they have?
I certainly experienced my fair share of indiscriminate pinches, raps on the knuckles, slaps across the face, and even the dreaded plimsoll. The funny – or, perhaps, worrying – thing, however, is that, until now, I never really questioned such experiences . . .
- Rabbi Abrahams used to patrol the classroom with his arms at ninety degrees and the palms of his hands open and facing downwards, ready for action. I vividly recall the regular, generous slappings – to face and/or legs (he would move down there when one covered one’s face) – which he administered to me and my classmates, none of whose behaviour could ever be described as anything more than mildly mischievous.
- And Rabbi Greenberg most definitely was a sadist. On one occasion, the man nicknamed “Penguin” (and no less grotesque than the Batman villain) confiscated a Hebrew/English dictionary – not dissimilar from one of those long paint-colour card indexes – from me. He proceeded to bash me on the knuckles with it . . . so hard, that it exploded all over the floor. And, yes, he would look you in the eyes after every hit, to see if you were breaking. The c*nt.
- Even Mr. Johnson, who usually seemed the most placid of souls, once administered a particularly vicious beating – the worst I ever witnessed at Hasmonean – to our most gentle classmate, the late Ephraim Amini. Perhaps it followed one of those lunchtime visits to the pub, that other commenters recall.
It is so easy to chuckle now at Steve Posen’s eccentricities (the red shirt on Rosh Chodesh [a New Moon], for example), but wasn’t he rather too plimsoll happy to have been allowed anywhere near 11-year old backsides? And should Rabbi Angel’s chosen instrument for beatings – a thick wooden plank, which we nicknamed “Wacko” – really have been such a laughing matter? While such methods and tools may indeed have been a “sign of the times”, as some on melchett mike have suggested, they should have been no more acceptable then than they would be today.
More than any physical abuse, however, my own most painful memory of Hasmonean was the unkind (not to say unprofessional) attitude of Posen’s fellow biology teacher – and, later, deputy headmaster – Mr. Joughin, while I was working through my own teenage issues. Rehashing the details here, however, would serve no useful purpose.
Anyway, for whatever reason, I bear no grudge against any of the assorted misfits who taught at Hasmonean. And I don’t have the inclination, or the understanding of such matters, to analyse the causes of their abusive behaviour (various commenters to melchett mike have undertaken that task most eloquently). I would drink a beer (or cherry brandy) with any of them (except perhaps DJ, who I would throw one over). At the same time, however, I recognise that commenters’ experiences, and their effects on them, will differ from mine.
On Friday, I attended Kabbalat Shabbat (evening service) at Barbados’s Nidchei Yisroel (“The Dispersed of Israel”) synagogue, the second oldest in the western hemisphere. Founded in 1654, it was sold by the island’s then last remaining Jew in 1929. It reopened in 1987, following a beautiful restoration managed by the grandchild of Moses Altman, the first of a new wave of Jews to arrive here in the 1930s.
With Hasmonean so much on my mind at the moment– due to my need to moderate commenters’ occasional excesses (and the Fourth Test prompting even cricket fanatics to question how they ever liked the sport) – I couldn’t help but think how, in spite of its obvious importance for the many Jewish visitors to Barbados, our former Jewish Studies teachers would no doubt disapprove of the congregation: it has mixed seating, females count towards a minyan (quorum) and can recite kaddish (the mourner’s prayer), parts of the service are in English, and the syngaogue’s location means that congregants have no option but to drive there . . . oh yes, and they don’t forbid recalcitrant ex-Hasmo boys from taking photographs.
But Nidchei Yisroel, and its adjoining cemetery and museum, chronicling the fascinating history of Bajan Jewry, served as a welcome reminder of the many positives in our wonderful religion . . . something that the small-minded tyrants entrusted with our spiritual education – but who, instead, turned so many Hasmo boys against it – could never comprehend (never mind accept).
On a personal note, while I still experience a certain lack of focus from being the product of a ‘mixed’ marriage, it was also my good fortune. My sceptic Litvak (of Lithuanian origin) late father counterbalanced the unquestioning belief of my mother, of Chassidic Galician stock, so that our Passover Seder (meal) would always feature Reiss assertions of the God-inspired miracle of the State of Israel, with an Isaacson riposte of “So where was God at Auschwitz then?”
The line between a healthy (as I see it) scepticism, however, and cynicism can be a thin one. However ludicrous it might seem to me today, I was always petrified that more religious school friends who visited our home might witness my father transgress (however ‘mildly’) the Sabbath. On our walk home from syngagogue, one Saturday morning, with my classmate Jonny Finn – from Golders Green, but visiting relatives in Hendon – a short distance behind us, I begged my father not to ring the doorbell . . . to which he replied, “What do you think that they do when no one is looking?”
Whilst, thanks to my mother, therefore, I can never forget the importance of our tradition, my father ensured that the perversions of Hasmonean’s Rabbis had little chance of taking hold.
The Hasmo ‘religious’ experience, however, and its excesses, meant that children from more homogenous households than mine were either, in the case of Yids (see Hasmo Legends II), less likely to ever expand their Jewish horizons in a more enlightened direction, or, in that of Yoks, so completely turned off by Orthodoxy that not even ‘born again’ movements (such as Aish HaTorah) could ever ‘rescue’ them.
On a rather different note, I have received a few emails from readers of melchett mike expressing concern at the issue of defamation. I don’t intend to provide a summary of English libel law here (Google it), but if what you write is factually true (or a reasonable opinion based on such facts), you have nothing to worry about, and no need to hide. For that reason, while I have no problem with anonymous comments to other posts on melchett mike, I will not permit them on Hasmo Legends, to protect the people being written about. The series and comments thereon, more than others on melchett mike, operate on a basis of trust and personal responsibility, which would otherwise be too open to abuse.
I have added a disclaimer/comments policy to the About this Blog page. Please take the time to read it. If you are unhappy with anything you have written thus far, please contact me and I will amend or delete it. The bottom line is this – if you would not be prepared to back up your comments in a court of law (however unlikely that it would ever come to that), just read melchett mike . . . don’t comment to it (though that would be a shame).
There is no malice behind Hasmo Legends, merely a desire to tell the truth. The question should be not why I – or, rather, we – are doing so, but, instead, why the supposed ‘professionals’ entrusted with our education and growth did the things that they did.
Hasmo Legends is open to everyone. Some individuals have commented more than others. And some comments have been rather ‘heavier’ than others. But please don’t be deterred. As long as you are telling the truth, or expressing your reasonable opinions based on it, feel free to share your experiences, good or bad, funny or sad.
And, if you visit Israel, please do look me up. Why more of you haven’t taken the plunge, but chosen instead to remain in the ‘ghettos’ of North-West London, is a source of continuing bewilderment to me. As my old Hasmo mate, Joey Garfinkel, always reminds his apikores (heretic) friend, “Every arbah amos (roughly, four steps) that you walk in Eretz Yisroel (Israel) is a mitzvah (good deed)” (which is just as well for me).
My next post in the series, on a Legend named “Sid”, is reddening nicely – like a pinched cheek, in fact – in the melchett mike ‘oven’; but I just felt the need for a little introspection and stocktaking . . . until it is fully-browned.
[If anyone is in possession of a photograph of the great man, I’d be willing to offer a soya roll for it . . . or half (i.e., “one half”) of a chocolate rice crispies. In fact, I would be grateful for any good snaps – of the asylum, its staff or inmates – as I could then dedicate a complete Hasmo Legends post to a “pictorial history”.]
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part VI: Rabbi “Sid” Cooper – The Pinching Preacher