by Tony Pearce
I ended up teaching French, German, and a couple of English classes, at Hasmonean.
Certainly the boys were not all geniuses but there were some who were pretty close to it. One in particular was Benjy whom I taught for two years at both French and German, during which time he never made a single mistake (not that I found anyway!) On the other hand there were some quite dim boys and I soon realised that they had their struggles in a society which was geared towards academic success and/or accepting the demands of the Talmud and the Torah.
I remember Adrian, who was a subject of some scorn in the staff room for being badly behaved. He was not very religious and in the bottom set for everything, but I got on well with him and ended up giving him some extra help in basic English. Both he and his parents were incredibly grateful that I had taken a bit of interest in him. I met him many years later and was pleased to see that he had got on quite well in life, and better than some of the geniuses.
I recall giving a German oral test and asking one of the boys where he lived. “Stamford Hill,” came the reply. I asked him to describe this area. His answer owed more to Yiddish than any German I had taught him and would have got him “nul points” for political correctness: “Voll frummers und schwarzers.”
On another occasion I remember one of the very religious boys telling me he did not want to read the set book, Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, because there was adultery in the story. I said I understood his concern, but novels reflect life and adultery happens. I agreed with him that adultery is wrong. I said Hardy did not actually glorify adultery, and his book’s main character, Bathsheba, had the same name as the woman in the Bible with whom King David committed adultery.
My argument was a bit thrown by his reply: “King David was a tzadik and he did not commit adultery.”
“How can you say that?” I asked. “The Book of Kings describes that David committed adultery and had Bathsheba’s husband killed in the war. He was rebuked for this by Nathan the Prophet and then confessed his sin in Psalm 51.”
But he would not have it and insisted that David was a tzadik and gave me a very complicated reason why this was, which I have to say completely missed the point of the Biblical account of David and Bathsheba. But it meant that my argument about reading English literature was lost on him.
Another incident that sticks in my memory was being set up by a second year French class who asked me if I knew which Jewish festival was happening around then.
“Purim,” I said.
“Bet you don’t know the story of Purim.”
Naively I thought I would show them that I did, so I started telling the story. As soon as I mentioned Haman, they started banging the desks and stamping their feet and creating a terrible noise.
“Stop that,” I said.
“But we have to sir – it’s part of our religion.” That was the end of Purim and we went back to French.
After I had been at Hasmo for a couple of terms, I decided to arrange a day trip to Boulogne. This took a bit of negotiating with the rabbis as we had to find a date which was permitted for excursions. I think the reason was to do with Lag B’Omer or the destruction of the Temple. Anyway we set off with Rabbi Abrahams to keep the religious side going.
The first year we went we had to go to the synagogue to say afternoon prayers, but the next year when I organised the trip it was decided that this synagogue was not frum enough. So the boys ended up davening mincha by the wall of the old city of Boulogne, with rather bemused French passers-by heard muttering, “Qu’est-ce qui se passe? Le Mur des Lamentations est venu à Boulogne?” (“What is happening? Has the Wailing Wall come to Boulogne?”) For evening prayers the rabbi found that the bar of the Dover to London train was not being used, so the whole group piled in, but one rather rebellious boy escaped and told me “It’s like the black hole of Calcutta in there.” Then he was yanked back in by the rabbi to say his prayers.
I realised the rabbis had their work cut out trying to persuade the boys to be religious. I once gave a lift to a very secular Israeli who sounded positively anti-Semitic when he spoke about the rabbis and the Jewish aspects of the education he received at the school.
The rabbis also had to deal with alien influences and the temptations of the flesh. They went to great lengths on the only day that girls were allowed into the school, for the Chanukah service, to prevent any contact between boys and girls. Screens were erected to separate them and prevent them from even seeing each other. Then there was the time an Italian ice cream man parked his van outside the school at 4pm as the boys were coming out, only to be chased away by an indignant rabbi who then reprimanded the boys who had been tempted to buy some treif gelati.
I had some discussions with the teachers there about religious issues. I realised there was quite a wide spectrum of belief as can be found in Christian circles. Clearly Reform Judaism was a “big no-no” and I heard prominent Jewish institutions like The Jewish Chronicle and JFS (the Jewish Free School) being put down as “non-kosher”.
I also picked up divisions between Hassidic and non-Hassidic Jews. There were members of Lubavitch there and some of them did talk to me about their faith, which I found quite interesting. Joe Paley was one such. I understood that he, like me, had travelled down alternative roads before coming to his present faith and found him an interesting person. One thing which surprised me was that he accepted ideas like transmigration of the soul and reincarnation which are a “big no-no” in Biblical Christianity. Another person I spoke to was Shlomo Lewis who struck me as a gentle and mystical man. He told me that some people had called him fanatical. “Maybe you’re just more enthusiastic than most,” I said.
I remember one of the rabbis (can’t remember which one, might have been Shlomo) telling me that it was not that the Jews had kept the Sabbath, but the Sabbath had kept the Jews. I could see his point and that it was the observance of mitzvot – kosher food laws, Sabbath and festivals – that had kept the Jewish people maintaining their separate identity during the years of the dispersion. I was also made to understand that assimilation and Christianity were the main enemies to this identity, although it seemed to me that most of the Jewish people I had come across who did not keep these mitzvot had nothing to do with Christianity.
Most of the religious members of staff avoided talking about anything to do with God with me, but one or two did. One even asked me if I could find him a book written by a Jew about Jesus being the Messiah. I gave him Rays of Messiah’s Glory by David Baron, which he kept for several weeks before giving it back to me with the comment, “All the usual diatribes.” Clearly not impressed.
Once I was sitting in the staff room minding my own business and marking books when the only other person in the room, Osher Baddiel, who was extremely Orthodox, asked me, “What’s a Baptist Church?” I was not sure why he had asked me this and did not try to find out. I explained briefly that Catholic and Anglican churches baptise babies into the faith, but Baptists believe that you have to make a decision to repent and believe the Gospel in order to become a Christian and that you should be baptised after this. As a result they do not baptise babies, who cannot make such a decision, but only adults. I then said that when I became a Christian I was baptised.
“What were you before?” he asked. He looked a bit startled when he asked this and I wondered if he thought I might be Jewish.
“I was a Marxist, in the Communist Party,” I replied, telling him a bit about how I came to this decision.
He seemed quite puzzled by this and then said, “I don’t see what you mean. Communism is a Christian thing anyway.”
“How do you work that out?” I asked. “Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao were all atheists and Communist society has always persecuted Christians.” He broke off the conversation, but it dawned on me that as far as traditional Jews like Osher were concerned society was divided into Jews and Christians and everyone who was not a Jew, from Hitler to Billy Graham, was a Christian.
It turned out that Osher was also very anti-Zionist and was actually quite unpopular with some of the boys because of this. I found it quite interesting that the radical left-wing Jews I had known in the Communist Party and some of the ultra Orthodox Jews shared a common view of Israel as a calamity for the Jews. I had read Chaim Potok’s book The Chosen so I knew the reason why Ben Gurion declaring the state of Israel in 1948 without the aid of the Messiah was anathema to certain Orthodox Jews.
For my part I viewed the restoration of Israel as a fulfilment of Biblical prophecy and was interested to go along to lunchtime meetings of the school’s Israel Society from time to time. These showed Zionist films and were run by Danny Joseph, who told me I was the only teacher who ever came to these meetings. I was fascinated by the story of Israel coming into being as a modern nation in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and in the face of all the Arab opposition. And I was ashamed at the attempts to frustrate the rebirth of Israel by so many powers, including the failure of the British to honour their commitments to the Jewish people in the Balfour Declaration. I kept in touch with Danny for a while after we both left the school, when he became President of the Union of Jewish Students. The last I heard he had made aliyah to Israel (if you are reading this, Danny, I’d be pleased to hear from you).
Another lunchtime activity I attended occasionally was the “Gentiles’ Lunch Club” at The Mill, a pub at the end of Holders Hill Road. This was attended by Martin Lawrence, Liam Joughin and Clive Johnson, but also by Ivan Marks and Jeff Soester who were Jewish. Actually it was an opportunity for the less religious Jewish teachers and the Gentiles to get together and talk about the goings-on at the school, sometimes explained by Ivan or Jeff. On one occasion I remember Liam Joughin, an Irish Catholic, getting very excited about one of the wall posters he had read describing what happens on Purim. “It’s a wonderful religion this,” he said. “You’re supposed to get so drunk that you can’t tell the difference between ‘blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘cursed be Haman’, and ‘blessed be Haman’ and ‘cursed be Mordechai’.”
Contrary to some of the comments I have read on melchett mike, I don’t think anyone got drunk at these meetings – half a bitter was about the ration – and it was more of an opportunity to talk freely without worrying about what the more religious elements at the school would think. There was quite a bit of negativity towards those elements and, as a Christian, I was a bit more charitable towards them and actually did not go all the time as I sometimes found the negativity got me down.
The drink problem I actually found difficult at Hasmonean was the habit of having a l’chayim at break times when one of the staff had an addition to their family or marriage. I am quite a light drinker – not teetotal but I only have an occasional beer or glass of wine – and the thought of drinking sherry or whiskey at 11 o’clock in the morning and then having to teach 3C French was not really to my liking.
One time I was sitting in a classroom during the lunch hour on my own. I had gone there for a bit of peace and quiet and was actually reading the Bible. One of the religious boys came in and saw that I was reading Isaiah and was somewhat astonished. “What are you doing?” he asked. “You can’t just read the Bible like that.”
“But I do it every day,” I said.
“We would never sit down and read the Bible on its own. You have to read the Commentaries. It’s like drinking Ribena without water,” he said.
I asked one of the rabbis about this and he said that according to Judaism God gave the Oral Torah to interpret the Written Torah and this was passed on by word of mouth from Moses until it was written down in the Talmud. He said “Our religion is ninety percent Talmud and ten percent Tenach.” Later I mentioned this to another rabbi who said “Ninety percent is too low for the Talmud.” I had noticed the big books being carried around by the rabbis and read the Hebrew words “Talmud Bavli” and wondered if anything good could come out of Babylon. In my reading of the Bible I could not see any reference to an Oral Torah and realised that this was one of the areas of disagreement between our faiths.
One of the boys who I got to know at Hasmonean was Simon Harris, who came to me for extra French lessons as he had failed his O-Level. He was bright and wanted to be a rabbi, but with a more open approach to Jewish Orthodoxy than was practised by many in the school. Simon was involved in the Campaign for Soviet Jewry and was interested to find out about my activities on behalf of Soviet Christians.
On one occasion he said that his sister had attended a Soviet exhibition at Earls Court and been arrested for putting “Free Sharansky” stickers on the exhibits. She had been treated badly, in an anti-Semitic manner, and he wanted to go there dressed as an Orthodox Jew and see if there was any hostility from the Russians. He asked me to go along with him. I agreed, but drew the line at the stickers on the exhibits. I took along a few of our leaflets about Soviet Christians and some copies of the Gospel in Russian. Far from being arrested we had some opportunities to speak to Russians there and one of my really good memories is of Simon and me standing in the middle of Earls Court discussing the existence of God with a Russian atheist who was part of the exhibition. I felt it was a good bit of Christian-Jewish cooperation, and it might have helped Simon when he later became Chief Rabbi of Ireland. I went to meet him once on a visit to Dublin.
One day, in 1980, I was covering for an absent teacher, while the class got on with their work. One of the boys put his hand up and said, “Please sir, I want to ask you something. You’re a Christian. Why do you Christians say we killed Jesus?”
It was a bit of a shock but I decided I would answer this question as it is one of the issues I felt very strongly about and is the theme of talks I give in churches. The Christian teaching of contempt for the Jews and persecution of Jewish people because of the crucifixion is a gross distortion of the New Testament and a disgrace. I explained that the church may have taught this but Jesus did not. He said that he laid down his life of his own accord and the Apostles taught that all of us, Jews and Gentiles, were responsible for his death, because he died for our sins. A true understanding of the Scriptures should lead Christians to love Jewish people.
This resulted in a huge barrage of questions and I realised how much this issue was a cause of pain to Jewish people. I tried to answer the questions as best I could. In the process I guess I said more than was acceptable about Jesus. The son of one of the more “hard line” rabbis was in the class and the next day a rabbi came up to me and said, “Mr. Pearce, we know you are a Christian and we respect your faith, but while you are at this school you should not say any more about the founder of Christianity.”
I realised it was probably time to move on and decided to hand in my notice. Mr. Stanton was sorry to hear that I was going. When the time came to leave, I was amazed to receive a number of cards and good wishes from the boys and the staff. On my last day I went for a walk around the playground during break and was moved by how many boys came up to talk to me to wish me well. I still look back on my time at Hasmonean as my best time in teaching. I started off my time there well disposed towards Jewish people, and also left well disposed towards them. And, to set the record straight, I did not at any stage during my time there try to dissuade boys from Judaism.
A postscript to all of this. I did some supply teaching at Barnet schools for a couple of years afterwards, then taught at Hampstead School and Christ Church School in Finchley. During my period on supply, I was teaching French at Copthall Girls School. There I met an Orthodox Jewish lady who was also teaching French. We got talking about previous jobs we had had and I mentioned that I had taught at Hasmonean.
“When were you at Hasmonean?” she asked incredulously. When I gave her the time I was there, she said, “You got my job!”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
It turned out she had been appointed to the job of French teacher, but there had then been an objection that, as she was a young woman (although married and Orthodox), she might be a temptation to the boys. So they had told her that she could not teach at the school. That explained to me the great rush there had been to appoint me.
God moves in mysterious ways!
I left teaching permanently in 1988 and have been involved in Christian ministry ever since. Having a continuing interest in Israel and Jewish matters has led me to write and speak in Christian circles on these subjects. I have written three books, and produce a quarterly magazine which deals with contemporary issues in the light of Bible prophecy. We now produce this in several languages and have outlets in many countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. We also have a website which includes articles about Israel. We believe in the restoration of Israel as a fulfilment of Bible prophecy and make a stand against the anti-Zionism which seeks its destruction. I am also the pastor of The Bridge Christian Fellowship which meets in Bridge Lane, Golders Green, where I often see and talk to one of the rabbis from Hasmonean on his way to daven at the shul down the road. My wife, Nikki, and I enjoyed 27 years together until she became ill with cancer of the bone marrow, and died in 1998.
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part IX: Moishe Schimmel