Tag Archives: Ivan Marks

I did it mike’s way . . .

“You’ve got too much to say,” I was repeatedly told, in my youth, by a French-teaching Welshman.

Since excitedly bashing out Virginal Meanderings, however, one typically dull commercial lawyer’s morning back in November 2008, I fear that I may now have said it all.

“Why do you have to write about things like that?” has been my poor mother’s refrain over those four years as I would ask her to proofread each and every new effort before hitting the Publish of no return.

“What would you like me to write about,” I would respond, “the crisis in the eurozone? People don’t read blogs for stuff like that . . . or, at least, not this one.”

“Gotta go,” she would then hang up, on her marks to dash to her PC, always calling back, minutes later, with something like: “It is actually quite good. You know who taught you to write like that . . .”

In each of their own individual ways, I take considerable pride in my 188 posts to melchett mike (far more than I would have imagined possible on that distant November morning). They are the book that I never wrote (and which, in spite of continued encouragement from various quarters, I see no point in writing).

In recent months, however, I have lost much of that urge to write.

I still, of course, have important questions. Like . . .

Why do Russian women feel the need to pose for every photograph – even at sites like Har Herzl and Yad Vashem – by pinning themselves up against the nearest wall or tree, as if for a Playboy shoot?

And why are charedim such God-awful drivers? Check it out for yourselves: Aside from the inevitable wankers in their 4x4s, the drivers obstructing the fast lanes of Israel’s highways nearly all have beards (Ivan “It is always the frum ones” Marks, it would seem, knew of what he spoke).

I also continue to enjoy fascinating encounters in my seeming unending search for the future ex-Mrs. Isaacson . . .

I mean what could have given my most recent JDate the idea that I would want to treat her – on our first (blind) date, scheduled for a mid-afternoon – to a meal in a boutique hotel? “I will be hungry by three o’clock,” Irit informed me, after we had finalized a time. “And I would like to eat at the Montefiore,” she added, as if arranging a shopping-and-lunch date with her Ramat Aviv Gimmel mother.

“Dog food again please,” by way of contrast, is the only demand ever made of me by the lovely female (see photograph below) with whom I am currently shacked up. “And that fetid bowl will do just fine.” A woman or dogs, then? Now there’s a toughie . . . oh yes, and there was no first date.

But I am set to embark, in November, on the next chapter in my continuing, studious avoidance of anything that could reasonably be called a career. And I am reliably informed that the two-year Israeli Tour Guide Course requires more diligence than comes naturally.

In a scene chillingly reminiscent of Marathon Man’s “Der Weisse Engel”, Ole Nipple ’Ead himself (who says the Law of Return is too exclusive?!) was recently spotted and confronted on Jerusalem’s King George Street by my old classmate, Paul Kaufman, giving me a great idea for a future tour . . .

  • From the Footsteps of the Prophets to the Doorsteps of the Despots: Join ex-Hasmo hunter, melchett mike, as he surprises retired ‘teachers’ – DJ, Jerry, and many more – in the suburbs of Jerusalem.

So I log off, but do not shut down. melchett mike – the “Never forget” aid for damaged, eternal North-West London schoolboys – will always be here for your amusement, reminiscence and comments . . . and even perhaps, when I re-find the urge, the odd post (indeed, the best Hasmo Legend could well be yet to come, awaiting a combination of circumstances beyond my control).

In the meantime, thank you to all the commenters (all 7,502 of you) – from the sublime to the Shuli – who have contributed to making this such good fun.

Over . . . but not out.



The Witriol Diaries, Part IV (Hasmo Legends XXIII)


Monday, 4th September 1972, 7.35 p.m.

Rentreé. Many new faces in staffroom; bearded rabbinical, mostly. I have no form this year. Rabbi R said I was being given a “respite”. Is this because Stanton is not sure that he can rely on my being available full-time this year, or because he thinks I was a lousy form-master? Ivan Marks said the latter inference was not necessarily drawable; he himself had not been given a form this year. Nor have I a Fifth Form this year. 5C has been given to a Miss Krollick, a dumpy, bosomy bespectacled girl who, I am told, took a degree in philosophy and Italian in U.C., has spent a year in Italy and a year teaching in a comprehensive school in Upminster. It may well be she will have them just where she wants them. All the same it seems wrong to give a young woman – and the only woman on the staff – a class with a high proportion of oafs in it. The only compensation for my ego, is that I have been given an “A” form, 2A.

In front of me at Mincha was David Marx [see 30th June 1972 in Part III]. I had a presentment, which proved correct, that he would say Kaddish. I wished him long life, for which he thanked me.

Monday, 2nd October 1972, 8.25 p.m.

School resumed to-day after a week’s Succos break, itself occurring after we’d been back only three weeks. One Peter Thomas, a local M.P. and a Cabinet Minister (“member of the cabinet” on the invitation cards – is there a difference?) spoke on Foreign Affairs to inaugurate the new hall. He was the typical Conservative Q.C.: well built, hair brushed back, plummy voice. However, he spoke well for half an hour, reading cleverly from his script. In spite of Schonfeld’s bumbling, there was a sense of occasion, and as usual Mitchell Taylor organised very competently.

Tuesday, 7th November 1972, 6.10 p.m.

I got up, if anything, a little earlier this morning, it being Rosh Chodesh. I arrived at school as usual, looking forward to my pre-Assembly siesta, only to find there was some marking I hadn’t done. I spent fifteen minutes on the marking, and had about five minutes shut-eye. I anticipated disastrous consequences, but the morning passed off peaceably. In the break, Chichios, the new P.E. man, a Cypriot, asked me if I would supervise the table-tennis club in the lunch hour. I agreed, and so forewent my lunch hour siesta. Again, the afternoon went off without incident, I was impressed by the fine fettle I was in. I was shouting of course, but in one of the lessons, at least, I had a distinct impression of possibly teaching someone something. When I came back [home] the reaction set in.

Saturday, 13th January 1973, 7.45 p.m.

Albert Meyer, a Yekke, who was in at the start of the Hasmonean Boys’ School and is in charge of the Modern Hebrew, Classical Hebrew and, jointly I believe with another Yekke, Leonard Cohen, of German (he does the A level literature), also music, after threatening a number of times to resign – all before my joining the school six years ago – “finally” resigned last term, only to turn up again on the first day of this term. I had been given his German O level and A level language class on the assumption that he would not be coming back. Having made the necessary emotional adjustment to giving up these classes, and having told myself that at my time of life I couldn’t care less whether I took the Upper Sixth or a second year C stream, so long as I got the money, I found myself retaining AM’s ex O and A level German classes. The latter consists of two lads, one a German boy, the other a Sabra who came over here when he was three, and who has no German background at all.

It is humiliating that I should have to owe any improvement in my teaching load to “Buggin’s turn”. Thirty years ago I would have enjoyed the “yichus” of a sixth form, but now, in my last year of full-time teaching . . .

AM’s case is peculiar. All right, as he once said, is it any wonder I’m “difficult” after all I’ve been through, but Cohn, presumably, and others, went through as much – and Cohn served in the forces and went on to get a degree at Birkbeck and yields nothing to AM in Orthodoxy. It appears that AM couldn’t stand certain things that went on in the school. I don’t know what things – he did start mentioning the subject to me in the last few weeks of last term, then had to go off to take a shiur. Apparently he complained about Stanton to Schonfeld, in a letter. The latter passed the letter to the former, who was understandably incensed.

I couldn’t understand how AM could afford money-wise to carry out his threat. He’s 58. I’d heard that he’d sought a post, unsuccessfully, at JFS. He hasn’t a car, so even if he’d got a job at JFS he’d have to face an irksome journey. As it is he’s always cadging, with scrupulous politeness, lifts to Golders Green. Rabbi Roberg said the financial side was not important, he’d got Wiedergutmachung, but Wiedergutmachung hier, Wiedergutmachung her, one doesn’t chuck up £2,700 a year or more. It should be said that although he is a man of fine culture, he has no English teaching qualification, so that I doubt whether he could get a job in a non-Jewish school.

Tuesday, 6th February 1973, 9 p.m.

Back to school today [dad’s beloved older brother, Sam, had passed away on 28th January].

Monday, 26th February 1973, 4.45 p.m.

First day of two-day mid-term holiday.

Letter from Stanton. He’s unable to commit himself to re-engaging me on the “39/55” basis I had requested. Sod. In many ways I’d like to teach elsewhere, but it would almost certainly be out of the frying pan into the fire. And I’ve got into the “observant” groove. I’ve tried to pin him down to offering me at least three full days, any days, but I doubt whether he’d even do that.

Tuesday, 8th May 1973, 7.10 p.m.

I had avoided making further entries till now [Max, my younger brother, had been in hospital for three weeks with peritonitis].

Stanton recommended Philip [me!] to do a reading at the Yom Atszmaut service at St. John’s Wood Synagogue on Sunday. Willy came into the Staff Room and said Philip had done very well, “nice boy”. Well, well, well. Anyway, as I told him, it’ll do him no harm to keep in with Willy. I can’t see him being Head Boy, I think this might go to a froom lad, but it will help with his UCCA form.

Am feeling generally virtuous. To-day was an easy day, it is true – only four periods teaching. Even so I spent the first of my two free periods marking, contributing to my feeling of virtue. I have three free periods to-morrow morning, with no marking to do, so that I could, and probably will, spend them preparing my afternoon lessons – whether the preparation will have any effect I don’t know.

Thursday, 13th September 1973, 8 p.m.

Started school last Friday. The rentreé was on Thursday [dad was now on a three and a half day week].

Thursday, 4th October 1973, 6.30 p.m.

Have been timetabled to do games with the 4th. I don’t think I’m really necessary. Chishios the P.E. man goes down together with Hacket, the one-day-a-week bloke, and Rabbi Schmall, ample staff for even eighty boys, which is the number who should attend. In point of fact, as a number of boys, including Philip, do art, we’ve only been having about sixty. When the sub-standard artists, including Philip, are weeded out, no doubt there will be 70-80 boys turning up.

Still, I have been joining in. Yesterday, I pulled a muscle? sprained? my thigh endeavouring to tackle Rabbi Schmall, who is quite an athlete – plays every Sunday at Stamford Hill. Actually your humble servant did not do too badly, for a sexagenarian; I managed to kick the ball well and truly at least twice, averted a dangerous situation by correctly kicking the ball to my own goalkeeper, and once charged nebbich, a dangerous forward, knocking him over. [Dad played for Birkbeck 3rd. Had it had a 4th, he always said, he would have played for it.]

Saturday, 27th October 1973, 9 p.m.

A Mrs Jones has taken over my fourth year French B group and I have been given a second year MH class and an Upper 6th MH group, consisting of Doron Segal, whom I took for German last year, Eli Joseph (the boy whom I invigilated in hospital [see 12th June 1972 in Part III], he’s a Revisionist, or Herutnik as I think they are these days) and Adrian Frei, a froomer, but whose MH is extremely good.

Tuesday, 12th March 1974, 6 p.m.

Poor Max in trouble. Found him facing the wall this morning. As Meyer pointed out to me “facing the wall” has terrible associations for Jews. I have in the past told kids to do so, but won’t again. Apparently he has a detention to make up. He complains that two other boys were let off but his J.S. master, one Roston, who seems, I must say, a very decent sort of chap – no beard, no protruding tsitsitt – not that these are stigmata of course – you know what I mean – said he would see that Max did not get off. Unfortunately, too, at registration this morning, he piped up with some facetious remark and Cyril, the —, gave him an eight-page essay.

Wednesday, 16th October 1974, 8.35 p.m.

On Monday evening I felt queer, though never actually reaching the point of vomiting. Yesterday was a ghastly day. Fortunately I had only four periods of teaching. (On the Monday morning I genuinely, but conveniently, forgot I had a 3rd year German lesson to take; Stephen Posen stepped in and said he enjoyed himself!) To-day, however, I was in brilliant form, taking everything in my stride, paternal, benevolent all through seven periods straight off the reel (the last period I stood in for the master who should have taken the first year and “did” a passage in their history books with them).

Sunday, 3rd November 1974, 6.15 p.m.

I am beginning to doubt whether I shall find much consolation in [my] kids. Of course, of course, health for them above all, but I am becoming less sanguine about their “making good” conventionally. Neither of the boys strike me as Oxbridge, certainly not Oxbridge scholarship material. Philip natters about doing A levels at Barnet College, he’s not interested in the idea of becoming a prefect (which might count in his favour). Max has no ideas about a career. Perhaps the simplest answer might still be to turn Philip into a solicitor and Max into a Chartered Accountant, and bugger Harrison’s mickey-taking of our Philistine (from his viewpoint, they’re not interested in King’s College, Cambridge – from the Orthodox Jewish viewpoint this is the last thing the Yeshiva Stream Boys are) “Char-erd Ekuntant.”

Saturday, 11th January 1975, 11 p.m.

In the event [dad had had a tooth extracted at an evening surgery during the week, having been unable to get it seen to during school hours] I was glad; I went into school and didn’t miss any lessons. I did go into the office to see if they had any aspirin, but Klein, the school officer, kindly gave me some of his own “Panedeine”, which I found analgesically effective. Though, as I always do when I’m a bit under the weather, I find it impossible to avoid laying it on in the classroom (“Of course, I know I’m a fool to come in”). What is interesting is that on Wednesday morning I was a bit late, so I took my coffee with the Panadeine, into my German class and, in an endeavour to המחיש “concretise” the lesson I drank the coffee (ich trinke den Koffee was tue ich?) in front of the kids. I couldn’t remember whether I had taken the tablets.

Sunday, 9th February 1975, 7.50 p.m.

Walking home from school on Friday, I found Maxie seated on the bench by the bus stop near Kinloss. I assumed he’d “bunked” – I had left early – but he told me he’d fallen on to the concrete and bumped his head while playing football in the P/G.

Thursday, 27th February 1975, 4.20 p.m.

Boobba’s [dad’s mother’s, our grandmother’s] Y/Z to-day. I stayed on at school last night for maariv, and went to school today for mincha. On the way to school I noticed a boy getting on to a bus, one Lorrimer, in the second year. He lives with an elder brother, having lost both father and mother. While I was in the staffroom last night the caretaker came in and said the brother was worried because the boy hadn’t arrived home – this was at about 5.30 p.m. As he was getting on the bus today I asked him why he got home late, and he said it was just the usual delay.

I was thinking, in my capacity of vigilant schoolmaster, of reporting the matter so that the kids could know that Big Brother is always watching (he may have had a legitimate excuse, of course). But Big Brother was watching. B.B. was Stephen Posen who caught Maxie bunking. The kid panicked and said he had a dental appointment and wants me to cover up, but I don’t see how I can really. Agreed, some kids can omit some lessons with advantage. Agreed the two periods of J.S. he missed are counter productive, but I have always stood for the principle that kids cannot just take time off when they feel like it. In Maxie’s case, no harm would have been done, as it’s unlikely he would have derived any benefit from the missed lessons, and he was productively or at any rate harmlessly occupied at home, but one can’t run the risk of hordes of schoolkids roaming all over the place between the hours of 9 and 4 p.m.

A few days ago Maxie fell on his nut again – he came home early then, too, whether with or without permission, I don’t know. It’s all a shame, I received complimentary remarks from Dr Gerber, who takes him for maths – he said Maxie was the only one who could answer a question he put to the class, and it’s a good class – and from Ivan Marks on his English.

I saved the cigar we received [at a wedding] and, ministered to by Philip, took one or two puffs at it, whereupon I was told enough! Philip was violently sick in the night. He too bunked on Monday last, but he wasn’t caught.

Wednesday, 30th April 1975, 9.30 p.m.

Yesterday went with 70 3rd year boys to Leith Hill on Lag B’Omer outing. In charge was one Paley, a bearded Cockney character who is froom. Strange combination. He is obviously an experienced orienteerer, if that’s the word I want [footnoted correction, over a year later, to “orienteer”]. He had prepared a number of neat route-maps. His intention was to send the boys off in groups, each group to find its own way cross country with the aid of the “drawrin”, a procedure which to me seemed very insouciant. He did in fact do some to-and-fro-ing getting everybody together. We did a fairly stiff scramble up a slope at one time in the course of which one boy, very much overweight, panicked and was unable to dodge some stones dislodged by boys in front. He was bleeding a little and was generally in a bad way. However, I told Paley he was “covered” as – he said – he had told the boys there was an easy way up (though I hadn’t heard him). Moreover, he was to have had Chishios (the P.E. man) with him, as well as Rabbi Angel and myself, but Chishios was unable to come as he had sprained his back. Incidentally, full marks to Rabbi Angel. I saw him gallantly worming his way up the slope. He is a tall, saintly-looking man, and I’ve no doubt he could have avoided going with us had he wished – but perhaps he didn’t envisage the terrain being so difficult. As I said, Paley is rather a curious combination. He had all the boys up by the tower at Leith Hill and said that “in our religion we attach great importance to nature” and that “God is redeemed from the ground over which a Hebrew prayer is spoken” and so perhaps God might be redeemed from this spot where perhaps for the first time the sounds of Hebrew had been heard. We benshed, led by a bruiser called Brown who I fortunately don’t take but whose reputation had preceded him – he benshed excellently. A very enjoyable day, it was gratifying to find that the jaunt seemed quite mild to me [dad was a keen rambler]. On the way back a boy, Solomon Cohen, engaged me in fluent French conversation. His accent is impeccable, but other boys in his group are better at the written work he tells me.

Wednesday, 25th June 1975, 10 p.m.

A somewhat heartening incident yesterday. I take 3C for French. There are about 35 boys on the register of whom about 32 – eventually – turn up. I should say at least ten boys are without text-books, as I am (if one asks Sam Balin to do something about it he will discourse on the iniquities of Roger Gothold who “looks after” stock, on his (S.B.’s) multifarious responsibilities – so I don’t approach S.B. on the subject). Ten chairs, at least, have to be brought in. One or two of the kids have behavioural problems, a dozen are completely uninterested and natter, fidget with complete indifference to the teacher. Some of the boys, it is true, are very keen and exemplary in behaviour, though very, very weak. To cap all, we have been minus a door. The last few days an elderly carpenter has been fixing up a new one for us.

At the end of yesterday’s lesson, he said: “I’d like to be one of your pupils.” Why? Because I had spoken interestingly about French deriving from slang Latin (tête < testa, cheval < caballos, etc.). “Of course,” he said, “I shall soon be 79, but that’s no reason why I shouldn’t carry on learning.”

This morning I tried to exploit the tale in class, without much success (“If he’d been doing his job, he wouldn’t have heard what you said”). You can’t win.

[For The Witriol Diaries, Parts I – followed by A (Hasmo) Son’s IntroductionII and III (of V), click here, here and here. Coming soon on melchett mike . . . The Witriol Diaries, Part V: Goodbye Joe.]

Hasmo Legends XV: “Polly” Sue Schneider

It all started as a dare.

It was circa 1981. I had just married into the Schneider household and was getting used to being regaled every evening at the dinner table with Hasmo stories related by Tony, Daniel and Saul, my new husband’s three boys. My children, Nadia, Adam and Gideon Levene (who attended non-Jewish schools), were already most adept at affecting brilliant imitations of “Cyril” and “Mad Dog” without ever having encountered either.

One evening, the Hasmo story-of-the-day seemed even more outrageous than usual and I quipped “Oh come on, it can’t really be like that. You’re exaggerating.” To which Daniel, who usually remained quite quiet until he wanted to drop a bombshell, retorted “If you don’t believe us, why don’t you come and see for yourself? They need a new French teacher. I dare you to apply.”

All eyes were on me.

“Go on, mum.”

“You’ll be able to tell us what goes on in the staffroom.”

“You’ll be able to see if Cyril can actually speak French.”

Before I knew it I found myself in Rabbi Roberg’s office.

Sue SchneiderI had the strong feeling that the ensuing interview was only being conducted because it ought to be, and that, as far as Rabbi Roberg was concerned, it didn’t really matter anyway because, after all, I was only a French teacher. When he heard that my degree was in German and Spanish too his eyes lit up, presumably thinking of the cost-effectiveness of this arrangement. I insisted that I had had no experience of teaching German and had forgotten most of what I had learnt. So, of course, I was told I would be perfect for the sole A-level student (who, incidentally, was quite brilliant and taught me a thing or two).

Rabbi Roberg – who must have noticed my Ealing, or at least non-Golders Green, accent – also asked me if I could teach English. When I told him that I didn’t think I was qualified to do so, he assured me I would be fine and that he would give me a GCSE class!

Thus I found myself sheepishly agreeing to start teaching almost immediately. And I thought the dare was just to apply for the job.

I did, however, stipulate that I couldn’t possibly teach from the legendary Whitmarsh, which resembled a pre-war soldier’s manual using expressions which hadn’t been used in France for more than a century. Each chapter in the book told an inane story using the grammar of the week and was followed by equally inane questions lacking a glimmer of originality, creativity or initiative (probably why Hasmonean boys loved it so much, as it almost invited them to be chutzpadik in their answers). I was cordially asked to choose whichever textbook I pleased. Needless to say most boys preferred the “manual” to the modern “whole language” approach that I introduced with the text book called Tricolore.

Besides the nightly dinner time stories, I knew very little about Hasmo, and after my first day there, I assumed that it was a school for mainly disadvantaged families. This was occasioned by the scruffiness of the uniforms: blazers hanging at all angles, scraggly ties, scuffed shoes and kippot that seemed to have been deliberately stamped on and rubbed in the ground – I’m sure they had been. I remember how dumbfounded I was to find that one of the “deprived” children, who I had already picked out as needing extra care and attention, was picked up from school in a Rolls Royce.

Somewhat miraculously, I taught at Hasmo for four years and was, I think, the first female member of staff to tackle a full-time job there. In truth, I had, until Mike contacted me, subconsciously erased these four years from my memory. For those in the know, it wasn’t exactly a recommendation on a CV. I subsequently took an amazing EFL teaching diploma, taught in universities in Israel and became a teacher-trainer myself.

I shudder to think what I would have thought if I had supervised my own teaching at Hasmonean. I do remember being quite insistent upon trying out new methods, speaking French in the classroom and being considered a bit of an idealistic “new girl” in the staffroom for attempting the impossible. I was also considered to be rather weird because I could be constantly found marking homework, not something approved of in that environment. I also remember the withering feeling of having to give in to using the “old methods” if I wanted any sort of quiet in the classroom. Only the magic words “test” would have the desired effect. Nothing but nothing produced silence like this holy word.

Talking of holy, it’s altogether quite amazing that I was accepted in the staffroom at all since I didn’t fit into any particular category. First and foremost I was female, quite an anomaly in itself. Then I was a practicing Jew (the newly Bnei Akiva‘d variety), who fraternized with the gentile/secular elements . . . and, horror of horrors, accompanied them on pub lunches. I’m sorry to report that these weekly sessions were no more than a jollied-up version of our staffroom capers. That is to say, more quips about the antics of the pupils and grouses about the “others”. Which reminds me that one of Jeff Soester’s favourite comments was that he loved it when certain Rabbis wrote on reports “Learns good”.

Nonetheless, I felt quite comfortable talking to most of the Rabbis, some of whom were extremely genial. Rabbi Abrahams always used to bounce into the staffroom smiling and singing some trendy song and would often tell jokes or talk about his time in Shanghai. Also Rabbi Kahan was always very pleasant and partial to a joke or two. I was constantly moving between the two sections of the staffroom while the bewildered members of the “opposition” bemusedly looked on.

When I think about it now, there was comparatively little real tension in the staffroom, given the differences of world views. This presumably was because we needed a rest from the “enemy” outside the staffroom doors. The only real “fight” was focused on the ubiquitous tea towel that the Rabbis insisted on drying on the urn and which Mr. Marks always snatched off the urn, wrinkling up his nose and complaining bitterly of the smell.

I was treated with the utmost respect by all the staff. Cyril, of course, never mentioned the “ridiculous” book I had introduced as it didn’t matter anyway as far as he was concerned because he didn’t use it and it was only for the lesser mortals that I taught!

Jonny Bokor, had he not been such a lovely man, might have gained a black mark from me because he insisted on calling me “Polly”. You guessed it – he allocated me to put the kettle on if I was free before the morning break. My gentile/secular friends couldn’t suppress their smirks when I went into servile mode rather than defend my usual feminist approach. I do remember having some amazing laughing sessions in the gentile/secularist corner. Ivan Marks, Jeff Soester and Liam Joughin were masters of satire when it came to caricaturing the pupils. It works the other way round too you know.

One particular occasion in the staffroom that I haven’t managed to erase from my memory was when an extremely plain, portly, homely, ultra-Orthodox lady who had come in for a few days as a substitute fell back on her chair and landed with her legs open and in the air. The men in the gentile/secular corner who were all facing her had to sit upright, attempting to stifle their guffaws and after I had helped the poor lady up and she had left the staffroom, Ivan Marks gasped “I’m so glad she had her head covered otherwise I might have been turned on!!”

Entering the Hasmo world from the Ealing one had introduced me to a completely new view of religion, some aspects of which really shocked me. I naively assumed that Judaism would be taught in such a positive way that pupils would be able to enter the world confident about their religion and convinced it was the right way. I had hitherto been completely unaware of the culture of fear of the secular demon. Fear of coming into contact with any thoughts that might be contaminating. Fear of anything that did not adhere to the accepted way of thinking.

I remember bouncing in one morning having watched an excellent programme on TV – with David Attenborough, I think – and singing its praises, only to find that there had been an emergency assembly forbidding the boys to watch it (which of course meant that it would now be watched by the majority of them, who otherwise wouldn’t have dreamt of doing so). I also have memories of history teacher Mr. Johnson painstakingly drawing bra and pants on every single female nude statue that appeared in the new history textbook he had ordered about Greece and Rome.

I suppose one of my biggest crimes (and I’m sure there were many) was teaching some Beatles songs to my English GCSE pupils. Happily, they were far more worldly than me and warned me of the significance of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” before Rabbi Roberg embarrassedly asked me not to teach it (how did he know what it meant when I didn’t?!)

I have to praise to the hilt the gallant boys in my son Gideon’s class who sympathized with his predicament and acted like angels for me. Gideon had begged me to take him out of Latymer and allow him to go to Hasmo with his friends and have a good time. Mr. Marks never forgave me for allowing my son to commit such Hari Kari. The rest of my pupils? Well, apart from them forcing me to run out of my classroom on a couple of humiliating occasions, shaking from head to toe in fury, to Rabbi Roberg and/or Mr. Joughin (one of the few teachers pupils were terrified of), I came out relatively unscathed.

The real miracle of Hasmonean in those times (and perhaps nowadays too) is that it managed to turn out some wonderfully articulate, upright, worthy young men, who are now proud parents and successful professionals. Some of them I have the privilege of bumping into in Israel, where we have lived since 1986. And I feel very proud that I knew and taught these “miserable wretches” . . . as most of them undoubtedly once were.

Sue Schneider, Jerusalem, October 2009.

Next on Hasmo Legends, Part XVI: 1959 School Photograph

Hasmo Legends X: Mad Dogs and English Teachers

Just as the very presence of Jews in the Middle East is anathema to fundamentalist Islam, so was the teaching of non-Limmudei Kodesh (religious studies), mathematics or science subjects repugnant to the extremist regime at Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys (maths and science were tolerated, due to their immunity from the ‘corrupting’ influences of liberalism and moral relativism).

Indeed, in the seventies and eighties, a PR position at the Zionist Federation in Damascus would have been considerably more alluring than teaching the arts at Hasmonean, and the poor bastards tasked with doing so should be more pitied than mocked.

The most to suffer from Hasmo’s philistinism were its English teachers, consisting – during my period at the school (1978-1985) – of fixtures, Ivan Marks and Jeff Soester, and fittings, Tony Pearce and Timothy Messom. (There was another English teacher, Jonathan Benjamin, who joined Hasmonean a year or so before I left, but other than considering that – as a very dark-skinned Indian Jew – he didn’t really look the part, I recall little else about him.)

Asking these gentlemen to impart their love of the English language, and literature, to Hasmo boys – who felt justified in being even more chutzpadik than they already were by what they knew to be the contemptuous attitude of the school’s Judeofascist regime towards the subjects – was, in cricketing terms, tantamount to asking Derek Pringle to bowl at Vivian Richards with his shoelaces tied together.

The closest competitor to Jonny Bokor (“the Bonnie Joker”) for the title of Hasmo’s Most Cordial Teacher – though, it has to be said, the competition was not all that fierce – must surely have been Tony Pearce, who taught us first year English. He left the school shortly afterwards, to become involved in Christian ministry. (See Hasmo Legends VIII, Parts I and II)

Perhaps the most persuasive argument for the existence of the Jewish Deity, and of the miracles that He will perform for His people, is that – in spite of Hasmonean’s Jewish ‘role models’ – Tony didn’t succeed, in his four years at Holders Hill Road, in converting any of us to “the Big J”.

The irony, of course, is that, as Jewish youngsters, we were continually being warned of the dangers of Christian missionaries . . . none of whom did any of us nearly as much damage as the assorted misfits and misanthropes charged with providing our spiritual education at Hasmonean.

The tall, bearded Timothy Messom, who replaced Tony – and who didn’t last much longer at the school – was a fundamentally decent man, though one prone to absolutely losing it on occasion (once again, usually with Elbaz . . . though he was not alone in that!)

In our first ever lesson with Mr. Messom, in the exotically named Mobile Unit (at the bottom of the playground), our new, imposing, and ever-so English, master – he was more that than “teacher” – spelt out his name:

“M – E – S – S . . . that is double S, of course . . . O – M.”

Naturally, in every subsequent lesson, some bright spark would again ask him how he spelt it . . . and Mr. Messom, in precisely the same fashion, and to our great amusement, would repeat:

“M – E – S – S . . . that is double S, of course . . . O – M.”

Hasmo legend has it that Mr. Messom had been a circus ringmaster, and that his wife had run off with the resident (or should that be “travelling”?) lion tamer. As with so many of the stories that have emanated from Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys over the years, you just couldn’t make it up.

If Messrs Pearce and Messom played nice little cameos in the annals of Hasmonean English teaching, Marks and Soester were clearly the leading men. In fact, these two gentlemen were the closest to a double act that Hasmo has ever had, their names – in tales of the institution – usually running together.

Marks and Soester taught the same discipline (at least in one sense of the word), their tenures at Hasmonean – from the early seventies to mid-nineties – largely overlapped, and they spent much of this time in adjacent classrooms, in the dilapidated former barracks mischievously rebranded the Sixth Form Block (as one commenter to melchett mike has wryly observed, “by the same Roberg-ist propaganda machine that brought us the £3 school kuppel”). 

Sixth Formers in front of the Sixth Form Block, circa 1972

Sixth Formers in front of the Sixth Form Block, circa 1972

This unedifying edifice – situated between the fiefdom of Chich’s gymnasium and the Mobile Unit (see also the photograph in Hasmo Legends V) – had apparently, in the mid-seventies, been condemned as unsafe and insanitary, boarded up, and earmarked for demolition. But, by the time I arrived at Holders Hill Road, in 1978, the boards had been removed, and the Block designated for the exclusive use of Marks and Soester . . . the lucky so-and-sos!

When Mr. Soester became an extra in the late eighties BBC sitcom Brush Strokes – injudiciously, in view of the extra ‘ammunition’ it provided the already well-armed boys (though one can perhaps forgive his longing to escape his daily reality) – pupils would hum its theme tune as he walked into class.

This insolence would then spread to the adjacent classroom of Mr. Marks, who, on one occasion, was complimented (by another commenter to melchett mike) for his wonderful performance the evening before. His wit was rewarded with “a savage attack to [the] head with a hardback book”.

Mr. Soester’s opting to be an extra was rather apt. If DJ was Bond baddie Blofeld and Rabbi Greenberg Batman’s The Penguin (his actual Hasmo nickname), the considerably more likeable, if somewhat unremarkable, Marks and Soester – with their seventies blazers, tank tops, and polyester slacks – were the unfashionable detective extras, in the background at their NYPD desks, on seventies US cop shows like Kojak and Starsky & Hutch.

Rather conveniently, seeing as his son Simon is a regular on melchett mike– and has made all kinds of veiled, though good humoured, threats in relation to what I write about his “old man” – Jeff Soester didn’t teach me much at Hasmonean (emphasis on “me”, Simon, not “much”!) His classroom, however, was clearly rather chaotic, and I recall him being a rather edgy gentleman (as if that is any surprise).

Jeff SoesterI have one particularly vivid recollection of “Jeff” walking up the playground from the Sixth Form Block, while my classmate Abie Cohen – seated in the middle of our Form 2AB photograph in a beige jumper – performed a Mizrachi (North African Jewish)-style dance around him. Abie was whirling the palms and backs of his hands extremely close to Jeff’s eyes and nose, no doubt intending the excitable teacher to spill his precariously piled books. This somewhat odd spectacle has stayed with me to this day, because it somehow inexplicably captured the unique brand of Hasmo chutzpah.

But Jeff, too, apparently had a mischievous side. A commenter to melchett mike has related how, as a young Israeli boy new to Hasmonean, Jeff told him: “Go to the staff room – you can use the middle staircase – knock on the door, and ask for ‘Freddy’.” The door was opened by History teacher, Mr. Lawrence, who handed over a silver tray with a white plimsoll placed neatly on top, which the rather naïve boy promptly delivered to his ‘executioner’.

It was Ivan Marks, however, who was responsible for the major part of my English education at Hasmonean.

Ivan MarksI recall Mr. Marks fondly, not just because his was my favourite subject (it didn’t face much competition), but because he was one of the few teachers at Hasmonean who actually attempted to treat us like adults. This was especially true for those of us who took English Literature A Level, which presented the first opportunity for us, largely repressed, Jewish boys to explore sexual themes through literature . . . an opportunity we rarely missed.

Mr. Marks, unlike so many of his Hasmo colleagues, also had a sense of humour. Often, even post-frenzy, he would barely be able to conceal a smile, which he would further attempt to draw attention away from by characteristically poking his spectacles back up his ski-jump nose.

It was these mock frenzies, perhaps together with his mane of lank jet black hair, which earned Mr. Marks the rather undeserved nickname “Mad Dog”. His bark was far louder than his bite, and I don’t recall him ever administering anything more rabid than a firm prod on the neck with the spine of his textbook.

York NotesMr. Marks was frustrated by the “study aid” mentality of Hasmo boys. Rather than appreciating the rich source texts, we would buy up Dillons’ stock of Pan Study Aids, and York and Brodie’s Notes. For English Literature O Level, my classmate, Grant Morgan, went so far as to purchase Macbeth in comic form. He memorised the text by rote, and would walk up to puzzled boys in the playground – some of whom didn’t even know him – proudly proclaiming “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” He got an E.

Another Hasmo friend, Daniel Kelly, winds me up to this day about my predilection for study aids (ironic, I remind him, for a boy who had a respected Dayan as a grandfather, but who opted – during our time at Manchester University – to study Modern Hebrew, with non-Jewish undergraduates who knew not their zayin from their chet).

Mr. Marks was also continually frustrated by the idiotic machinations of Hasmonean’s religious elite – which would, inter alia, ban literature considered too sexually explicit from the syllabus and school library – and he would say so.

He would often – somewhat tongue-in-cheek, once again – take these frustrations out on the more religious boys. “It’s always the frum ones” was his oft-heard lament. And “Finn,” he would say, on one memorable occasion, “just because your father drives around Golders Green in a Volvo, it doesn’t mean you can do what you want in my class.”

Mr. Soester shared Mr. Marks’s irritation with frummers, handing back work with the line “I don’t want to hear everyone screaming, ‘Yitzi, Shmuli, I got half a mark more than you!’” (a request which, of course, had the opposite effect).

Ironically, two of Mr. Marks’s star English pupils, Simon Harris – who left the school a number of years before us, but with whom he kept in touch – and Jonathan Levene, from our year, both became significant frummers (the former becoming Chief Rabbi of Ireland). Mr. Marks must have been most disappointed.

I heard, some years ago, that Mr. Marks had not been well. I sincerely hope that he has made a full recovery and that, if he has dipped into melchett mike (as I understand Mr. Soester has), he has found at least something which he considers worthy of his considerable efforts . . . in an institution which didn’t deserve him.

Next on Hasmo Legends, Part XI: “Big Al(an)” Walters