[Followed by A (Hasmo) Son’s Introduction]
Out of the Friern pan . . . into the fire
Saturday, 19th November 1966, 6.55 p.m.
Have been seconded to Hasmonean Grammar School. Zemla (or Birch) [local education authority officers responsible for Friern Barnet County School] apparently heard of the vacancy, told Stanton, Hasmonean head, my story [presumably disciplinary problems at Friern Barnet], who nevertheless was not put off. The vacancy, Grieves [Headmaster at Friern Barnet] said, was to have been advertised in the J.C., but it wasn’t, because it was only a part-time post. I saw Stanton, and he agreed to take me. He seems a decent, pipe-smoking type. Said he didn’t think I would have any disciplinary problems, of the kind I have at F.B.C.S. Halvai.
Thursday, 22nd December 1966, 8.55 p.m.
Second day of holidays. Went to Hasmonean to look round, at Stanton’s suggestion (I had also seen him at his home previously, one evening, at his request).
Stanton, when I saw him chez lui, had asked about “outside activities”, and then said he’d like a “cercle Français” or “cercle polyglote” resuscitating. Apparently the idea is I would run this in the dinner-hour (which is sie wei sli short enough – 55 mins – the idea is the kids would eat their sandwiches in 10-15 mins, & then come along) every week. Stanton says the idea is – which I agree – that the kids should realise languages are something you speak, not something you pass exams in. But if I’m supposed to speak French/Hebrew once a week . . . ! However, perhaps I’ll manage. I must make an effort – Stanton said he would endeavour to maintain my allowance [from previous post], though it might be necessary to let it lapse for a time. It seems to me that my success or otherwise in running the Cercle will decide whether he thinks I’m worth the allowance or not.
I have been given a very easy timetable at H.G.S. – 13 free periods ( I notice that teachers are asked to “sit-in” when other members of staff are absent) and I think I must arrange for hospitalisation [for a minor operation], if any, to take place in holidays.
As a Hasmonean I must now be Orthodox – and keep my mouth shut. But before you start jeering at me, H.L. [an abbreviation frequently-used, standing for hypocrite lecteur, Baudelaire’s hypocritical reader] – I told Stanton my theology was my own. I don’t have to tell him I think Judaism is a load of poppycock, since I don’t think it. The way of life of the school is for staff to wear kappels and come to school wearing a hat, and I’ve not the slightest objection to conforming.
Saturday, 31st December 1966, 10.15 p.m.
I can’t get down to thinking about and preparing for Stanton’s Cercle Polyglote (but I will call it Linguists’ Circle). He said he had some ideas.
Sunday, 15th January 1967, 3 p.m.
Started at H.G.S. Difficult to make a fair appraisal of the school, too much influenced by externals perhaps: the cramped staffroom compared with the spacious staffroom of F.B., the rather drab hall compared with F.B.’s impressive hall. In any case, the main thing is – I think – that I shall be able to teach here without dreading any lesson, and that I shall never need to pronounce – let alone use – the word “stick” or “cane”.
Of course, I have to face the fact that, towards the end of my teaching life, I am at the bottom of the Hasmonean hierarchy, but since I’ve always been at or near the bottom of the school hierarchy, I can’t worry too much about this.
Rather moving, after seventeen years of Christian assemblies, to hear the boys singing Ma Tovu – yes, the eyes misted over. But still felt guilty about the separatist aspect; if we want to be separate, then we must have a separate country. Unless, indeed, we accept the position of a national minority – but has there ever been a national (as opposed to a religious) minority in which relations between minority and the dominant, governing majority have been good? I do not think we can consider ourselves a religious minority, since the majority of Jews are only nominally religious, as are the majority of Christians.
Meanwhile, I find myself trying to conform more and more, observance-wise at any rate. I would indeed like to go to shool on Shabbes without fail and getting there on time.
Monday, 6th February 1967, 10.10 p.m.
Presumably I’m in at the HGS. Have been given 4A as form. Some of them tell me they have reputation as tough form, but I see no louts among them. When I told them I was taking over, I let slip the word “induction”, which they pounced on. In a trice they had drawn up an order of service. Actually, they davenned a Mincha de circonstance, repeating the Amidah, loud responses, etc. I felt it would be improper to intervene once they had started, and put on an indignant act about being reverent, etc.
Have changed the induction service to a conversazione, which Eli (“Acker”), the form captain, has duly affiche’d in the form room – which has duly attracted good-humoured comment from rest of staff.
Wednesday, 8th February 1967, 9.15 p.m.
This lunch hour 4A welcomed me with a conversazione. I believe I had said about a week ago “Well, I’m taking over from Mr Ordman (their previous form-mentor: a physicist who takes a shiur(!) at the school in the mornings and hence is not really available for form duties), I don’t suppose an official induction is necessary.” That was enough. Before you could say Ashrei Yoshvei they had seized on the idea of an induction service, floral and choral. However, on the way home I realised that “induction” was no go, and managed to switch to a conversazione. One of the boys’ mother made a cake inscribed J.W. and there was another inscribed 4A. “Acker” (his proper name is Eli Pick), the form captain, sported a topper for the occasion, there were two photographers and somebody taping my speech. “Acker” said there was a passage in the Musaf Rosh Hashana service, after the blowing of the shofar, that was familiar to them all: Am cabanim rachmanoo – their teacher should show them mercy, too, as they couldn’t be expected to be good all the time. He drew attention to the roshei tevot – A-C-R = Acker, which I thought was very good.
Eli "Acker" Pick welcomes Joseph Witriol, the latest Hasmo "lamb," to 4A
Responding, I said how moved I had been to hear Ma Tovu on the first day of term – my first day at the school – at assembly. I found my voice momentarily breaking. I said that Mr Balin (the only other master present – they all received invitations, but of course I didn’t expect any of them – even Sam [Balin and dad were distant cousins] – to sacrifice their meagre lunch-hour) had said I would find it “different” with Jewish boys and though I did not distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish pupils, nevertheless, when I heard Ma Tovu, it was plus fort que moi.
Monday, 20th February 1967, approx 5.30 p.m.
Not all honey at H.G.S., though I still can’t see it not being tolerably viable, whereas at Friern Barnet (or any other Sec Mod. or Comprehensive school) viability would be problematical, or at best, would be achieved only in the way one achieves viability in a prison.
Tuesday, 14th March 1967, 7.55 p.m.
Went to bed about 12.30 a.m. yesterday. Result – wanted to close eyes all day. But have noticed, when tired, below weather, fly much less off the handle than when feeling rested, completely fit. (Strange, dragooned into a brains trust this dinner hour. One of the questions – a good one: “What do you think is the most expressive idiom in English? Which is your favourite idiom?” Could think of nothing at all – wish had been able to think of “fly off the handle”.)
About the brains trust. Sam was originally to be one of the team, but following an offensive criticism of him in a sixth-form news-sheet he had mentioned in the staff-room that he would withdraw from the team. Frankly, I had not expected him to keep his word, but he evidently had. Dr Lewis, a Gentile member of staff, who was to have been one of the team, had evidently forgotten his engagement, and I was summoned by a boy to take his place. I agreed on principle, and in spite of my tiredness – not so much tiredness, as the feeling I couldn’t keep my eyes open, I acquitted myself reasonably well. On reflection, perhaps I should have declined, in sympathy with Sam, but I’m pretty sure Mitchell Taylor, who was in the chair, was present in the staff room when the offensive comment was discussed, and if he didn’t see any reason to back out, I don’t see why I should have. Someone had reported on a football match with another school which Sam had reff’d (pretty good going at sixty, all said and done) and had written: “Mr Balin, who knows little about football . . .” I have – genuinely – every sympathy with Sam over this, but as I say, I don’t think I was called upon to take any action, and my participation was a morale booster.
Sunday, 26th March 1967, 4 p.m.
Winter, who teaches Maths at H.G.S., is a buddy of Stanton’s and a macher type, asked me if I would do a class at Kinloss Gardens (Finchley Synagogue Hebrew classes) vice Mrs Gerber (the sister-in-law of Dr Gerber, also – Dr Gerber – on H.G.S. staff) while she is having a baby. Fee £1 an hour “off the record”. I said I liked to declare everything. He said, “You’re a mug. Y [my “Y”] is an accountant and he doesn’t declare everything.” He went on to say that Rabbi X on the school staff had justified halachically tax-evasion.
Sonnerfeld [footnote reads “Schonfeld, I mean – or Shonfeld. Schonfeld, I think.”] confirmed my appointment at H.G.S., with grade I post. Meno male [a favourite Italian expression, usually meaning “thank goodness,” though, sometimes, “it could have been worse”], H.G.S. is not all honey by any means – I have found myself taking boys out of classroom by scruff of neck, calling another boy – quite a nice lad, really – a “yob” (which he resented deeply) – but it is fair to say that if I prepare my lessons reasonably I can cope and even get some satisfaction from the job.
I am taking French, German and Modern Hebrew with the fourth year – “B” groups in F. and M.H., just the one group in German – and presumably will carry on into the G.C.E. year. I feel, that with reasonable luck, I will get a fair share of passes in all three subjects. Possibly no merit of mine, except in French, where I feel reasonably conscientious and reasonably competent teaching will get reasonable results with reasonable pupils (reasonable in the sense that they conscientiously do H.W. which I conscientiously set and mark; they may muck about in class, but only when I haven’t a complete grip on the teaching situation – how like an educationist he talks).
I have committed myself to giving a drooshe at next Friday’s assembly – every Friday a volunteer master talks about the next day’s sidra. My sidra is Shemini which concerns itself with sacrifices or impurities or something and – what I shall talk about – the dietary laws in Lev XI. Can I pick holes in them!
I would not now play [tennis] on Shabbes. I want to play the game as far as Shabbes is concerned. I told Sonnerfeld [see above] I was a shomer Shabbes. He interviewed me a month or so ago. I found him not the ogre he has been alleged to be in the past. He said “You won’t find one of the staff here who aren’t froomers.” I told him about the Borough Shool [which dad attended in his youth] and he mentioned something to the effect that he supposed I knew you mustn’t carry on Shabbes. I said of course, and he said you didn’t learn that from Rosenbaum [the Minister at Borough Synagogue]. I said I didn’t guarantee not to carry a handkerchief in my pockets – he said he wasn’t going to look in my pockets, which is really extraordinarily liberal.
Monday, 3rd April 1967, 10.30 p.m.
My drooshe went down well. Perhaps I will copy it out here if I get a chance. On the morning I deviated slightly from script. Stanton said “Excellent”, and there were plenty of Yishor Koach’s. Again, Meno Male. Sam B. was conspicuous by his non-reference to my drooshe, but he told me that he disapproved of lay staff preaching, in principle, so – fair enough. My review on Heine – commissioned in May last! – appeared [in The Jewish Chronicle] last Friday also attracting publicity at the school for me.
Monday, 17th April 1967, 9.30 p.m.
Term ended on Friday with no mishaps. The reports which I twice thought would be lost, turned up, and Stanton signed without comment. Two open evenings. Rather moving, the concern shown by parents in their kids. Some parents’ remarks rather revealing – Mr X never seems to give them homework, Mr Y is regularly drunk (one had heard something to this effect about Mr Y from the kids, but had not observed it oneself).
Winter was involved in a car smash on leaving the parents’ evening last Wednesday. I saw him in bed, to get my form’s reports from him. He has stitches in his legs, but is irrepressible – a slim energetic boisterous young grandfather.
Much to be done, but I know, of course, I shall not do it. No moral fibre. Had even thought of getting to shool in mornings so as to be dressed and ready for work by 9 a.m. Not of course that this would be on. Yet Frank, senior master of HGSB, gets to the morning minyan at the school (0815), has the “breakfast” (Cereal, bread ‘n butter ‘n jam), is taking boys on few days walking tour, often has a lunch-hour lesson – and he must be in his sixties (he too a grandfather).
Sunday, 7th May 1967, 9.45 p.m.
Started school, which now finishes 4 p.m. Fridays. I have only one free period, now, on Friday, which makes this the hardest day.
Thursday, 18th May 1967, 8.45 p.m.
Difficulties at school, but if I face up to (– to you H.L.) doing 3-4 hours marking a week next year, feel I can get by. For this term, with my 13 free periods, 1-2 hours marking should be adequate.
Thursday, 25th May 1967, 8.40 p.m.
Israel crisis, perhaps most serious yet.
Armchair strategists, geo-politicians in staff room; tehillim at school minchas and assembly. As Sam Balin said, that’ll put the wind up Nasser. But, in fairness, it does no harm, and if I don’t make the gesture of flying out and grabbing a rifle there is no point in my condemning tehillim – and I am getting to know the tune of Esa Enai [I will lift up mine eyes. Ps. 121].
Feel humiliated about all this. As I told Gamliel, an Israeli on the staff, feel there will always be Arab trouble. Basically, I want to be the big “English” brother and don’t want to give the Israelis an opportunity for heroics or martyrdom.
Monday, 5th June 1967, 8 p.m.
War broke out this morning. What may happen does not bear thinking on. An Arab Sheikh said on T.V. the Arab’s aim was to exterminate Israel. Harrison, a goy on the staff, said you can’t exterminate three million people. Hitler exterminated six million.
Friday, 14th July 1967, approx 7.30 p.m.
Gave my drooshe today on Parshes Bollok (sic – but I pronounced it Bay-lack and Bullock (first syllable as in “but”)). Tony Brown said he’d never had any trouble with Parshes Bollock. The double entendre was new to Meyer; I notice he pronounced it Boòleck yesterday morning. Strange, I spent literally months thinking what form I should give the drooshe, trying to draw topical analogies. In the event I kept it all anodyne.
Anyway, mood of euphoria now. Nine working days to go, and then, as usual, won’t know what to do first in holiday.
[Coming soon on melchett mike . . . The Witriol Diaries, Part II (of V): Yankings, Twankings, Cuffs and Clouts.]
A (Hasmo) Son’s Introduction
My father, Joseph Witriol (1912-2002, Hasmonean 1966-1977), kept a hand-written Journal from 1957 for around forty years, running to some 17 volumes.
Some of what he wrote is highly personal, but there is also the trivia of daily life; the detailed observations of people and places; the sometimes extraordinarily analytical retelling of events; the philosophical, religious, political, cultural, and linguistic insights and musings. And, of course, his wife Edith (1922-2006), children (myself, Philip, born 1959, Max, born 1960, and Susannah, born 1963), other family, friends and work all feature. All expressed with a deep sense of morality and humanity, lightened though by an urbane, self-deprecating, cynical, and occasionally, ahem, vitriolic style.
"Thank you for the umbrella . . . ": My bar mitzvah speech, in-between mum and dad (Woodside Park Synagogue, 20th February 1972)
The overarching theme is the feeling of being a failure. Among the many things this ‘failure’ did was to write his (as yet unpublished) memoirs, Also Lived – An Autobiography of a Failure, chronicling his life up to the time the Journal begins. His hope, often expressed in the Journal, was that his children (especially I, his first-born) would not repeat his mistakes and would make something of their lives.
However, had I not stumbled across the superb melchett mike blog (in true failure style, from Googling my brother’s name during an aimless, late night surfing session), I doubt whether I would have even thought of ‘uploading’ these Hasmonean-related entries. More typically for me, another ‘project’, to transcribe and eventually publish in some form the work probably closest to my father’s heart, Mumme Looshen – An Anatomy of Yiddish, still remains uncompleted more than four years after I began working on it.
A recurrent theme of dad’s school-related (both Hasmonean and previous schools) entries is the struggle to control his temper in the face of pupil indiscipline, and his more than occasional recourse to physical punishment. This may shock even the most non-PC of readers. In dad’s (partial) defence, I would point out that this was in the late Sixties/early Seventies, before the enlightened, student-centred attitude of our own day.
Entries have not been altered unless an error is obvious or the meaning completely obscured. Indeed, dad sometimes noted his misspellings and wondered if they were Freudian slips. The occasional solecism, for example, is, perhaps, natural in an entry usually compiled after a day’s work. There are also minor inconsistencies which may reflect changes of style over time (such as various spellings of compound words, such as “staff room”). He sometimes, as in writing about the induction, in Part I , inadvertently repeated himself. And dad was not given to short paragraphs. Or sentences.
I have overcome my mixed feelings about printing ‘juicier’ items. Given the passage of time and the nature of such revelations, I have opted for disclosure. However, where something is too sensitive, I omit. Sometimes, dad would use a person’s initials if a comment was derogatory. He may have foreseen the possibility of his entries reaching a wider audience. He did refer to his children and grandchildren reading it decades hence and in one passage stated we should be allowed to communicate or publish (my emphasis) their contents. Reading some passages (for example, the description of colleagues) I am also tempted to feel he was not just writing for himself.
I have tried to keep my comments [in square brackets, thus] to a minimum. I rarely explain words and expressions merely because they are dated or obscure. Against my own deepest waffling instincts, I avoid explanation or interpretation. Occasionally, dad imagined how a future Ph.D. student/editor of his Journal (and his Autobiography) would exhaustively footnote a minor point. I hope the reader will get a feel for my dad’s character through his words without any ‘prompting’ by me. Nevertheless, in addition to the general remark already made about corporal punishment, let me break my own rule and make one other: In public, and when speaking with us at home, dad was very modest (and not in a false way). In this medium, however, he did indulge in self-praise from time to time.
Putting his feet up: Dad, photographed for the school magazine at our North Finchley home, on his retirement (July 1977)
Dad was a polyglot, etymologist and linguist who, without affectation, frequently used foreign words and phrases in his writings. Above all, he was a lover of, and expert in, Classical and Modern Hebrew. As well as a superb academic knowledge of Yiddish, he had grown up with a mother whose first language it was. The aphorisms of mumme looshen were imprinted on him. I keep his transliteration of Hebrew and Yiddish words (italicised for ease), even though these may sometimes seem unusual to the modern reader. The accurate copying of foreign words and expressions – whether in French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Spanish or Yiddish – is limited by the original’s handwriting and my lack of knowledge of the languages. Rather than labouring to decipher them myself, I hope the meaning is usually inferable(ish) or that research by the still-curious reader will yield results.
Philip Witriol (Hasmonean 1970-1977), Muswell Hill, N10