Tag Archives: Tony Pearce

The Witriol Diaries, Part V (Hasmo Legends XXIV)

Goodbye Joe

Thursday, 11th December 1975, 9 p.m.

A peculiar development in the article on Jewish Forenames [submitted to the JC, for which dad was an occasional contributor]. I wrote later on asking Geoffrey D. Paul [Features/Deputy Editor] to print G-d, Israe-l, etc. because I wanted to avoid offending my Hasmo colleagues. I mention all this because at the “naming” ceremony at the School Rabbi Schonfeld mentioned en passant the “trefa Jewish Chronicle” (it has mildly criticised him in the past) and last Monday, I think, Philip happened to mention that a master had told him that boys ought to get their parents to subscribe to the Jewish Tribune because the Jewish Chronicle was “anti-Orthodox”. Anyway, the Monday night I kept on worrying about this and got into a panic. Could Schonfeld get me sacked for writing for the J.C.? (As a member of the staff of an Orthodox school he might be able to use my writing for an “anti-Orthodox” paper as an excuse. He might not give this as a reason, the story to me might be that he was re-deploying staff. First thing in the morning I wrote to Paul asking him not to publish the article.)

The fear of the sack may be far-fetched, and although both Ellman and Sam Balin are over 65 and employed part-time, the School has the power, as has the Borough Council, to retire me compulsorily anyway at 65 [dad was 63 at the time].

All this is probably grotesquely alarmist, but at the least, I think, Philip would have been exposed to anti-J.C. comments by certain members of the staff who take him, so that I still felt I did the right thing.

Sunday, 21st December 1975

Felt a bit off-colour on going into school on Friday morning, last day of term, but survived the morning. Daniel Rickman told to sit by the side of the HM in assembly, in honour of his having gained open scholarship to Oxford. Must plug this for Philip and Max, the latter is again “creating” about leaving Hasmo, but I hope I will manage to get him to stay for the last two years.

Monday, 18th January 1976, 2.30 p.m.

Spent about 5 hrs last night and this morning marking, mainly mock MH. Not more than six at the most of my boys stand a chance of a “C” – AM [Albert Meyer] has a class of about 35 at the moment. If he has six or more who he thinks don’t stand a chance of a “C”, it might give me an extra three free periods – my six could join his class. On verra.

Wednesday, 17th February 1976, 8.45 p.m.

Bad day at school. Clouted no one, but unseemly shouting: “How much does your father pay to keep you at the school?” – no wonder there’s so much scandal attached to the school.

Sunday, 21st March 1976, 8 p.m.

Have just returned from bunfight at Hasmo celebrating marriage of Dr Schonfeld’s son. He seems a charming boy, apparently left the school about a year before I came. Wished him mazal-tov, to which he responded something which I couldn’t quite catch. I asked him, and he said it was boorekh tihyeh – which I suppose is more sensible than saying “Thank you!” or “please G-d by you”.

I introduced myself to Dr Schonfeld, saying I taught at Hasmo. “Ah yes, you teach science”. “Not quite,” I replied, “modern languages, no doubt there is a connection”. Ugh! As E. [my mum] said afterwards, it would have been tolerable if I had said, at least, that I taught French scientifically.

Easter Monday, 19th April 1976, 4.30 p.m.

A fine day, have been doing nothing except reading Maariv. I have this idea that when we get back to school on the Monday, Meyer may ask me to give the Hebrew Yom Atzmaut speech. I should say the odds are about 33-1 that he won’t [sic, will], but just in case, I want to get into the feel of things.

Wednesday, 5th May 1976, 11 p.m.

Today, Yom Atzmaut, the school was closed by order of Dr Schonfeld. It has caused a bit of a scandal. The Israel Society at the school had invited the Chief Rabbi, and so I heard, suggested to Schonfeld, more or less, that perhaps he would care to come along too . . .

Monday, 12th July 1976, 8.45 p.m.

I do not want to drive everybody mad, but today has been better [pain in his left foot had persisted since mid-May]. Can only keep my fingers crossed. Symptoms still present, but milder, perhaps much milder. Anyway, although I hired a car to go to school this morning, and the morning itself was easy (first period cancelled for some reason; for my normal second period – Extra French, a difficult period – I was asked to take five visiting French Jewish boys, and I continued with them in the 3rd period, which I would normally have had free; period 4 I attempted to teach the 3rd year – needn’t have done, could just have said get on with something quietly, which is what in fact I did do period 5, 2nd year French) – although, as I say, the morning was easy, the fact remains that I carried out a normal programme afterwards.

Tuesday, 13th July 1976, 8.30 p.m.

Bad again. Sod. Although finished school at 4.15 today, in terms of physical exertion, or strain on foot/leg, yesterday was much worse.

Wednesday, 14th July 1976, 10.20 a.m.

Yesterday did a lot of standing, attempting to teach instead of telling the kids to do what they liked, quietly, as would have been legitimate at this stage of the term. Did not feel too uncomfortable while doing so – at any rate did not say I ought-not-to-be-in which I usually find myself unable to avoid saying when I’m under the weather.

Thursday, 15th July 1976, 7 p.m.

Very easy morning at school. Went by car, and sat in for two periods only, rest of morning paper work in staffroom.

Monday, 19th July 1976, 10.30 p.m.

A full Monday, no car. My impression is that there is rather a little less actual pain.

Wednesday, 21st July 1976, 11.30 p.m.

Usual programme. Caught bus outside Ashby’s in High Road, walked to school from bus stop outside Allandale Avenue. No teaching, except, ex gratia, last period, when I really did succeed, I think, in teaching some 23 boys Ah vous dirai-je maman (my excellent book of songs borrowed from the library explained that the tune went to “Twinkle, twinkle little star”. I had hoped I would be able to say to one of the [i.e. his] children, at any rate, “Play this for me on the piano [me]/violin [my brother, Max]/clarinet [my sister, Susannah] – but a nekhtiger took. If I had enough energy, I could browbeat Philip or Max into playing the music, but the result wouldn’t be worth the energy I’d have to expend).

Saturday, 24th July 1976, 10.45 p.m.

Well, I managed to get through the term. The big question is will I be able to get through a full winter/spring term. Summer term is always a cinch: the fifth form go on study leave at least six weeks before the end of term, which gives me three extra free periods, four weeks from end of term the exams start, which means that teaching practically finishes. There are examination questions to get banda’d [copied], scripts to mark, reports to do, but all this is sedentary and no problem.

Friday, 27th August 1976, 1 p.m.

Max’s “O” level results came this morning: AA Maths; A Eng Lit (!); B Eng, Phys, Chem; C French (B oral); C Brit Con, Art. The twit had put a 6½p stamp on the s.a.e., so his results arrived after his pals (who presumably had had the sense to frank their envelopes 1st class, with an 8½p stamp) had got theirs.

Anyway, it’s a bit of a weight off my mind, I had been preparing myself for his getting a D in French. This wouldn’t have been a disaster, as I told him, but it would have been a nuisance – I think it would have been advisable, had he failed, to re-enter him in Jan. He himself was quite ala keyfik (2nd world war army slang, Arabic – in case any of the children read this = couldn’t care less, indifferent), I brought him up the envelope while he was in bed, and he opened it with a comment “B in English” – my hands would have been trembling.

One of his pals Stephen Gerber, got 6 “A”s – somehow, I thought of his pals as being all nice lads but, shall we say, non-academic.

Monday, 20th September 1976, 9 p.m.

I can get through a week’s stint, meno male, but there is still some pain and discomfort. Lots of odd bods have appeared: Mrs P. who came along last year to take over some “C” French groups (leaving me with the “D”) seems now to have consolidated her position, she takes a small (3 boys) 6th form group; a Mr Lesser takes MH and Fr. and/or German, a Mr Pearce takes Fr. and Germ., and today a Mr Staiger [unclear] turned up wanting to teach MH and is being taken on – or consideration will be given to his being taken on – just like that. So I shall be expendable next year.

In the evening Jonathan Martin came. He was a contemporary of Philip at school. I remember him as being a particularly black bête noire when I had him in the 3rd form, then in the 5th he came into my C set, did no work at all, but sat as good as gold. If this was because he did not want to embarrass a friend (Philip) whose father taught at the school (or embarrass a teacher with whose son he was friendly) he showed more tact than any of Max’s pals did – or perhaps I should say rather more tact than most of Max’s pals did.

He got O levels only in Eng, Eng Lit and Biology (the last-named “fascinated” him, he said – he couldn’t “relate” to physics or chemistry). He wants to take up male nursing, a commendably off-beat choice as I told him. He’s quite a charming boy, well mannered – thanked E. for tea, said to Philip, as he went off to do something to his moped, he would be back to say good-night to Mrs Witriol. He is working pro-tem at a book shop in the West End.

Monday, 6th December 1976, 6.30 p.m.

A fairly strenuous day at school, but fortunately it didn’t go off too badly. Free till 1020, then four periods till lunch break, then did some marking after lunch (instead of my usual shloof), then three periods after lunch. Period 6, the period after lunch, was in “the Old Library” a room next to the staff marking room (with members of staff marking intently eavesdropping) and the office (to which WWS seems to betake himself these days). WWS came in: “A noisy class Mr Witriol.” Actually I had taken about 20 kids for French for a double period in the morning in the same room, and had flattered myself on having the situation under control. In the afternoon I had, I suppose, 35 kids for MH – the usual shlepping in of chairs. Anyway, WWS sat in and was privileged to take part in my MH lesson. At the end he said it was a great privilege to learn Hebrew – not “to learn Hebrew with Mr Witriol”, as he should have said of course. It was just as well that I had, by chance, the lesson well prepared – I had given the kids back a test they had done, which I had marked, sod it, and of course the lesson went like clockwork.

Saturday, 5th February 1977, 7.15 p.m.

It looks like the chopper is going to chop. About a fortnight ago Stanton showed me a letter from the office in connection with 2000 unemployed teachers in Barnet and suggesting Mr Witriol’s position be examined. W.S. said I had come (or was coming) to the end of the road. I said I hoped not, and that I had three children to put through University. He said I would be in a parlous (rather nice rococo touch) position financially if I could not carry on. I agreed. He will play on replaceability-only-with-difficulty, though in point of fact he can get plenty of teachers for MH, German and French.

Tuesday, 31st May 1977, 9.55 p.m.

Chadwick, who is about 62, has resigned. He hates Hasmo, though I think he was lucky to get a scale IV post. He is a good teacher – geography and maths – of the old school. He has a degree, but I do not believe he has ever taught the sixth, perhaps not even the fifth. He says he’s not worried about the financial side, says he’s had offers of jobs, but in any case can draw unemployment benefit. In his case he’s probably right, as he will probably get a pension of half his salary, whereas I got a pension of only about three eighths.

Meyer, too, is resigning. This time apparently for real. Seems he was befrunzelt because he was not invited to a meeting of senior staff, though as Nachum Ordman pointed out, he can’t be expected to receive an invitation to a senior staff meeting if he’s only on part-time. I had been thinking I would have to have two months’ notice, but it has been put to me that as a part-timer I am entitled to only one month’s. So I must assume that I cannot avoid the chop. Susannah [daughter] mentioned that one of her teachers [at Henrietta Barnet] had said that Barnet Council would not be replacing retired teachers (which makes sense, if staffing economics are to be effected). In that case who will take MH at Hasmo if Meyer, myself and Heckleman [unclear] (the shaliach, whom I have not seen this week, and whose tour of duty ends, I believe, at the end of term) go? There are other teachers who could “have a go”, but I doubt if they are as well qualified as AM or myself and, it only occurred to me some weeks ago, when AM put me in touch with an Israeli girl pupil whom I am coaching for A Level MH, that AM himself would not know how to start teaching A level MH literature.

Monday, 13th June 1977, 9.15 p.m.

First day back at school, without any “trouble”. It’s true I had only to teach for five periods, by kindness of the 5th form who are taking their “O” levels, but on the Friday before mid-term I had only one period to take but was unable to avoid – I can’t remember whether I actually clouted a boy or whether there was an unseemly fracas.

Sunday, 24th July 1977, 8.30 p.m.

I perhaps ought to have written out my retirement oration and memorised it. I have started on bits and pieces, but am just bearing in mind some brief heads and will trust to luck.

Will present R. Gothold, in charge of stock, with a jar of chalk “accumulated over a period of time” – “bit of a wag”, as Philip would say.

Friday, 29th July 1977, 4 p.m.? (watch stopped, can’t be bothered to go downstairs to check) [I cannot help but note the symbolism which, untypically, seems to have escaped dad’s eye for such things]

Well, I’m fully retired, as a schoolteacher anyway.

The retirement went off more or less ok. But neither Chadwick nor I were asked to sit on the platform, which I thought a bit much even for Hasmo. I followed Chadwick into the back of the hall, hardly believing it possible that we would not be asked to go on to the platform. Stanton mentioned from the platform that we were leaving, and David Solomons spoke about Chadwick, and Gerry Laver [Garry Lauer?] spoke very briefly about me. All I heard him say was that I was leaving a “deposit”, viz. Max – he meant pledge? hostage? I then told Chadwick we should go on to the platform. Chaddy said his career had been a sandwich (laughter, the younger kids are not familiar with the metaphor): Army – school (his previous school) – Hasmo. He told me in the staffroom he wanted to convey they’d both been traumatic experiences. As I had imagined, he spoke briefly – though I had been prepared for even a couple of sentences: good luck, thank you – which meant I couldn’t go to town. However, a few kids and members of staff said it was O.K., even D.J. quietly wished me shkoich and Baddiel said it was a change to hear someone saying something – a brokh tse de yoohren.


Postscript: Lid off Hasmonean

Sunday, 23rd October 1977

Hasmonean has been in the news in the J.C. recently, so concocted an article “Hasmo” this p.m. [for published article, click on link below to dad’s yellowing cuttings book]. About 1½ hours flat. Suppose it will be rejected, pathetic how every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to be able to get something in, but I can’t. However, it shows, I suppose, I’m still alive.

Sunday, 30th October 1977, 6.15 p.m.

Should I have written the article for the J.C.? Philip read out their “billing”, in their issue of 28/10, for November: the attractions for the issue of Nov 4 included “Hasmonean: A View from the Inside by a Teacher”. It is mildly critical of the school, I speak of the extreme Orthodox right wingers, but the only “hard” criticisms I make are of the attempt to get boys in the football team to have some form of covering on their heads and the abandonment of the attempt to get boys to shower because “Nudity is repellent to us” (as one mother had written).

Did I do it because I wanted cheap publicity, wanted to see my name in print at last? Yes. So what.

I suppose it will embarrass Max. Fortunately, Stanton has signed his UCCA form. Perhaps, in a way, it’s just as well this hadn’t occurred to me, or I probably wouldn’t have submitted the article, and I don’t see why I should refrain from allowing the J.C. to publish two articles which they would have been prepared to accept.

“Lid off Hasmonean” by Joseph Witriol (Jewish Chronicle, November 4, 1977)

[For The Witriol Diaries, Parts I – followed by A (Hasmo) Son’s IntroductionII, III and IV, click here, here, here and here. Thank you to Philip Witriol for transcribing the Diaries, and for his patience with my ever-so-slightly obsessive attention to detail!]


Hasmo Legends XIV: Conversations with Osher

[Followed by Osher: The Postscript (featuring melchett mike‘s Osher Poll)]

A couple of hours after posting Hasmo Legends XIII: A Legend (Osher) Strikes Back, I received a phone call from a fellow ex-Hasmo Tel Avivi (single, no dogs) who couldn’t believe the coup of having Osher Baddiel on melchett mike:

“If you could have chosen anyone,” Jonny said excitedly, “Osher would have been in the top five . . . perhaps even the top one!”

And over two hundred comments in three weeks is testament to the fact that – agree with his views or disagree, and whether you liked him at Hasmo or not – Osher Baddiel is almost the definition of a legend: “a person about whom unauthenticated tales are told” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary).

Much of my initial, 45-minute telephone conversation with – or, more accurately (for the first twenty minutes or so), lecture from – Osher (see Hasmo Legends XIII: The Background below the main post) centered on the right to exist. Not of Israel. But of Hasmo Legends. According to Osher (I hope Mr. Baddiel will forgive the impertinence . . . it is how we all knew him), the series is a necessary evil which encourages only mischief and is causing only hurt: “A fat lot of kiddush Hashem it is doing.” And he repeatedly urged me to remove all posts and comments at once: “Close it. Kill it. Bye-bye.” (But Osher’s unambiguous views on the subject are there for all to read, and rehashing them here serves no useful purpose.)

When (during the initial barrage) I managed to get a word in edgeways, I informed Osher that my motives for penning Hasmo Legends were anything but malicious – I had a lot of warm and amusing memories of Hasmonean, and had been amazed to find little or nothing written about the institution on the Web. I told him that if he would actually read my posts (and turn a blind eye to the odd indiscretion), he might even find them amusing and of merit. In spite of having an Internet connection, however, Osher seemed intent not to be seen to be condoning the series, the blog, or their author (though he did eventually concede that I was “not a bad fellow”, but had just “made a very silly mistake”).

It is Osher’s disapproval of Hasmo Legends, and of melchett mike, which makes the fact of his posting all the more startling, according both a certain degree of ‘official’ approval which they did not previously have. Of course, I had no intention of telling him that. And his express precondition for posting, that I refrain from editing his words, was entirely superfluous. I had no intention! Whilst chosen to damn me – and my fellow “overgrown babies” – those words merely incriminated their author and, in many ways, Hasmo’s former religious ‘elite’. Indeed, they are a far better record of the ethos of Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys than our cumulative testimonies. And, every time I read them, I am taken back to the pottiness of those musty, dilapidated classrooms.

However surprising the fact of his posting, it confirms Osher’s status as Hasmo’s primary maverick. Excluding the posts of Tony Pearce – who only had a cameo (however unique) in the carry-on that was Hasmonean – and a brief comment from Clive Fierstone, no other Hasmo Legend has had the courage or imagination to rear his head. We hardly expected DJ or Jerry Gerber to speak out, but one of the renegade English department, for example, could quite easily have done so without jeopardising a Golders Green shtiebl membership (in spite of his son being a regular contributor to melchett mike, unearthing information on Nazi war criminals has proved a simpler task than obtaining anything whatsoever on Jeff Soester).

I tried telling Osher that comments to Hasmo Legends indicate that the Hasmonean experiences of many ex-pupils (certainly many more than I would have imagined) were far from idyllic (and again, far further than I would have believed). Osher dismissed out of hand, however, the “online therapy” justification for the series.

When I brought up the issue of corporal punishment, Osher responded that “there was very little malice” at Hasmonean, that “those things were done in those days”, and that “sometimes a kid gets what’s coming to him”. Indeed, much of the violence in today’s society, Osher believes, stems from children no longer being physically disciplined at school: “Children don’t know what physical hurt means, so they do it to others when they leave.” And “the Torah,” Osher argues, “doesn’t say it is wrong to hit a child”.

I was longing, however, to get to the two matters of most interest to me: Osher’s attitudes towards Israel/Zionism, and to his celebrity rent-a-Jew cousin David Baddiel (who, on telly, always seemed oddly willing to play the role of a Jewish Uncle Tom).

I started by quizzing Osher about the truth of a comment to melchett mike, that he had asked a pupil who attended school on Yom Ha’Atzmaut in a blue and white striped shirt why he was “wearing an Auschwitz uniform”. “Not me,” replied Osher, “I would never have said that.” What Osher did, however, volunteer was his recollection – following a talk with Sixth Formers on some aspect of (what he considered to be) “chilul shabbes in Eretz Yisroel” – of the scrawling on a classroom wall: “Osher, Hitler would have loved you!”

Osher’s views on Israel – to a Sheinkin dweller at least – do seem rather extreme: “If you don’t keep Torah mitzvos, you have no right to it.” Osher further decries the arrogance of chiloni Israelis, who “think they can defend themselves without Avinu She’bashomayim.” And he is certain that Israel only continues to exist because of God’s help, much of which has been “undeserved” and given “on credit”.

Far from being totally detached from the State, however, Osher’s mother and son live here, and he certainly has a finger on Israel’s pulse, commenting on the evils of certain “parades” (he didn’t need to specify which) and that so-called human rights groups, B’tselem and Shalom Achshav, are “terrible enemies of the Jewish people”.

When I asked Osher whether he had any sympathy for Neturei Karta and the individuals who met with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, he replied that he was “dead against them” and that they were so out of touch that “even the Arabs don’t use them for propaganda”.

In spite of having it on my to ask list, I decided not to bring up Osher’s alleged ‘assault’ on Norman Kahler, as witnessed by various commenters to melchett mike. If I can be forgiven for the Khaled Mashaal impression, it sounded very much like Norman – with his endless “Zionist provocations” – had it coming to him!

I did, however, ask Osher whether he had really washed boys’ mouths out with soap. No denials there: “It was no more treif than what had come out of them. And they never swore again.” In front of him, at any rate.

Osher's Cuz

Osher's cuz, Dave

My curiosity as to Osher’s relationship with his author/TV presenter (he is no more a comedian than Osher) relative, David Baddiel (right), stems from my recollection of the latter – in a desperate, failed attempt to draw Osher into a 2004 episode of the BBC genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? – making some cringeworthy reference to his ultra-Orthodox cousin whilst standing outside a Golders Green bagel bakery. Osher recalled how the documentary’s producer had spent two and a half hours in his Stamford Hill home, over tea, trying to persuade him to participate. Even the very little Osher knew about David – including the “goyishe girlfriend” – was sufficient to persuade him that it could only come to no good. And David’s boasting of his partiality for seafood confirmed to Osher that he had made the correct decision. As he put it, in true Osher style: “Even goyim don’t eat oysters!” Anyhow, it seems that a wider Baddiel family Rosh Hashanah reunion may not be on the cards.

Towards the end of our first conversation, Osher enquired as to my marital status. On hearing of my singularity, he proceeded to impart similar advice to that which I receive daily from my dear mother. Following his “parades” reference, I was longing to reassure Osher – though why I don’t know – that I am not gay.  But I couldn’t quite summon up the courage or the appropriate wording (I mean, would I have gone for “gay”, “homosexual” . . . or something rather more “feigele”-like?)

Osher then enquired as to my level of religious observance. I gulped (even though I knew it was coming). “Are you sure you want me to tell you?” He did. And I told him. “Of course you believe in the Ribono Shel Olom,” Osher assured me, “you are just estranged from him. It is just that you have seen things in your life that you didn’t like.” (At the risk of reinforcing your views on modern Israel, Osher, what I forgot to tell you is that I was the first person in my company – of over nine hundred employees – to challenge the big boss and put a mezuzah on my office door. My deference to the Big Boss, even if born of superstition, perhaps means that I am not such an apikores after all.)

My “joker” for Osher was the thorny issue of charedi service – or, rather, the lack of it – in the IDF. But I might as well not have played it. “The Shulchan Oruch and the Rambam,” he assured me, allow for “Torah learners to be left alone.”

“Anyway,” said Osher, “frum Jews have never got a good press, because we’re outlandish and strange.”

I couldn’t argue with that. I had, however, enjoyed talking – or, rather, for the most part, listening– to Osher. And I must have asked him about five times whether I could have “just one more question”. In spite of Osher repeatedly saying that he “would like to keep up the contact” (I would too), I had the strong feeling that I had to make the most of this audience because he might not speak to me so freely again.

Defending his position on corporal punishment, Osher had commented: “Fashions change. Values don’t. Because they come from Hashem . . . and He doesn’t change.”

Pithy and brilliant.

What a shame, I thought, that this man – who most definitely has something to say (even if I might not always agree with it) – didn’t teach me at Hasmo, instead of the various muppets . . . who had nothing to.

[I took contemporaneous handwritten notes of my telephone conversations with Osher Baddiel with his express knowledge and consent, and on the clear understanding that I would be using them to accurately document them. I did not amend the above post in the light of the following.]


Osher: The Postscript (featuring melchett mike‘s Osher Poll)

During my drive home from work, on Monday, I had two “missed calls” from a UK telephone number. I called back. It was Osher Baddiel. He asked me to remove his post from melchett mike. I listened to the reasons for his request – essentially, the nature of the comments it had engendered – whilst remaining purposely non-committal.

The following day, after receiving a message from Osher on my answer machine – seeking confirmation that I had removed the post as requested – I sent him the following by e-mail:

Dear Mr. Baddiel,

I just heard your voice message.

After spending the evening thinking it over, I have decided not to remove your post from the blog. You expressly agreed that I post it, and – with the greatest respect – I will not remove it because you don’t like the resulting discussion. I will, however, consider removing or editing specific comments.

I had already (i.e., before your telephone call of yesterday) written a further post about our conversations, which I told you I would and which I intend to post. If you would like me to send it to you first, I will be happy to and to take into consideration your response. Anyway, I think you will find it to be – in the main – flattering and positive.

As I have mentioned to you, many, many ex-Hasmos have found the Hasmo Legends series to be extremely beneficial, and not just mere entertainment.

I am not e-mailing because I wish to avoid talking to you, but because I fear it would end in an argument. And I don’t wish to get into that situation with you. Our world views are very different. I will talk about the law and rights. And you will talk about Torah.

Even though I didn’t really get to know you during my Hasmo days, I respect you and your forthrightness. And I would still like to meet you some day soon, even though I understand that I might now be jeopardizing that . . . or that I am likely, at the very least, to get a “putch” for my disobedience!

Yours respectfully,


I addressed Osher’s reply of that same afternoon, written between paragraphs of the above, on a similarly piecemeal basis (my explanations of the context, where necessary, in square brackets):

  • I listened carefully [to your request] and very intentionally did not make any “promises” of the kind [that I would remove the post].
  • You are of course “entitled to ask for it back”, but – in terms of the general law – I don’t believe that I am obliged to remove it. This is made even clearer by the terms and conditions of my blog (see https://melchettmike.wordpress.com/about-this-blog/).
  • Your post has had 3,145 ‘hits’ to date. Since November of last year, my blog has had 128,378. These statistics hardly support your contention [that the post has “breathed life into” melchett mike and that I “wish to exploit” it “to engender more interest”] (though you are of course free to think as you please).
  • I have no desire to get into a personal war of words, but your post makes it abundantly clear that you are not afraid of hurting people’s “feelings”. [re Osher, once again, accusing contributors to melchett mike of this]
  • The e-mail at the bottom of this page [seeking, and obtaining, your confirmation I could post the draft] makes it quite clear that there were no such “false pretences” involved. [re Osher’s claim that his post was obtained under such]

Just as you have no wish do get into a public “scrum”, I have no wish to get into a private one. You sent me a post. I posted it. I do not believe that I am under any obligation, moral, legal, or otherwise (we are not at school anymore), to unpost it.

If you wish to appeal via the blog, feel free to do so. They are not all “foulmouthed cretins”.

Still respectfully,


It may sound a little harsh, but the bottom line is this . . . melchett mike is a blog (see the link above). It is not the Hasmonean School Magazine Online. If it were, none of you would be reading it. I am an ex-journalist, and (believe it or not) take my blog reasonably seriously. And, whilst it didn’t “make” melchett mike as Osher seems to think, receiving a post from him was (as I wrote in the first paragraph above) a “coup” for Hasmo Legends. Why would I remove it?

Early on that Tuesday evening, Osher sent me his pièce de résistance (of seven hundred words no less), to which, yesterday morning, I replied as follows:

Dear Mr. Baddiel,

In spite of the deeply insensitive things that you wrote about me in your post to the blog, I went out of my way to refrain from attacking you personally. But you fail to accord me the same courtesy. How ironic that you write about “hurting people, deliberately, gratuitously” . . . and call me a “bully boy”!

You have now crossed the line, and I certainly no longer feel the need to accord you special treatment. I won’t, however, get drawn into an unseemly e-mail ‘war’.  But neither will I “tell [my] bloggers” anything. If you are as “not afraid of the truth” and “not scared of [my] bloggers” as you claim, you will have no objection to their seeing the e-mails you have sent me. I have nothing to hide . . . do you?

In some sense, as a result of all their comments, my Hasmo Legends series has become theirs too. And perhaps they are the ones to decide whether your post to the blog should rightfully be removed.


By prompt reply, Osher refused me permission to publish his e-mails, which I will respect (even though, from a strictly legal standpoint, I don’t believe that I require any such permission). Perhaps he considers them copyrightable works of art. In subtlety, however, they owe rather less to the school of Michelangelo than to that of Rabbi Angel (and the plank for our backsides that he christened “wacko”).

"Osher who?"

"Osher who?"

Indeed, after what he wrote in those e-mails, I have little respect left for Osher Baddiel. They were hateful, viciously abusing both me – though I am mischievously proud of my new “Rotter-in-Chief” title – and contributors to melchett mike. Osher was particularly scathing and unpleasant about my relationship with his seeming bêtes noires, Stuey (above right) and Dexxy. The great defender of former Hasmo teachers’ and Rebbes’ (suddenly) delicate sensibilities appears to have no problem assaulting those of their former pupils, too many of whom are singing from the same hymnsheet for his liking. (If Osher wishes to challenge any of this, I will gladly publish his e-mails . . . and let you be the judges.)

So, what do I take out of this whole Osher episode (apart, that is, from marvel at the man’s astonishing ability to psychically reproduce dogs)?

(Trite and banal, perhaps, but . . .) That religious extremism is bad, whatever the religion. No less than the fundamentalist imams around the corner from him, in Finsbury Park, Osher dexterously manipulates the Scriptures to suit his own arguments and ends. His post to melchett mike, e-mails, and even telephone utterances, clearly illustrate that Osher does not apply the laws of loshon hora (for example) as rigorously to himself as to others. And I have no doubt that Osher would have a most eloquent and persuasive justification for that. (It is just fortunate that Jewish texts are rather less open to pernicious interpretation than those of our Islamic cousins [though 72 virgins could always be nice].)

And there was I, wondering how many buses I would have to catch for the honour of tea with a Legend in N16 during my next visit to the “green and pleasant land” (though Stamford Hill is probably not quite what William Blake had in mind).


Next on Hasmo Legends, Part XV: “Polly” Sue Schneider

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

Hasmo Legends VIII: A Pearcing Insight (Part II)

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!

At book table, Golders Green Road

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

Hasmo Legends VIII: A Pearcing Insight (Part I)

by Tony Pearce

My encounter with Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys began in the summer of 1976. I needed a teaching job and, as I was living in Golders Green at the time, the London Borough of Barnet was my first port of call. I rang up the Education Department and asked if they had anything going for the autumn term.

Tony Pearce“They need a French teacher at Hasmonean,” said the voice on the other end of the line.

“But I’m not Jewish,” I replied.

“Doesn’t matter,” said the voice.

So I sent off an application form with letters of reference and waited to see what would happen.

In fact the very next day Mrs. Hepner, the school secretary, came round to our flat with a letter inviting me to an interview with Mr. Stanton, the headmaster. It was a bit of an embarrassment because it was one of the hottest days of the year and I was in the back garden sunbathing with only a swimming costume on. She had just come from a wedding. As we lived in the top floor flat there was no way for me to slip in the back door and put something else on. So there I stood, on the doorstep, in my bathing costume with this elegant Orthodox Jewish lady dressed up to the nines. My wife said I blushed from head to toe, but Mrs. Hepner seemed quite amused about it at all and as far as I know did not hold it against me.

I turned up at the interview with Mr. Stanton and Rabbi Roberg, who asked me various questions and seemed quite impressed with my academic qualifications (public school and Cambridge). “I see you went to Bedford School,” said Mr. Stanton. “Did you know a Mrs. Freyhan there?”

“Yes, she taught me music in the primary school,” I replied. Turned out she was a German Jewish refugee he helped come out of Germany in the thirties, so he seemed quite chuffed about the connection and I felt I was on to a good thing.

“We would like you to have the job,” he concluded, “but we have a rule that every teacher must be interviewed by Dr Schonfeld, the founder of the school. He was a great man in his time, but he is a bit elderly now.”

Without being critical of the great man, Mr. Stanton was clearly trying to convey to me that this would not be a normal interview. So the next day, with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, I went to be interviewed by Dr Schonfeld, this time at Hasmonean Girls’ School. He was not there at the appointed time and I hung around wondering if I had lost the plot somewhere. About half an hour later he came in and said, “I’m late.”

“Never mind,” I said, trying to be conciliatory.

“‘Never mind!'” he snorted indignantly. “He says ‘Never mind’ to me!” This one was not going to be so easy. He then began asking me all kind of questions which had nothing to do with teaching, and writing things down on a scrap of paper. Finally he said, “I see you are a Christian. What kind of Christian are you?”

Funny thing happened then. At the very moment he asked this question, the door opened and a man came in whom he obviously had not seen for a long time. He stood up and began talking excitedly in Yiddish and the conversation went on for about ten minutes. Meanwhile I am sitting there wondering how to answer this question. Should I be theological, evangelical, talk about Christian-Jewish relations? I needn’t have bothered because the Yiddish-speaking man then went out, and Dr Schonfeld turned to me and said, “All right, you’ll do,” and walked out without ever finding out what kind of Christian I was.

So I became a member of the staff at Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys. I had the summer holidays to prepare for this unique cultural experience and, at the beginning of September, I found myself in the staff room looking out of the window on the boys arriving for school. The only other teacher there was Jeff Soester, who started chatting to me. “Look at them – the cream of North London Jewry,” he said. “They can be mischievous and play you up, and they’re by no means all geniuses, but they’re not violent.”

Nice to know, as one of my previous teaching assignments had been at Tulse Hill School, a monstrous eight-storey slab of a building between Brixton and Tulse Hill in South London (now mercifully demolished). There, 1,800 boys, mainly from Brixton, fought their way through the educational system, and the teachers needed to know more about urban guerrilla warfare than the subjects they were supposed to be teaching. National Union of Teachers meetings were dog fights between rival groups of Trotskyite communists, and Mitch Taylor’s NUT meetings at Hasmonean were quite tame in comparison.

As far as I know I don’t have any Jewish blood, but I already had an interest in Jewish issues and people, and in Israel, long before I came to Hasmonean. In the sixties, I had been a student lefty and political activist (and an agnostic), during which time I came to know a number of secular Marxist Jews. And my studies in German had taken me on frequent trips to Germany, including attending a German school for a term. While I was there one of the big questions which came to me was, “How was it possible that these people who seemed so ordinary and not so different from us could have followed someone as evil as Hitler?” This raised another question, “Why do people always pick on the Jews?” At school and at university I had Jewish friends and felt sympathy towards Jewish people.

In May 1967, I was revising for my second year exams when the news came through of the build up of Arab forces on the borders of Israel. The newspapers were predicting a war and I read of Nasser of Egypt threatening to drive the Jews into the sea. I felt deeply involved in the issue and for some reason, which I could not quite explain, I wanted to help Israel. One day I hitchhiked down to London, went to an Israeli agency and offered to go out to help Israel if there was a war. My parents were understandably horrified at this idea and as it turned out, when war did break out in June, Israel did very well in six days without any help from me. As the Israelis went into Jerusalem I knew that something very important had happened, although I did not know why. 

In 1970, I became a ‘born again’ Christian. This followed a series of incidents including, in my first teaching post, two boys who were committed Christians challenging me on the fact that I professed atheism but had not read the Bible. One of the boys, Alec, in a debate I challenged them to, in the school library, spoke of prophecies: “It says in the Bible that the Jews will go back to Israel and that there will be a lot of trouble over Jerusalem and then Jesus will come back.” Israel, Jerusalem, the Jews. My mind raced back two years to the 1967 Six Day War and I wondered if that was the reason I had felt that there was something so important about that event. I decided I ought to read the Bible to check this out for myself. 

I then met Nikki, who had also been in the Communist Party but then become a Christian, who was to become my wife. Through her I met a man called Richard Wurmbrand, who made a great impression on me. He was a Romanian Jew who had suffered under the fascists during the Second World War, then read the New Testament and become a believer in Jesus. After the War, he became pastor of a Baptist Church in Romania, now a Communist state in the Soviet bloc. When he refused to declare his loyalty to the state underneath a large picture of Stalin, but publicly proclaimed his loyalty to the Lord, he was arrested and spent 14 years in prison. He then came to the West to tell the story of what was happening to Christians under Communism. He spoke of the evils of the system but also preached that we should love the Communists as people. Under his influence, Nikki and I set up a Christian outreach to the radical left in London and also a support group for Christians persecuted under Communism.

This brought us into contact with Jewish people on two fronts. Firstly, there were many Jews in the Communist Party at that time and we often ended up having interesting discussions with left wing Jewish atheists, including members of Young Mapam. Secondly, our campaign for Christians in the Soviet Union brought us into contact with The 35s (Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry) who were incredibly active in pursuing visiting Soviet delegations to London and telling them to release Natan Sharansky and other Soviet Jews imprisoned for seeking to emigrate to Israel. We often joined them and they were pleased to have us alongside them. We even encountered Gorbachev before he became President.

We also ended up living in Golders Green, in a flat in The Drive, where most of our neighbours were Orthodox Jews. From time to time the family over the road would knock on our door on a Friday night to ask us to come and switch on an electrical appliance after the Sabbath had come in.

By this time I had read the whole of the Bible, learned a bit of biblical Hebrew and studied something of church history, finding out about the oppression of Jewish communities in Europe by the professing Christian church. I knew that for Jewish people in general Christianity was not good news and was horrified to read of pogroms and persecutions against the Jews led by church leaders. I was sickened by statements of contempt for the Jews by such leaders, who stood Jesus’ teaching on its head and left a terrible legacy of bitterness and hostility. I also learned about nineteenth century British Christians who were pro-Jewish and supported the idea of a restored Jewish state in Israel. I came to believe that the prophecies of the Bible point to the restoration of Israel as a significant event in the last days of this age.

So I did not arrive at Hasmonean as a complete ignoramus of Jewish issues and the Jewish community. Coming to the school was interesting because while I had met quite a wide spectrum of Jewish people, from Marxist atheists to ultra Orthodox, they had always been the minority. Now I was to experience what it would be like ‘on the inside’, as a minority Gentile.

I knew that most Jews had ‘issues’ with Jesus and that I would not be able to start a lunchtime Christian Union as I had at Tulse Hill, but I also decided that if anyone asked me questions about what I believed in I would answer them . . .

Next on Hasmo Legends, Part VIII: A Pearcing Insight (Part II)