COOPER’S COLUMN January 2002

In advance of my old school reunion next weekend, here’s one that certain of my old school chums might enjoy:
You know how it is sometimes, late at night? You’re sitting up watching TV and you know you should get up and go to bed, but you feel too tired even to get out of the armchair, so you just sit there flicking channels among the drivel. Well,doing that the other night I caught a stop-motion puppet programme about (how topical for for this time of year!) the life of Jesus, and I must say it was extremely well done. That set me thinking about my schooldays.
Like most Anglo-Jewish children, I had parents who wanted to give me the best possible education. In the 1960s, that meant an English boarding school, and they are all solidly Christian establishments. Yes, there’s Carmel College and Polack’s House at Clifton, but my parents felt, and I agree with them, that it was important to mix with the host community of which we Jews form such a tiny minority. What I think they didn’t bargain for, however, was that the Christian ethos at the schools I attended had a strong missionary component. They did not come right out and try to convert me directly; oh no, they were too clever and subtle for that! But the teachers made a big deal of how pleasant and easy it was to be a Christian, and gave the impression that, if only I would succumb to their subtle blandishments, how they would welcome me into the embrace of this exquisitely refined faith.
Some of my Jewish contemporaries (and there were few enough to spare, I can tell you) did indeed succumb: one in fact is the head of the UK branch of Jews for Jesus). So where did I, as a young child, cut off from my family at boarding school, find the strength of character to resist such insidious pressure? It would be nice to say that it was my Jewish faith, reinforced by my extended family and my native Jewish community; but alas that was not the case. My parents are Jews in the same way that most English people are Christians: it doesn’t do to be too religious. My only aunt, and many of my parents’ aunts & uncles, had married out; and their small social circle contained at least as many Christians as Jews.
It was no positive role model that kept me from Christianity: it was my dear late father’s sense of humour. He was bitingly sarcastic about (as he saw it) the wetness and soppiness of Christianity. He took great delight in schnecking it at every opportunity; I can still hear his voice taking the rise out of some particularly sanctimonious hymn. And he contrasted it, not with Judaism (which even the most frum must admit is laced with illogicality) but with the cool, Runyonesque jazziness of Jewish everyday life, a constant luftmensch struggle with poverty, antisemitism and blinkered authority.
This was meat and drink to an intellectually rebellious boy like myself. So I was kept Jewish, not by Judaism, but by a sort of anti-Christianity. Of course, this animus towards religion spilled out against Judaism as well: but this was more muted. The strictures of Shabbes and kashrus were to my father’s eyes so obviously daft and outmoded that, like an underdog, it was unfair and unworthy to waste time attacking them.
Perhaps those Jews who support religious schools and the proposed laws against disparaging religion might like to reflect on the consequences of their actions. If only Torah-true Jews are to be recognised, the Jewish people will wither to nothing.

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