Life as the only ‘Jew’ in school

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment - Chas NewkeyBur­den

INEVER TOLD you the one about how a Chris­tian/hindu cult helped me love Is­rael and Ju­daism, did I? As a non-jew who proudly sup­ports Zion­ism and is fas­ci­nated by Ju­daism, par­tic­u­larly the mys­ti­cal and Cha­sidic tra­di­tions, I am of­ten asked how I came to feel this way. To me, the real ques­tion is why some­one would not sup­port Is­rael and ad­mire Ju­daism, but of course I un­der­stand the cu­rios­ity.

The short an­swer — which I have blogged about and men­tioned dur­ing speeches — is that I be­came fas­ci­nated by the Mid­dle East af­ter the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks. To my sur­prise, hav­ing pre­vi­ously had a lazy, hazy per­cep­tion that Is­rael was the vil­lain of the con­flict, I be­came more and more of a sup­porter the more I learned about the place — and the is­sues. So I started vis­it­ing Is­rael and quickly fell in love with it.

But I have never writ­ten or spo­ken pub­licly about a chal­leng­ing child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence played a part in this process. When I was nine, I joined a new school in London. I was very ex­cited to be leav­ing pri­mary school and join­ing a “grown-up” es­tab­lish­ment. What I didn’t re­alise, un­til I got there, was that 99 per cent of the pupils and their fam­i­lies were mem­bers of a bizarre re­li­gious cult, as were all the staff.

The cult, which dom­i­nated the school, com­bined Vic­to­rian stern­ness with the less savoury el­e­ments of Chris­tian­ity and Hin­duism to cre­ate a cruel con­coc­tion. I was a mem­ber of the one per cent of pupils with no con­nec­tion to the cult. This meant that twice a day, as my class­mates med­i­tated and chanted San­skrit, I had to go to a dark room in the base­ment and sit kick­ing my heels with the other odd ones out.

It also meant, of course, that I was pres­sured to join the cult. The more I re­sisted, the more I was tar­geted by the staff. It was as­tound­ing how quickly the teach­ers could turn a maths, English or sci­ence class into a free-for-all dis­cus­sion of how I came from an “im­pure” fam­ily.

The staff strongly dis­cour­aged the rest of the pupils from be­friend­ing me and, at times, some of the teach­ers were vi­o­lent to­wards me. At one point, I was handed a year-long de­ten­tion, which meant that I couldn’t leave the school un­til 6.30pm on week­days and not be­fore mid-af­ter­noon on Satur­days.

For six years, I re­sisted the pres­sure to join the cult and then, at 16, I was fi­nally able to leave the god­for­saken place. Years later, in 2007, an in­quiry found that “mis­treat­ment” and “crim­i­nal as­saults” had taken place when I was there. It is pos­si­ble that one can never com­pletely move on from such an ex­pe­ri­ence — the ques­tion is how to cre­ate a pos­i­tive legacy.

Which brings me to my love of Is­rael. I think that, as re­sult of what I faced at school, I have de­vel­oped a stronger em­pa­thy for any­one who is un­fairly sin­gled out. For in­stance, when Kofi An­nan — then the Sec­re­tary Gen­eral of the United Na­tions — was asked why the UN so dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­gets Is­rael, and replied: “Can the whole world be wrong?” he made my blood boil. As I knew from my school­ing, some­times, yes, the whole world can be wrong.

Re­cently, while din­ing with a Jewish fam­ily with whom I am friendly, I sensed a wider con­nec­tion. I was telling them about my strange school, when the wise fa­ther of the house­hold turned to me and said: “You were like the Jew at school — that’s why you un­der­stand us.”

I had never thought of it that way, as I con­sider the story of the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence to be as much about the in­spi­ra­tion of your enor­mous achieve­ments and ex­am­ple as it is the ha­tred you have faced. But I can see his point — and within it is the pos­i­tive legacy I sought.

Per­haps if I had not been so tested as a child I would not have sub­se­quently stood at the Ko­tel, nor watched the sunset in Tel Aviv, nor heard of the won­drous Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nach­man, whose teach­ings now so en­rich my life.

What­ever it was that took me here, I am glad it did. Af­ter all, sup­port­ing Is­rael and ad­mir­ing Ju­daism is the only sen­si­ble way to roll. Chas Newkey-bur­den is an au­thor and ra­dio com­men­ta­tor. He blogs at www.oy­vagoy.com

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