I was ‘the only Jew’ in the classroom — and loved every second of it
IF I told you that I had been the only Jewish person in my class throughout my entire school career, the idea might fill you with dread.
You might think, “I bet that was hard” or wonder, “How did you cope with no Jewish friends?” Or worse: “What about the antisemitism?”
As the fight to secure places at Jewish schools has this year been fiercer than ever, some parents have been left with an “unbearable choice”: send their child to a secular school, or else take the drastic measure of keeping them at home until a coveted place at a Jewish secondary becomes available.
This has become even more problematic owing to the relatively recent but rapid growth of Jewish primary schools. Nowadays, unprecedented numbers of Jewish children are attend- ing faith-based primaries in their early years. It is inevitable that most parents will want them to continue their education into a Jewish secondary.
But I am here to say that, while these days there may not be many of us out there, being the only Jewish child in my class was never a problem and has never held me back. Funnily enough, it made me something of a legend in the playground, thanks to two factors: having a mother who would come in to do an annual Chanucah assembly and who gave out apples and honey at Rosh Hashanah, and a granny who made the best cheesecake south of Hampstead Garden Suburb.
I started school a few miles outside the north-west London Jewish bubble, but not too far from the hustle and bustle of Stamford Hill.
The school, in Finsbury Park, was a larger than average-sized primary, serving a culturally and socially diverse community.
And while it may have occurred to my sister and me that we might be the only Jewish kids in class, it took us until we were adults, reviewing our school year photos, to see how ethnically diverse our classroom really was.
“Oh my god! Why didn’t you ever tell me I was the only white child in my class?” I once heard my sister say to our mum in shock.
We erupted with laughter over the fact that it had taken her years to come to this realisation because, truly, race was never an issue, or even a conscious thought, proving the point that children seldom see or care about things like class, religion or colour.
In my school, the majority of children had Caribbean or African heritage; half the pupils spoke English as an additional language; and the most common languages spoken were Turkish, French and Somali.
A “welcome” sign hung over the reception in more than seven different languages and I would stand there studying them, astounded by the idea that they all meant the same thing.
I eagerly awaited the opportunities to learn about and celebrate different religious festivals with my classmates, and would burst with pride when it was my turn. It was then that I became the one and only authoritative voice on all things Jewish, at the age of six.
When my mum was invited in to do assemblies on Passover, I was hardly the “weird kid”. I was Miss Popular, in short supply and high demand at the interest and intrigue of my entire school.
Whoever said being a bit different makes you an unpopular target was wrong; it was the social equivalent of having an older, cooler sibling in the final year at school and everybody wanted to be my friend.
As I got older, questions admittedly got more complicated. And yes, I was a little perperplexed when my peers came to me with questions regarding unimaginable things strictly Orthodox couples did in the bedroom with sheets.
Confused and only aged 12, I took this worrying query to my mum, who, most likely relieved that I had not taken this one to my granny, swiftly explained that this particular act was instead an unfounded tall tale.
I quickly developed the sarcastic responses needed to answer such questions and never felt they came from a place of malice, just curiosity. Occasionally, if feeling mischievous, I had fun with my retorts: “Yes, it’s true,” I would tell them. “But my mum says the sheet has to be 100 per cent Egyptian cotton, nothing from Tesco, because Jews only shop at Marks and Spencer or John Lewis.” And off I’d skip.
I think back to my time at school and imagine what it would have been like if I had not been “the only one” in my class, but was instead part of a class of 30 who were“just like me”.
How would I have coped making the transition from school to university, where people of all faiths and backgrounds have to live together? What would my social circle look like today?
Who would have done the Jewish assembly for the children in my class and taught them something new about another culture?
Who would have served as proof that Jews do not all dress in black hats and live in Stamford Hill, or explain that, despite their “strange look”, they were no different to me or my classmates.
And where else would I have tasted
‘I was Miss Popular — in short supply and high demand’
A Jewish education is more popular than ever, leaving fewer Jewish children in mainstream schooling