I was ‘the only Jew’ in the class­room — and loved ev­ery sec­ond of it

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY ROSA DO­HERTY

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

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