Feb 2008 Journal

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Letter from Israel

When I contemplate my time at the Jewish primary school I attended in north-west London some 50 years ago, there are few incidents of note that remain in my memory. Dull lessons, stultifying routine and hackneyed custom are all that swim into my ken. I do not recollect a single outing to any of the myriad sites of interest or cultural enrichment in which London abounds. I hope things have improved today.

I very much fear that in Israel this is also largely the case. In my own small way, I have attempted to remedy the situation as far as my own children and grandchildren are concerned, but this is, of course, on a very minor level.

Last week, however, I was made aware of a welcome interruption to my smaller granddaughter’s mundane school routine when I was invited to attend the ceremony marking her and her class-mates’ graduation to the elevated status of being able to read the Bible. They are now in the second form and are considered sufficiently proficient in reading and writing. The school does not belong to the religious education stream so that, while the pupils are taught about their cultural, historical and spiritual heritage, they are not subjected to sermonising and no belief system is inculcated.

The event was held in a local synagogue. It began in the synagogue itself, with the children sitting in the centre and the parents and guests sitting at the back and along the sides. The rabbi, a bearded young man in modern clothing who spoke in a relaxed, everyday manner, quizzed the children on their knowledge of some basic religious concepts. These involved such terms as kiddush, the Temple, the centrality of Jerusalem, the Torah, and the patriarchs (but not the matriarchs). He was somewhat taken aback when a little boy answered ‘Abraham’ when asked who had destroyed the first Temple. At the end of this part of the evening, the rabbi took the children to the Ark of the Law and showed them the scrolls inside, even opening one up for their inspection. I was later informed that one little boy, who had insisted on coming despite not being well, vomited on the carpet and had to be taken home. Fortunately, the rabbi had left by then.

Then everyone proceeded to the hall downstairs, where the parents sat on chairs in a circle and the children performed dances and sang songs that were connected with the subject. Most of the songs were modern Israeli ones containing only a very vague association with anything biblical - and the dances even less so. But it was an opportunity for the teacher and her wards to show their prowess in both those fields.

The children were very sweet and well-behaved. The teacher and her helpers were proud of their performance, and of course the parents and relatives also enjoyed the event, in the preparation of which considerable effort had evidently been invested.

The festivity ended with each child being called by name to receive the treasured book, after which they all read out its first sentence in unison. It was a very touching moment and reminded those present that nowhere else in the world today is it possible to find six- and seven-year-olds reading and understanding a text that is over 2,000 years old.

Since no event in Israel is complete without food, the evening ended with pupils, teachers, parents and guests all falling eagerly on the tables laden with sandwiches, cakes and other goodies that had been prepared by eager volunteers.


Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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