My classmates had never met a Jew before

Charlotte Nathan

THERE is often talk of the ‘missing generation’ in UK Jewry — those aged between 25 and 40. Adam Cailler spoke to 15-year-old Altrincham Grammar School pupil Charlotte Nathan, to find out how she felt being part of, what she feels is perceived to be the “crazy, untraditional and irreligious” generation and how attending a multicultural, non-Jewish school has strengthened her Judaism.

JUDAISM has been embedded into every part of Charlotte’s life, be it at school, home or with friends.

But she is open-minded and equally accepting of other cultures.

“The idea that everyone can accept each other’s cultures, embrace them and accept them may sound slightly incredible and utopian,” she said.

“However, I strongly believe and hope that, with the future generations, the strong sense of detachment from other communities and ignorance of other cultures will begin to dilute as communities begin to truly integrate with each other.”

Charlotte attended North Cheshire Jewish Primary School and had a fairly traditional Jewish upbringing, but there was a family debate as to what secondary school she should attend.

She recalled: “The idea of going to a grammar school didn’t particularly affect me, as I was only eager to finish primary school, however many discussions and disputes took place at home with regards to which school would be the back-up option.

“I remember asking myself why my parents were so sure that I wouldn’t pass my 11+ exams that they were so passionate about back-up options.

“One would argue that sending me to a different grammar school would give me the opportunity to achieve a high standard of education, despite the consideration that I may be the only Jewish kid in school.

“This completely juxtaposed the other parent’s argument that, if I failed my entrance exam for my first choice school, I would be sent to the Jewish school with all the Jewish children, so at least my parents would know relatives of my new friends at school.”

Charlotte ended up attending Altrincham Grammar School, which presented her with something often lacking at Jewish schools — diversity.

This also prompted the majority of her new classmates to admit to never having met a Jewish person before.

She said: “This really baffled me as I thought Manchester was densely-populated with Jewish people.

“I was frequently asked if we were allowed to drink alcohol, if I was from Israel and if I’ve ever eaten bacon.

“To their surprise, I had never eaten bacon — ever. To my surprise, they knew so little about Judaism.

“I would have thought at least from American TV shows that are written by Jewish writers and contain Jewish jokes that they would have picked up on this, but the only sketch my classmates had noticed was Krusty the Clown having a barmitzvah in The Simpsons.”

Charlotte continued: “During my first few years in secondary school, I felt surprised, offended and generally baffled by how little most of the girls knew about my religion and heritage, but I began to realise through the more conversations I had with people, that Judaism isn’t just my religion. It really is my heritage.”

As Charlotte progressed through school, her social life hit a crossroads.

Whereas most young Jewish people were mixing with other young Jews, due to her school environment, she was not.

“I began to mix with people from a variety of upbringings,” she explained. “Despite facing inevitable judgement, my father always emphasised the importance of creating new experiences and having a broad spectrum of connections.

“Having my extended circles of friends, as well as my Jewish friends, has really helped me to understand other people’s backgrounds, cultures and religions.

“Everyday physical interactions can teach more than any textbook can about religion and I do have to credit my parents for sending me to a multi-faith school, as I have formed a deep appreciation and interest in other cultures and other communities.”

Learning about other faiths also helped Charlotte to understand more about her relationship with Judaism.

She has now formed close friendships with a group of Muslim girls, despite, what she calls, stereotypical differences.

She said: “We are actually very similar communities in South Manchester.

“Both religious communities enforce a strong sense of determination and success upon their children, a drive and motivation for them to succeed and a deep love for family members.

“Both religions originated in the same part of the world and both our communities have suffered immense suffering throughout history — we are all considered minorities.

“By recognising our similarities, this has enabled me to form strong friendships in which I was able to have controversial conversations with some of the girls.”

Those controversial conversations focus on Israel.

She explained: “Typically, Jewish people support Israel and Muslim people support Palestine.

“Regardless of my very strong pro-Israel views, which have developed due to these conversations, it always interests me to have debates with my friends about the situation, yet it is nice that we all acknowledge that our beliefs don’t dictate who we are as people, which has been an important lesson for me.

“Also, we can all agree on the corruption of the Western media and how it repulses us that we only hear biased news to target the largest audience.

“The truth is that, as minority groups, we distance ourselves from each other since we believe we are different, but apart from languages, books or different clothing, we are all branches of the same tree.”

Charlotte has experienced antisemitism at school, although it was from outside influences at a local Catholic boys’ school.

She acknowledges that antisemitism is still a “big issue” within schools and colleges.

She said: “With the school situated in the heart of the South Manchester Jewish community, I was beyond disgusted at how some people could say such things.

“Being educated about events such as the Holocaust may not always help people to understand the horrors of what happened and the true miracle it is for us as Jewish people to still be here today.”

She revealed that one antisemite told her: “It should have been six million and one.”

Charlotte said: “I found it difficult to compute how, in a so-called multicultural society, there are still people who have great difficulty in respecting other cultures.”

Charlotte is quick to point out that she has never encountered antisemitism in school, which she believes is due to the diversity of cultures and religious groups within the school.

Marriage is another pressure for a young Jewish person — even at such a young age.

But a recent conversation about it, during a science lesson, showed her the parallels between Jews and Muslims.

It also raised the question of whether she would marry Jewish when old enough to do so.

She said: “A relatively religious Muslim girl told us how she would be having an arranged marriage and how her parents would be deciding her future husband.

“The reactions around the table were a mixture of shock, confusion and interest, as many people struggled to compute how arranged marriages are still common.

“As she began to explain the process, it started to sound very familiar and very much like the Muslim version of a shidduch.

“Most commonly, I get asked whether I need to marry Jewish and what would happen if I didn’t.

“However, looking at how common it is for people to marry out and yet they still raise their children Jewish, it is becoming a topic that I no longer talk about.

“I don’t see why love and happiness should be dictated by interpretations of a holy text.

“However, I understand the need to keep the religion and its traditions as authentic as possible.”

One upside, or possibly a burden, of being one of the only Jews in a mixed-faith school is that she is often asked to explain certain parts of the Torah during her religious studies classes.

“I was always asked for a general Jewish opinion on topics, despite the more old-fashioned perceptions,” she said.

“Regardless of how controversial some debates may be, never once did anyone ever dismiss, disregard or disrespect another person’s opinion.

“This is a small-scale representation of what I hope the modern-day society would be like, throughout Britain at least.”

If you attended a multicultural or non-Jewish school and would like to share how that impacted upon your Judaism, email or call 0161-740 9321 (Ext 227).

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