The school was on a residential street in North West London. From the outside it was unremarkable, but the atmosphere as I crossed the threshold for the first time for an interview to become an English teacher, was astonishing. The Catholic convent school I’d just left was a seething cauldron of energy and chaos. The noise of ringing school bells and yelling teenagers formed the backdrop to a relentless melodrama of flunked exams and teenage pregnancies. After twelve years teaching in the comprehensive system, I was burnt out.
The advert in the TLS described the school as a girls’ grammar, but I guessed from the Jewish name that it would be quite religious, so I was dressed appropriately – long skirt, long sleeves and a neckline high enough to cover my collarbone. I’m a secular Jew, but I had no inkling what I was letting myself in for. The school wasn’t just a bit religious; it was a Charedi school, the most theologically conservative stream of Orthodox Judaism. In the UK, they are known for their black sable ‘shtreimel’ hats and curled side-locks, and little else, since they are notoriously insular. According to Jewish Policy Research, there are currently 53,400 Charedi Jews in Britain, a group that is growing fast. Membership of Charedi synagogues has doubled since 1990, and they now account for three out of every four British Jewish births.
After a successful interview with the headmistress, I was offered the job. I won’t name it, but it is a private day school attended by 300 girls from North West London aged between 11 and 18. It is one of many such schools to be found across the UK. The mood inside was completely alien to any educational establishment I’d entered previously – quiet, calm and dignified, more like a place of worship than four walls containing hundreds of hormonal teens.
The girls here, though, were different, inhabiting a tiny bubble constructed for them by their community. Banned from going on the internet, reading unsanctioned books and newspapers, or listening to the radio. Jeans and make-up are taboo and boyfriends are completely unheard of. The television in particular is regarded as “a sewer in the living room.” No girl is accepted by the school unless her parents first sign an agreement that they don’t own one of these demonic sets. This censorship is so successful that not one of my pupils had heard of Madonna, Rihanna or Beyoncé. They are vigilantly protected from the hyper-sexualisation of the modern world we’re so used to that it’s become the norm. The result is a childhood preserved and extended to its full limits, not curtailed by worldly knowledge of adult things. What struck me most profoundly in those first few weeks, as I compared the girls to the numerous twelve and thirteen year-olds I’d taught (some of whom had had children at that age), was that at 12, 13, 14, 15 these girls are still innocent, living the lives of Enid Blyton characters in the 21st Century. And it was beautiful. They were vivacious and lively; not downtrodden, meek or mild, but bursting with life, and generally very happy.
The curriculum was divided into two balanced strands. Kodesh, or Jewish studies, which included Torah, Jewish ethics, philosophy and prayers. The other strand was Chol, or secular studies, including English, maths, science, French, history, Yiddish, sewing and cooking. The last two might sound backwards to our ears, but actually, I came to think it was fantastic. Ultra-Orthodox families are so large – having twelve children is common – that knowing how to churn out nutritious food and mend hand-me-down clothes is a crucial life skill.
The entire curriculum, however, was heavily censored, which often made teaching difficult. Whole pages of the biology textbook were glued together or ripped out. Art books containing pictures of Boticelli or Michelangelo nudes were covered in white stickers to block out breasts or genitalia. The selection of English literature texts that wasn’t deemed impure was miniscule. The Year 7s were taught Heidi, because once you begin to look, there’s hardly a poem or novel that doesn’t make reference to sex or have inappropriate language. Romeo & Juliet was out, due to its steamy love scenes, as were Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Tempest, because they involve love stories and sex. Macbeth and Julius Caesar however, full of murder and violence, were fine! Even Harry Potter was frowned upon for being too magical and worldly. So we studied Wind in the Willows, Roar of Thunder Hear My Cry, Kindertransport, and Journey’s End. Over and over again. Despite this, the girl’s results were impressive. They loved English because it was a porthole onto the outside world.
Everything I taught had to be sanctioned by the head of department, and I got into trouble on numerous occasions. I was once teaching an illustrated and annotated version of Julius Caesar to a group of 14-year-olds, when one put up her hand and said ‘Miss, are we supposed to be looking at this picture? I don’t think it’s appropriate’. I looked down and saw an inch-high cartoon of a man wearing a loincloth, representing the Colossus of Rhodes. I thought nothing of it, and said ‘what’s wrong with him?’ and she, grinning like a Cheshire cat, said ‘he’s immodest!’ I took it straight to the head of department, who promptly collected every copy in the school and together, using black marker pens, we hurriedly gave each Colossus a t-shirt and shorts.
On another occasion, I was scuppered by a William Blake poem, “London,” which contains the word ‘harlot’. The head of English told me she had to keep the word in because it would be in their GCSE exam, but that I should be very careful to gloss over it. If they asked what it meant, I was to say “like the fallen women in the Torah.” My pupils were very academic and ambitious and they all wanted A grades, so I knew this sketchy cop-out wouldn’t suffice. Sure enough, they pressed me, and I found myself explaining that it meant “a woman who sells her body for money to survive.” They wrote it down word for word. Later that day, one girl’s father looked at her notes and wrote a stinking letter saying “why is Mrs Harris teaching this filth to my child?” The head of department was furious. She had to pull the poem from the curriculum. It was another text lost.
In a similar vein, the girls have little scope for self-expression – the uniform of long sleeves and long skirts mimics the same muted colours and conservative clothes they will wear as adult women. Save for one difference – once married, the majority will wear wigs, allowing only their husbands to see their natural hair. A woman’s hair is a symbol of her sexual attraction and a married woman should only display it in the privacy of the marital bedroom. This lesson was firmly drummed into the girls once a year when the school held its annual “modesty campaign,” consisting of a week-long marathon of DVDs and sermons from various female figures of authority on the importance of buttoning up and covering one’s hair.
On one occasion, I found myself sitting in a school assembly listening to a woman tell the girls that a married Jewish woman who allows even a strand of hair to show is responsible for the sins of the world. I was wearing a headscarf that partially covered my real hair. Other secular members of staff were wearing hats. Some of the girls turned around to gawp. I remember feeling embarrassed and extremely irritated. The lack of respect that is sometimes shown for Jews who are not Orthodox is distasteful. Some of them would not even consider a woman like me to be Jewish.
Teenagers are renowned for their propensity to rebellion, but attempts at defection were surprisingly rare. I heard that one girl was expelled from the school for wearing jeans at the weekend, and another for climbing out of her bedroom window to meet a boy. The majority, however, comply, I believe, simply because they’re happy. They know they’re going to get married and they don’t have to worry about money. They don’t have to worry about loneliness either and their sense of family, community and friendship are incomparable. They know what is expected of them and they’re content.
Their view of our society is that we’re living in sexualised chaos, where everything is allowed and there is no respect or family life. They look at the outside world and think we’re in hell, that we’ve got it all wrong. They call us “the goyim,” a derogatory Hebrew term for ‘the others’. They believe that the messiah is coming, and soon, and for him to do so we need to be in a purified state. That’s not to say that sex doesn’t have a place in Judaism. Sex is a very important part of their lives as long as it takes place in a marital bed, and there it is celebrated. The myth about doing it through a hole in a sheet is just that, a myth. When I married my husband a few years ago, we went through the Orthodox system and my husband was given a sex lesson by the rabbi. The rabbi said to him, ‘your wife’s pleasure is more important than yours, and it’s very important that you satisfy her desires when required and learn to restrain your own needs when she shows uninterest.’ Orthodox Jewish women are far from the subservient chattels they’re so often perceived to be.
For the girls I taught, the fairy-tale ending was to be married to a good Jewish boy, from the right sort of family, and to lead a spiritual life where they honor HaShem (God) and have lots of children. They don’t see marriage the way we see it. It’s not about romance and falling in love. Their idea of a relationship is that you build it, getting to know each other over time. You’re a partnership. Passion and love are not important, but they can come, later on in life. You have very elderly orthodox couples who are extremely in love with each other and have beautiful relationships. They knew nothing about each other at the beginning, but they’re told ‘respect each other, learn from each other, grow together’.
Typically, Charedi girls marry from 19 upwards, and if you’re not married by 23, you’re panicking. The ratio of girls to boy is skewed for some reason, and so the boys get to pick the youngest, prettiest ones. There’s a lot of pressure, and girls can get left on the shelf, or end up marrying someone much older.
If you’re an unmarried girl, what do you do with yourself? Very few go to university, and if they do, it will be the Open University or the local college so they can live at home. Even fewer get jobs; their role is to have children and bring them up in the yiddisher way. Without a husband and kids, you’re an oddity, a freak, and so most people turn to special matchmakers to help them find someone of the right sect, health and wealth. The first meeting usually takes place somewhere pretty anonymous, like a hotel foyer, and there’s no chaperone; they meet on their own. They have coffee and talk, and if it doesn’t work they move on.
At the school, the religious Kodesh strand of the curriculum is taught by ex-pupils who are waiting to get married. Every morning these girls would pray in the staffroom for God to send them the right match. They have to turn east towards Jerusalem, and the fridge happens to face east. So they would bow and pray in front of it, and people would get frustrated because they’d come in to have their breakfast and these girls were in the way and you can’t disturb them! In the end someone stuck a note on the fridge saying ‘please do not daven (pray) in front of the fridge’.
Charedi couples have as many children as they can, because the Torah commands that you go forth and multiply, but there’s also a deeper, more poignant reason. Behind that extraordinary Charedi insularity, behind everything they do, is a dark shadow – the holocaust, Hitler. They’ll never forget, and many of those who become Charedi are the children of survivors. They want to make up for the six million who were murdered and they do that by having a lot of children. Their fear of interacting with the secular world stems from the same thing. To outsiders it seems extreme, but they believe that ‘if we let our children out with people who are not Jews they’ll lose their spiritual purity, they will turn away from God, and we’ll be doing Hitler’s job for him’.
For all that I found it difficult, I couldn’t help but envy aspects of my pupils’ lives. Their innocence was beautiful. Their lives have meaning, and there’s a contented calmness to the cycle. Making lots of money, the pressure we have to succeed and be interesting, just doesn’t exist for them.
After a while, I came to find the censorship stifling, and teaching the same few sanctioned texts became dull. So I left the school, but the girls forever stamped themselves into my heart, contentedly living their lives in a glass bowl, whilst the rest of us scurried and hurried around them.
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