I attended elementary school in Montreal in the 1960s. From 1963 to 1970 (from kindergarten to Grade 6), I was at Bancroft School, which opened in 1915 and which still exists today as a public school in the area of Montreal known as Le Plateau-Mont-Royal. When a fire, in February 1970, made our house inhabitable, we moved out of the neighbourhood to a west-end area of Montreal called Côte-des-Neiges, an area that was considered “more Jewish.” I still attended public school, just a different one.
The schools were part of what then was called the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, or simply PSBGM. This was at the time when public schools in Quebec were divided between Catholic Schools and Protestant Schools in what were confessional lines (Since 1998, they have been divided by linguistic lines: French and English). All Jews who attended public schools attended Protestant Schools, since they were more open to non-Christians. Catholic schools required that parents follow the Catholic tradition and faith.
Back to my education at Bancroft. Every day we followed a certain ritual, which I remember well. After entering the classroom, we went to our desks, which were neatly lined in rows. each person had an designated place, which the teacher assigned at the beginning of the year. We first sang our national anthem, “O Canada,” then “God Save the Queen” and then said the “Lord’s Prayer” [Catholics call it “Pater Noster”] aloud. I can sing and recite all three, even today, but of course I have no reason to do so.
We were also taught biblical stories, both from the Old Testament and New Testament, including the stories of David & Goliath, of Job and of King Solomon. There were moral instruction from the Books of Proverbs and from The Psalms. We also sang Christian songs; the only one I hated with a passion was “Onward Christian Soldiers.” (I do not like military songs of any kind.) I did not then understand that it was related to the Crusades, but it nevertheless gave me the chills. Young minds can understand.
Other than this unpleasant moment, there was not too much to complain about: we all sang the songs, said the prayers and learned the moral stories from the Bible. During Christmas, we sang the traditional hymns in a school-wide assembly. I was the only Jewish kid in the class and one of the few Jews in the school. Yet, I can still recall memories of “Silent Night,” “Deck the Halls, and “Good King Wenceslas.”
Yet, I was not the worse for wear, and I do not think the other non-Christians were, either; I have no recollection of having been traumatized by learning Christian or more broadly speaking biblical moral principles. I might have benefited to exposure to such ideas; even so, I do not advocate a return to those days of “school prayer” since its time has passed.
Is this a surprise? We live in a time when identity has become politicized and where people place themselves into ever-increasing smaller groups. While this can be comforting and nurturing, it can handicap understanding of others and become a force of alienation. Differences become areas of conflict or at least of contention and non-agreement; and these differences become magnified as the groups become smaller, more particular and see themselves as more principled in their views. This is not the way I grew up, or at least I have little memory of what today is called “identity politics.” This is also far away from the thinking of “go along to get along,” which in the best of cases can lead to harmony among various peoples. (Is this a “gift for surrender?”)
Perhaps we as a society have placed too much emphasis on individuality and group identities and not enough on our commonalities and our communities. Have we made what defines us more important than what unites us? One does not have to navigate far to see how this has become true, much to humanity’s detriment. Who is humanity? Is it not us? We forget the little that is essential and remember much that is not.
As for Jewish identity, I always knew that I was Jewish, not only because my mother lit candles on Friday night; not only because our house was filled with the sounds of Yiddish; not only because my father read The Forward (“Forverts”); and not only because our family “did” the main Jewish holidays like Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, but because of all these acts and memories and the thousand other little things, many of them unsaid.
That being said, I did so many other things that kids of my generation did, including playing and watching sports, following the “Space Race” and having dreams of being an astronaut, and watching TV shows and movies that everyone else in Canada (and of course the U.S.) were also viewing and enjoying. To say that I was “plugged in” to the wider culture is as true a statement I can make. Thus, it is no surprise that being Jewish did not, in my case, translate to a type of Jewish chauvinism or Jewish nationalism or Jewish religiosity found today in places (and understandably so, to some degree, because of history), where these act as substitutes for personal achievement, intellectual pursuit and the development of tolerance of others. This does not come easy for most adults; it is (re)learned and takes considerable work and mental effort. (Although it is more natural for children.)
What I am saying here, and perhaps I am doing so in an awkward way, so please forgive my clumsiness, is that one can acknowledge the importance of one’s religion, culture and tradition in the formation of one as a human being without disregarding or negating other important cultural and intellectual influences. In short, I do not want to live a life based on triumphalism, whether it be cultural, religious or nationalistic. I know: I am going against the strong flow of current thinking, which seems to grant fear a more prominent position than love. No wonder I often find myself adrift in my own thoughts, having longings of harmony and peace. Am I the only person who thinks and feels this way?
So, even as I can acknowledge Judaism’s importance, I do not negate the importance of so much more that falls outside of Judaism’s orbit of influence. This has had (and continues to have) equal and profound effect on my thinking, including but not limited to a curiosity of human psychology and human nature, a thirst for scientific and medical knowledge and a love for music and literature. I also think it is necessary and important for humans to find ways to get along; I have come full circle.
Yes, my friends, there is a large beautiful world out there. It becomes smaller when viewed through a lens of identity. The forces of identity are as strong as the fears of assimilation, and it requires the summoning of the forces of love and all that it supports to overcome it (“fear”)—one primal urge over another. Identity can be as wide and as inclusive and, yes, as open as the individual wants it to be. Large circles are bigger than small circles; it’s a mathematical axiom. It’s the poetry of life, of love.
To my American friends, Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.