Friday, 11 September 2009

The Conversion Of The Jews

One of the things I like about narratives of childhood is that there are so many moments when the world view of a child is suddenly exploded and he or she is obliged to understand that the world is larger and more complex than previously imagined. One such moment occurred for me when I went to secondary school for the first time.

I was, as I’ve mentioned before, brought up within an Irish Catholic community living in Walthamstow, in East London. Practically all my parents’ friends were Irish immigrants. Our neighbours, on the other hand, were long established Londoners whose cockney accents were strikingly different from my parents’ accents and whose world, despite their proximity, seemed utterly removed from mine.

Twice a year the men, women and children from the Catholic church paraded through the streets in religious procession singing hymns and carrying banners. Though I was a very devout young boy, I hated taking part in these processions. The local people would hang out of their windows watching in bewildered fascination, and I felt mortified by their gaze.

The Christian calendar provided many of the milestones for my early life, one of which was the feast of Good Friday marking the death of Christ. The service for this day included a prayer for the conversion of the Jews, part of which is reproduced below.

Let us pray also for the Jews that the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they also may acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, you do not refuse your mercy even to the Jews.’

I noticed this prayer because it was only said on Good Friday but it didn’t mean a lot to me. Though Walthamstow today is a completely multicultural community, at that time it was very monocultural. There were hardly any black or Asian people living near us and I had certainly never encountered any Jews. If I thought of them at all it was as extras in the story of Jesus which I heard each Sunday in the Gospels and almost every day at school from the nuns.

When I was twelve years old the time came to go to secondary school. My parents sent me to a Catholic school run by Jesuit priests. It was a few miles away in Stamford Hill, and required a train journey. I remember that on my first day as I walked to school with my brother I saw a group of men dressed in what seemed the most extraordinary manner. They wore black hats and long black coats; the younger ones had curled side whiskers; the older ones had long black beards. I stopped and stared.

‘Don’t stare!’ my brother told me.

But I couldn’t help myself. ‘Who are those people?’ I asked.

‘They’re Jews,’ he said. ‘Now come on, for heaven’s sake or we’ll be late for school.’

So these were the Jews, I thought to myself. Obviously, I was later to learn that they were only a particular group of Jewish people, but at the time all I could think was that these were the people for whose conversion I was praying each Good Friday.

For the first time in my life I began to doubt my religion. Until now I had had no difficulty believing in the virgin birth, in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, in Christ walking on water, or rising from the dead and breaking out of his tomb.

But that the individuals I could see on the other side of the road – people who were prepared to make a procession of themselves every single day - would simply give up their religion and become Catholics was beyond my ability to believe.

It just wasn’t realistic.


Paul Lamb said...

Ah, but if you're going to expect realism from religion . . .

My first remembered world-shaking revelation came when I saw an Eastern European film, The Wishing Machine. I was but a wee lad, perhaps pre-teen, but I saw people who looked more or less like me yet lived lives different from my own, and most importantly, didn't want to live as I did! I understood then that the world was much, much larger and more complex than I was comfortable with. I can still recall the emptiness that made me feel.

These are valuable experiences.

Paul Lamb said...

This also reminds me of a very early Philip Roth short story called "The Conversion of the Jews" in which a more or less mainstream Jewish man becomes more Orthodox as the story progresses. That's not the type of conversion I suppose the good Sisters had in mind.

Brian Keaney said...

Actually, I'm beginning to worry about this post. It's meant to be a story illustrating the depth of my childhood ignorance, but perhaps it is offensive. If anyone is offended, please tell me and I'll take it down.