Happy Hanukkah

Forget "Winterval". Let religious festivals proudly speak their names

Tonight, at sundown, begins the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, which celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC after the Maccabees successfully rebelled against their Syrian-Greek rulers.

Given its proximity to Christmas -- and Hanukkah goes on for eight nights -- it is a bit of a shame that more is not made of it publicly (although London's mayor, Boris Johnson, will be lighting a giant menorah in Trafalgar Square this evening).

As Mehdi Hasan writes in this week's cover story, Jesus is a revered prophet for Muslims -- which really ought to be obvious and well known, but too often what religions have in common is overlooked in favour of what divides them. This doesn't have to be the way, and given that Hanukkah precedes both Christianity and Islam, it could be something in which all Abrahamic faiths participate. In fact, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre organised just such an event two years ago when it flew a group of Indonesian Muslim clerics to Israel where, among other things, they lit candles with yeshiva students.

In America, of course, things are different. The conjunction of Christmas with Hanukkah has given rise to the idea of "Chrismukkah", popularised particularly by the US television series The OC, and leading to books and greeting cards with messages such as this:

"Deck the halls
with lots of tchotchkes,
Fa la la la la la la la la la.
Tis the season to eat latkes,
Fa la la la la la la la L'Chaim!"

Some suggest that Chrismukkah is just a commercial confection but, even though they're obviously not theologically profound, or even sound, I think such joint festivities can only be for the good. In Malaysia and Singapore, for instance, when the Hindu Deepavali (or Diwali) is proximate to Eid ul-Fitr, which Malays call Hari Raya, all sorts of schools and organisations celebrate these together as "Deepa-Raya". This does not replace separate Muslim and Hindu ceremonies, but its importance is not to be underestimated in a region where racial and religious divisions are, unfortunately, increasingly being emphasised.

Surely the point is that all these festivals, whether they be Eid, Diwali, Christmas, or the Winter Solstice, should be positive occasions that dare speak their name. No one really likes "Winterval", do they? President Obama has already got himself into a little trouble by inviting guests to "a holiday occasion" next week -- when in fact the event is the annual White House Hanukkah party.

On a happier note, I'll end by leaving you this link to some charming Hanukkah stories by Yoni Brenner in the New Yorker. I particularly liked the first two.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times