Written by Ambi Sitham. Ambi, a first-time Jewrotica writer, was born and raised in London to immigrant parents from Sri Lanka. She is a lawyer cum expert commentator, author and host and currently lives in Los Angeles.
Shema Yisrael is the first of four essays that Ambi is writing for Jewrotica. Her series of essays chronicle her love affair with all things Jewish from innocent beginnings as a twelve-year-old schoolgirl to a long-term relationship with a Jewish man that she considers one of the great loves of her life to flirting with the idea of conversion. The break-up of that relationship was followed by a continued strong mutual attraction to Jewish men throughout her life, which after one passionate fling led her to a spiritual path that resulted in the unlikeliest of realizations about her true passion for all things Jewish. This passion, in truth, is esoteric rather than erotic.
As a buck-toothed, awkward, geeky 11-year-old, I set off for secondary school to the esteemed Henrietta Barnett School. Renowned for academic excellence and a tough work ethic, yet with no school fees, my successful entry into the school was a huge relief to my parents who were already forking out a small fortune for my brother’s school fees.
HBS, as it was nicknamed, was set in the leafy middle class enclave of Hampstead Garden Suburb, a short bus ride from Golders Green and not far from my home in Hendon, yet worlds apart. Rather like its surroundings, the social demographic of the school was composed of mainly girls from upper middle class families whose parents were grateful to be saving on school fees whilst not having to compromise on education. Ethnically, the demographic was split between Christians and Jews (with Christians being a slightly larger majority) with a smattering of Asians and others belonging to different religious/spiritual backgrounds. Whilst the school was largely dominated by the middle classes, the joy of it not being fee-paying meant entry was not determined by wealth or social status and therefore opened up the school to those like myself who didn’t come from privileged backgrounds but did have families that were focused on getting us the best education possible, and who passed the hurdles of the various examinations and interviews.
I am a first generation immigrant born in London to Sri Lankan-born parents who came from a largely Hindu (with a smattering of Catholic) background and who had denounced all religion only a few years previously and had become Raja Yogi devotees. I didn’t consider myself to be affiliated with any religion but believed and conversed in my own way with a higher power that I sometimes called G-d.
Having attended an ethnically diverse primary school where white children were actually in the minority and middle class kids were pretty much non-existent, HBS was a whole new world to me. The first few months of school passed in a blur of adjustment. I settled into a group of friends who became very much my gang, and I was subjected to streaming for the first time (I was in the bottom set for pretty much everything apart from English) as well as intensive parents evenings, (“subordinate” and “daydreamer” were words that I became used to hearing that year – they would be key adjectives for most of my academic school life and to some extent ended up defining my young adolescent personality.)
The other adjustment was assemblies. The rigmarole of assemblies at HBS took some getting used to. We were split into Christian assemblies with hymn-singing and biblical lectures and Jewish assemblies. It was merely assumed that non-Jews would attend Christian assemblies and for the first few months I dutifully trotted off with the other non-Christians and non-Jews, and would suffer in silence even though I couldn’t bear to sing hymns and the Christian biblical lectures did nothing for my soul.
It just so happened that my closest friends at school were pretty much all Jewish and I always felt a sense of sadness and isolation when we would separate for assemblies. This feeling of separation was compounded on a trip to the local synagogue as part of a religious studies class. As our class walked into the synagogue for conservative Jews (known as the United Synagogues in the UK), I felt a sense of awe that I had never experienced before in my life. As our teacher and the Rabbi made small talk and the Rabbi started explaining the basic premise and tenets of Judaism, I found myself distracted by a huge scroll sitting on what looked like a lectern. I ignored the Rabbi’s lecture as I found myself inexplicably drawn to the scroll and felt myself shuffling closer to it. Unable to resist I reached out to touch the pages with the strange script that was completely foreign yet simultaneously utterly familiar.
Before my fingers could touch what I soon discovered was the Torah the Rabbi barked at me: “please don’t touch it” and I swivelled around to see him staring icily at me whilst my religious studies teacher started to apologise whilst giving me a look that clearly showed I had stepped out of line.