As the only Jew and the only American at a public elementary school in a centuries-old farm hamlet in Great Britain, I was often singled out. It was only right that I played Moses in the school play (Exodus, abridged for six year olds), and my Jewishness scored me a non-speaking part in the mandatory annual reenactment of Christ's birth. I also found myself the lone Jew at the school's mandatory daily assembly, where Mrs. Roberts, cordial and proper as only the British can be, each day led my class in the Lord's Prayer.
My mother, a teacher from the Bronx, tried to explain to the folks at Saint Mary's Primary School why her Jewish son shouldn't have to sit through the Lord's Prayer each day. They were happy to excuse me from "religious education" classes, since these were intended specifically to teach Christianity. But they didn't understand why I couldn't just sit quietly while they all said the Lord's Prayer, as long as I wasn't forced to join in.
Raising my brother and me on her own in a foreign country was hard enough for my mother without the combined might of Her Majesty's Church of England competing for my Jewish soul. A teacher at the local U.S. military base, she recruited a Jewish sergeant to give me some lessons, and for a while we drove two hours each way to the only Hebrew school around. But occasional lessons and take-home exercises are little match for daily schoolhouse indoctrination. In spite of myself, more than two decades later, I can still recite the words of someone else's faith -- "Our Father who art in heaven..." -- without really thinking.
I told this story to a colleague once -- a conservative Christian -- trying to convince him that school-sanctioned prayer is wrong. "It obviously didn't do you any harm," he responded. In a sense, he's right. My experience didn't lead me to act out against religion in general. Instead I resented this foreign state's claim on my religious self and reacted by seeking out a Jewish education later in life. My fierce American patriotism comes not from having saluted Old Glory each morning, but from having lived some of what our Constitution generally shields us against.
This summer the Supreme Court ruled to let taxpayer-funded vouchers pay for parochial schools. As a Jewish parent, I can imagine a future in which public schools, drained of money by vouchers, decline to where parents have no choice but to send their children to private schools; but the most affordable private schools -- the ones where a voucher alone will cover the costs -- will likely be church-subsidized parochial schools.
And after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, there seems to be newfound unanimity among our national leaders (especially the ones up for re-election in November) that America is a nation "under God," and that we must proclaim so in our public schools. Just last week, the House of Representatives voted 401 to 5 to keep "under God" in the pledge. President Bush has linked "under God" to the war on terrorism, apparently unaware that the traditional Pledge of Allegiance--the one before God was added in 1954--was good enough for the Americans who crushed Hitler.
So just in case, my wife and I have been trying to get a jump on the competition. We decided early on that our son would grow up with Judaism as an integral part of his life, so we began making Shabbat together each week shortly after he was born. But I knew that wouldn't be enough. Reflecting on the way my sense-memory of the Lord's Prayer was imposed on me by an external force, I wondered how I might inoculate my son against such a predicament.
The answer came during his second Rosh Hashanah, when he was just over a year old. My rabbi told a story about a Catholic orphanage that sheltered some very young Jewish children during the Holocaust. After the war, a rabbi went to reclaim the children, who by then knew nothing but Catholicism. No records were kept, and the priest was at a loss to determine which children were Jews and which were not. The rabbi had a solution: He recited the Shema, and the Jewish children, hearing the voices of their parents in his chant, came running to him.
My wife suggested that we begin singing the Shema to our son each night as we lay him down to sleep. It was a little uncomfortable at first. As secular Jews, we weren't in the habit of praying so openly, but we got used to it. Our son just turned three, and he belts out a bedtime Shema with such gusto, it's as if he has known the prayer all along.
It remains to be seen whether the Jewish imprint we are stamping on our son will survive the challenges minority religious identities so often face in a predominantly Christian country. But as America wrestles with these issues, I recall my experience of a time and place where public schools actually imposed some of those challenges and stood in the way of my Jewishness. I don't fault the teachers at Saint Mary's, whom I otherwise remember fondly. But I thank God for an America that keeps the church out of the classroom, and I pray that won't ever change.