Other and Me

Other and Me

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

In a way, I have always been “Other.” It’s a designation I think of as normal, maybe even special. My “Otherness” started at an early age when my sister and I attended a public school under the aegis of the Protestant School Board in Montreal. There was one school board for Protestants and one for Catholics. Actually the Catholic School Board was divided in two: one for the majority — French-speaking Catholic children — and one for English-speaking Catholics, a minority. But the latter were not “Other.” We Jews were “Other,” because neither French nor English Catholic schools would accept us as students. So our Jewish parents enrolled us in schools run by the Protestant School Board, which had an open enrolment policy. And where the admission forms had checkboxes for Protestant, Catholic, and Other, we marked “Other.” “Other” was good; at least “Other” was accepted in this place.

It is ironic that most Montreal Jewish kids in those days grew up speaking English, rather than French, as their first language because they weren’t admitted to the Catholic schools. We all ended up knowing both languages anyway.

There were, in fact, private Jewish-run schools called “parochial” schools, like Talmud Torah, at that time. Talmud Torah students learned their lessons in English, French (later mandatory), and Hebrew. The Folke Shule and, if my memory serves me correctly, the Peretz schools, went a step further and added Yiddish to the mix. Not every student could master three or four languages at a time, however, and these private schools were expensive. While I excelled at languages, my parents, like those of most of my friends, simply could not afford a private school, especially if there were several children. While most of us attended extra-curricular religious classes at our synagogues once or twice a week, girls did not have to learn Hebrew. And I learned to understand a domestic kind of Yiddish from listening to my mother speak with my grandmother when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying.

In addition, I could recite the New Testament’s Beatitudes and still remember and can at least hum along with all the Christian hymns and the Christmas Carols, at least one of them in Latin. How did that happen? The Protestant School Board’s curriculum required each day to begin with fifteen minutes of New Testament scripture – that is, after we saluted the Union Jack flag (Canada was still a Dominion of England) and sang sequentially, “God Save the King (George VI),” “The Maple Leaf Forever,” “O Canada,” and finally recited the Lord’s Prayer together.

Only then did the Protestant scripture class began. Those of us who were “Other” could attend, but, if our parents sent a note otherwise, we could spend those 15 minutes waiting in the darkish Cloakroom. Most schools have lockers today, but then we had Cloakrooms, small rooms adjacent to the classroom, where, as the name suggests, we hung our coats, hats, scarves, and mittens, all laden with melting snow. Our boots languished underneath, and of course, it all smelled very – damp!

Some children waited in the Cloakroom. But my mother, like others, did not send a note. “It’s good to learn about other religions,” she said, “as long as you know what your own is.” It’s a teaching that has remained with me always. As a rabbi today – who knew then that’s what I would become? — I still credit my mother with inculcating in me the value of Interfaith association when I was just a little “Other” in Elementary School.

The Christian teachings came in handy in another way – protectively. Just down the street from the library where I chose new books and returned others once or twice a week was a French-Catholic convent school. Close to Easter time when the Montreal sun was stronger and the snow beginning to melt into puddles, the uniformed schoolgirls congregated after school just outside the wrought iron gates, blocking the way for all passers-by.

“Catholique ou Protestant?” they would aggressively challenge kids from other schools. Or who were going home from the neighborhood library, their arms full of books. I knew all too well that if I admitted that I was Jewish, they would beat me up – and there were a lot of them. I couldn’t say, “Catholic,” or they would ask me to recite the catechism. That’s just the way it went. So I firmly replied, “Protestant.”

“Prove it,” they demanded. That was easy. I declaimed the Beatitudes with the ease of a schoolgirl who recites them everyday at her 15-minute scripture class. So they only splashed my stockings with mud and pulled my hair. That was enough for a Protestant.

Times have changed. The prediction is that in a couple of decades, the population in the U.S. will be more than 50 percent “Other;” that is, it will be diverse, made up of many kinds of people. “Other” will be the majority. Happy Holidays to one and all, wherever you were born, however you pray!

Chag Urim Hanukkah!

©Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.