An article in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition of July 2-3, 2022, by Joseph Skibell titled “When the Prayers at School Aren’t Yours” triggered some memories of events that happened during my teen years. Growing up in Lubbock, Texas in the 1970s, Mr. Skibell writes: “There were only a handful of other Jews in our large school system and no other Jewish kids in my grade…I always felt like something exotic.” Already in first grade, he was faced by the fact that he was an “outsider.”
In my growing up years, I was also always the outsider and to some extent I am still one today. As a 12-year-old, I attended a girls’ high school in post-WWII Frankfurt, Germany. Not only was I the only Jew and foreigner in my class, but there was just one other Jewish girl amongst the thousand student population. The other girl and I could not have been more different in our values, temperament and behavior. We had nothing in common except for the fact that we were the only Jews. So, we stuck together and did not socialize with anyone else.
During the three years I spent in this school, there were prayers every Monday morning, prayers to Jesus, piped over the PA system. Was I uncomfortable? I do not remember. It was just the way of life then. You went along without even thinking of voicing a grumble.
Religious instruction was part of the school curriculum. The Protestant and Catholic students would go to their respective classrooms, while I sat in the back of the room trying to be invisible. Of course, Christmastime brought religious theme-based decorations everywhere – Christmas trees and nativity displays. Carols and hymns were taught for weeks before the holiday.
There is one incident I remember very vividly, even after 70 years, because of the very uncomfortable and distressing feelings it created. It occurred one day during a recess. I do not recall what started this discussion about religion. I do remember standing with my back literarily against a wall, surrounded by a large group of girls. They bombarded me with questions about Judaism, its beliefs and customs. They quizzed me about the role Jesus played in our rituals. Of course, I was unable to answer most of their queries, nor was I able to clearly explain, justify or defend what Judaism stood for. How did this “debate” end? That has been erased from my memory, but the uncomfortable, frightening feelings the event generated are still with me when I think about it.
Being a foreigner brought other embarrassing situations. One I clearly recall occurred in a German language class. We had turned in an essay. The following day, the teacher decided to read one out loud to the class as an example how not to write. After finishing, she declared, (and I still remember her exact words): “This could not have been written by a German child.” Of course, it was my essay. All heads turned to me, and I wished the earth would have opened up and swallowed me.
These incidents were suppressed in the back of my brain but brought back while reading Mr. Skibell’s article. I almost yelled out, “Yes, I know what you are talking about! I know how it feels to be an outsider and separate from your surroundings.”
For years, I wanted to blend in, not to be different until one day a friend said to me, “Why would you want to be like everyone else? It is great to be distinctive and unique.” I realized then that she had a good point. After all, being “exotic and an outsider” sounds intriguing and does not mean to be viewed undesirably.
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