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Hannuka 1955 at Hope Place Liverpool

channukah-1 Hope Place, Liverpool

It was very dark, icy cold and wet outside. Cold, wet and dark as only a Liverpool winter afternoon could be. The sliding doors between the two big classrooms had been pushed aside and the desks removed. The result was a huge, hall-like room. At one end was a stage and at the other a huge fireplace glowed and sparkled, burning the people sitting right next to it but leaving the far end of the room cold enough to see one's breath. Down the right-hand side of the room, the lamp light from the street shone in through the high, arched windows.

The school was a solid stone building with large, high ceilinged rooms, stone floors and staircases and outdoor toilets which froze over in winter. (Students queued up outside the one indoor toilet used by teachers or used the tiny infants' toilets).Heating was provided by open fires in huge fireplaces. The crates of third of a pint of free milk provided by the government daily for each child, were placed, the milk frozen in the bottles, besides the fires every morning to melt, so the children could drink the, by then, tepid contents at 10 a.m.

The school had been built in the 1840s and had been attended by the grandparents of many of its present students. It was situated on the corner of Hope Place and Pilgrim Street, off the main road and a few minutes walk from the city centre. Many years ago, it had been convenient for the Jewish children to walk there, however, by this time, the Jewish community lived mainly in the suburbs, so the children were bussed in daily.

On this afternoon, about 200 children from the ages of 5 to 16, sat crossed legged on the floor. Teachers and visitors stood along the sides of the room.

The headmaster had positioned himself at the centre of the stage. Behind him stood the school choir, fidgeting nervously, their school ties for once straight although a shirttail here and there could be seen peeping out. Mr. Zablow, the conductor, his small, portly figure draped in a black robe, his bald head shining, wobbled backwards and forwards on the balls of his feet, looking for the life of him, rather like an overgrown toy wobbly man.

There was an air of excitement in the hall. The children moved about, shifting the weight of their bottoms against the bare, rough floorboards. The boys were in three-quarter length trousers and knee length socks, held up with elastic garters, with scuffed and grazed knees protruding, the girls in navy gymslips, trying to pull them down over their crossed knees.

The last day of term before the Hannuka holidays. The rest of the world was celebrating Christmas, but here, at the Hope Place Jewish School, it was Hannuka.

The headmaster cleared his throat. No one paid any attention. The children continued to murmur amongst themselves and shift around. The headmaster tried again, "Children, before we go home tonight ..." and still no one paid attention.

A loud flourish on the piano brought a sudden silence. The headmaster made good use of it and launched into his speech. Most of the children were tired and didn't listen too hard. They all knew the story of Hannuka, how the heroic Maccabim in ancient Israel over 2,000 years ago had taken on the might of the Greek Empire single handedly and won. How the Greeks had ransacked the temple and there was only enough oil left to burn in the sacred lamp for one night, but it would take eight days for new oil to be brought. The oil had miraculously lasted for eight nights and to celebrate this event Jewish people all over the world lit eight candles during Hannuka. One on the first day, two on the second day, etc., until, on the eighth day the menorah glittered joyously and triumphantly with eight candles.

The children wanted to go home. The first night of Hannuka meant visiting grandparents, aunts and uncles, gifts and Hannuka gelt. Not to mention freshly fried, delicious potato latkes.

Finally, the headmaster finished talking. Then the choir, accompanied by Mrs. Goldman on the piano and led by Mr. Zablow's swinging arms, which, encased in the flowing sleeves of the black robe, looked rather like a raven's wings, burst into a cacophony of sound, which eventually turned into well known Hannuka songs. The children joined happily in the singing, clapping hands and even stomping feet in tune to the cheerful melodies.

The singing over, each child carried his own menorah to the window ledges of the high windows. Some of the children couldn't reach and chairs had been placed there for them to climb up, and even then, many had to stand on tiptoe on the chair.

Teachers came along and lit the shamass, the candle placed in the middle of the menorah. Each child held his shamass candle and in unison said the blessings for lighting the Hannuka candles, then lit one candle, the first candle of Hannuka. Before the candles were lit, as one voice, the entire room burst into the singing of "Maoz Zur Yeshuati". Some of the naughty boys, instead of singing the words in Hebrew continued by singing "The cat's in the cupboard and she can't catch me!" But nobody really paid much attention to them.

The song over, the children started to file out of the hall. Standing at the doors were the "Old Boys". None of the children really understood who these "Old Boys" were. They were certainly old, but they definitely weren't boys.(The "Old Boys" were former students of the school who raised money to try and improve the conditions at the school).

As the children filed out, each one was handed a brown paper bag by an "Old Boy". Clutching their bags, they ran down the stone staircases, boys going out of the back entrance, girls through the front, out of the school into the biting cold, damp December night. The wind from the river blowing and biting at bare knees and noses. The rain dampening gabardine raincoats and hoods pulled up to keep ears warm. Children clambered onto school buses to begin the long journey to the suburbs.

As the buses pulled away into the dark night, white faces with huge eyes pressed against the windows, watching the wonderful sight of 200 menorahs with their candles glittering, shining from the windows of the school hall.

Full of Hannuka songs and visions of glittering candles, the children rummaged through their brown paper bags. Inside, each child found a tangerine wrapped in silver paper, a rosy red apple, a packet of Smith's crisps. Inside the packet was a little spiral of blue paper filled with salt to sprinkle over the crisps. There were a handful of monkey nuts in the shell and right down at the bottom, a brand-new silver sixpence (Hannuka gelt).

Children munched and sucked. Some coughed and spluttered because they put too much salt on their crisps. The shells of the monkey nuts scattered on the floor of the bus to be accompanied by silver paper, apple cores, tangerine peel and pips. The air was redolent with the smell of peeled tangerines, damp clothes and smelly children.

One by one they got off the bus, each one clutching his shiny new sixpence.

Even after years of eating succulent, tropical fruit, no tangerine ever tasted as delicious as that foil-wrapped Hannuka tangerine. Crisps have never been the same since they took away that little twist of blue paper filled with salt and despite the multitude of flavours available today, nothing tastes like those over-salted crisps. And no amount of money has given as much pleasure as that newly-minted Hannuka sixpence.

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Monday, 25 January 2021

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