A version of this article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on August 14, 1999 

The recent controversy about the Lord’s Prayer in Saskatchewan was one that I felt personally involved with. It was a question about which I was completely ambivalent. The roots of that ambivalence and why, ultimately, I feel it was a good decision not to force the Lord’s Prayer on everyone, lie in my own past and in my own journey to a Jewish identity.

I grew up on Yonge Street near St. Joseph Street in downtown Toronto. Almost 50 years ago, my older brother Sheldon and I attended Wellesley Public School, where there were never more than four or five Jews at any one time. When it closed in 1957, we were probably the only two left.

In our school, especially in the early grades, I got a good Christian education. In kindergarten, I got to stick the felt figures of Jesus, his family and the disciples up on the felt board. I often thought how great it would be to be part of such a pleasant brotherhood, all with smiling, dare I say, saintly faces.

Our neighbour, a boy in my brother’s class, sometimes took me along to the United Church Sunday School where I also learned interesting songs and facts. When I got to high school, I was the only one who knew that Saint Elizabeth and Mary were related and that Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins.

I also soon learned that I was part of the British Commonwealth. It was a glorious thing to see the map of the world and to learn to beam with pride that all those pink parts belonged to “us.” In those days, I could feel that “us” included me. Only as a teenager did I learn that Jews were not allowed to join the Granite Club.

One of the earliest academic activities we had was to cut out information on the new Queen and to paste pictures of the coronation all over the room. This was our Queen and I could sing Land of Hope and Glory with fervour. Somehow this Britishness was attached to hymns — so I learned to sing Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past on solemn occasions such as Remembrance Day with feelings of both reverence and patriotism.

We all learned the Lord’s Prayer along with God Save the King — later Queen — and repeated these every morning as part of our opening exercises. Sometimes, as I recall, we finished the Lord’s Prayer with the words, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost — Amen.” It was always a source of interest to me why we mentioned these things — but I never actually asked about it. Later, I think we dropped the phrase and finished with “For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, Forever and Ever, Amen.”

On a regular basis, our school had a visit from an Anglican, Presbyterian or United Church minister, who gave a sermon to the assembled classes on some important subject that most of us did not listen to and seldom remembered. In those days, we spoke of Wellesley as the “Protestant” school to distinguish it from the “Catholic” school in the neighbourhood.

Sad to say, the Catholics, as a group, were our enemies even when individual Catholics were our friends. Some even attended our school. As a Protestant supporter, I identified with King Billy riding down Yonge Street on his white charger and followed by an unruly mob, chanting anti-Catholic slogans. As a Jew, I had the unpleasant experience of being accosted by Catholic kids and, being told that I had “killed Jesus,” something I hotly denied. Jesus was that nice young man I had learned about since kindergarten. Why would I kill him?

Immigrant children of immigrant parents, my brother and I also had to deal with being called “DPs.” As both of us were rather large, strong and athletic, we quickly learned that the way to be accepted by our peers was to fight and beat up anybody who dared to do this. Later, one or two even ventured to call us “Dirty Jews,” to their subsequent regret. I have to admit that, eventually, I also lost a fight when my opponent “fought dirty.” He happened to be someone I had beaten several times before, but his hatred for me and for “Jews” just never stopped burning.

My mother tongue was Yiddish, which I first spoke everywhere and to everyone. When I started to play with others in our neighbourhood, I soon learned that not speaking English was bad. The first group of children I approached laughed at my funny way of talking and then chased me home. The ringleader of this English gang later turned out to be Don Bain, the child of French-Canadian parents who had “immigrated” to Toronto from the countryside, perhaps from Northern Ontario.

In discussing this language matter with my parents, I was told to speak Yiddish only to them, my brother or my family. They stressed that I should never speak Yiddish in front of customers in our store, because that was impolite. Yiddish was not for public consumption.

This language difference was the first one I was consciously aware of. The world was divided into two: Yiddish and English. Anyone who was not part of the first group was a part of the second. In addition, as I learned later, my parents, in speaking of the English, were actually often referring to Christians. For example, I was told that we did not celebrate Christmas because we were not English.

This meant that Hans Mueller, the Orlando family, Doug Chin and Gordon Chong were also English. What was worse, I had the Yiddish English divide inside myself because I was English at school but Yiddish at home. One of the greatest surprises of my pre-teen years was to meet Jews from the north end of Toronto who did not speak Yiddish. This is only one of the great complications life held in store for me.

Other complications arose early on. First, it became obvious to me mid-way through Grade 2 that the Lord’s Prayer was a Christian one and when I said it, that internal split between English and Yiddish became palpable.

Second, I had to go to Jewish School after regular school and on Sundays. At the age of seven, I learned to take the newly opened subway from Wellesley to Dundas where I caught the street car to Beverley and then walked up to D’arcy Street. This was a bygone era, B.C.M. (Before Child Molesters).

One time, my mother came to school and dragged me away from volleyball practice because I was late for Jewish School. I screamed as I was dragged away, embarrassed, angry and mortified. To no avail. I continued to attend Jewish School in rain, snow, sleet and hail.

Furthermore, I had to give up Christmas carols, my special domain. I had a beautiful soprano voice and sang them with gusto. I was always called upon to go carolling with my brother and his pals since they would receive tips and hot chocolate for my singing. Everything ended when I ate some snow and was sick as a dog on returning home. My parents saw this as a just punishment and so my carolling career ended. They explained that I was Jewish, not English.

I was also shocked to learn that Santa Claus could not come to our house. Apparently, although I went to see him faithfully at Eaton’s every year and was always there at Queen’s Park to see him go by with his reindeer, he could not come down our chimney. As my mother explained, we had a furnace in which we burned coal all winter and he would get incinerated if he made the attempt. Somehow, this also turned out to be because we were Jewish.

I had a crisis every year when our class drew names out of a hat and I had to exchange Christmas gifts with another child. There were endless heated discussions in the family on what we should do, but in the end, I just participated in a very self-conscious way. It was always embarrassing to explain that this was not our custom and no, I didn’t receive anything else for Christmas. After all, I was Yiddish, not English.

My brother, who could handle himself very well in a fight, nevertheless at one point became extremely conscious of how “Yiddish” my name sounded, even in its English version. When I was about six or seven, he took me aside and explained that he was embarrassed by having to go out in the neighbourhood, yelling “Rubin,” every time he called me in for supper. So from that moment until I was about 17, he and everyone else outside the family called me “Norm” — a more normal name for those parts.

I could never shake off the feeling that my Jewishness was something not to advertise. When I was 15, my father’s cousin from Israel paid us a visit. A student cantor, he would break out into Hebrew song everywhere. On a visit to Toronto Island, he and I sat down to a homemade lunch at a picnic table. Suddenly, he took off his hat and put on his skull cap. I broke out into a cold sweat. Was anyone watching? Would people laugh? Was there anyone who could attack me from behind? I felt as conspicuous as if he had just taken off all his clothes.

Almost 40 years after this event, I find the world has gone through a sort of ironic revolution. Despite our early alienation from formal Judaism, my brother and I eventually learned to respect our parents’ dedication to their faith, their culture and their families. Today, we both work for Jewish organizations and I have reclaimed my name. My children have all attended Jewish Day School in Ottawa and know Hebrew songs much better than they know Christmas carols. None of them can rapidly and by rote repeat The Lord’s Prayer the way I can. None know the words to God Save the Queen. These things are just part of my personal ties to the past.

On the other hand, instead of looking on their Jewish heritage with condescension or shame, they are proud of their background and can look on all cultures with respect. All of them still loved Santa Claus although none has ever been told they killed Christ. Only one out of four has ever had to fight someone about being Jewish and that just once. King Billy no longer rides his horse down Yonge Street in Toronto and it is no longer acceptable to rally hate against Catholics.

And just yesterday I was walking down Queen Street in Ottawa, wearing a skull cap and no one stared. I had forgotten to take it off and, anyway, it covers my bald spot. On the whole, we have gained more than we have lost. Welcome to the new millennium (Christian time).

Rubin Friedman (Riwen Fridman on his Citizenship Papers) works for B `nai Brith Canada.