Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Rabbi Lionel Blue, author and contributor to Radio 4's Today programme

'I was the only Jewish pupil'
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The Independent Online

Lionel Blue, 79, is the first openly gay rabbi. He appears regularly on Radio 4's Thought for the Day on the 'Today' programme and his books include 'Hitchhiking to Heaven: an autobiography'. He presents An Evening with Rabbi Lionel Blue at the Harrogate Theatre on 16 July.

I used to translate the speech bubbles in my comics for my maternal grandmother. My English was better than hers; at 13, she had been sent from Russia to London with a label round her neck. I had two different types of education. There was the pious and political world of my Russian background – and school, which I loved, as it was so ordered and unchaotic and there weren't any spirits or superstitions in it.

I was at Rutland Street Infants in the East End from 1934 to 1939. That world collapsed in 1939 when I was evacuated. At nine, I was the odd boy out, the only Jewish kid at Sandringham Road Boys School in Exeter, but I refused to leave the school assembly because I was Jewish; I liked the hymns, especially the sentimental ones.

I was there for about a year and then my parents brought me back to London for the Blitz. We all slept in the vaults of the brewery and had big sing-songs. The first thing we did in the morning was to see if our house was still there and then we went back to school. We had to go home during the air raid which was usually just after noon.

Then I was re-evacuated and went to a very nice little church school in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, where I learnt to sing English songs which were much more cheerful than the Russian songs of my grandmother. Then I went to a school in Guildford where I started becoming odd and ceased to relate to anybody. Then I went to another school in Guildford where they tried to teach me phonetics, but I didn't grasp what that was all about.

Eventually, I went to Westminster City School, which had been evacuated to Tonbridge and shared the premises with another school; it was like a shift system. In the afternoons I went to the library and then the cinema until it closed.

At 13 I came back to London and went to Hendon County Grammar school. I fell in love with history, mathematics and Latin grammar and read all the books I could find in the halfpenny box in junk shops: Marcus Aurelius, the complete works of Thomas More and obscure Victorian novelists. My father wanted me to be a boxer but my mother wanted me to be a solicitor and at 15 I matriculated [O-level equivalent] and went to King's College, London to study law. But I walked out. I went back to school, got my A-levels and wrote applications to every college in Oxford and Cambridge. I got a nice letter from Somerville [woman's college], asking if Miss Blue played hockey.

I went to Balliol to read history but was heading for a tremendous breakdown and made a mild suicide attempt. I didn't think I could carry on and my Oxford friends gave a party in London to celebrate my not going back. During this, a man came out of the shadows and said: "Come and see me at 10 tomorrow." He was a Reichian psychoanalyst (Reich was the most radical of Freud's disciples), and told me to go back to Balliol. I got a lower-second.

I had a sort of girlfriend at Lady Margaret Hall but one morning as we were necking I realised I was homosexual; I was upset that the erotic element wasn't there for me. After I left her, I took shelter from a rainstorm in a doorway, where an old lady took me by the hand into a Quaker meeting for farmers. This led to a religious experience; it turned problems into spiritual opportunities.

I rang up my mother from Oxford and told her I was going to be a rabbi. She said: "You're only doing it to spite us; we've worked our fingers to the bone to get you out of the ghetto!"