Obituary: Chaim Bermant
Saturday 24 January 1998
Nobody - rabbi, scholar or politician - was as central to British Jewish life as Chaim Bermant. Over two decades, his "On the Other Hand" column was the centrepiece of the Jewish Chronicle. As such, it provided both stability and controversy. He brought into focus the preoccupations, follies and foibles of a disparate yet distinctive minority. Although this minority almost wilfully failed to cohere in other respects, every week it united in devouring - whether with relish or indigestion - the Bermant column.
His ability to achieve this was based upon a style that, for all is earthy and conversational qualities, was consistently elegant. The magic ingredient was humour. He had a warmth and a wit that enabled him to convey profound sentiments with the lightest of touches.
The product of a rigidly orthodox upbringing, he was by temperament and intellectual inclination both flexible and liberal. He was drenched in traditional Judaism and retained a love for it throughout his life. If ever a Jew advanced the spirit of his religion above the letter of religious law, it was Chaim Bermant. In an age of doubt, in which Bermant often found himself on the side of the sceptics and agnostics against those empowered to speak with authority on Jewish religious teaching, he was sometimes asked about his own beliefs. "I believe in Judaism," he would reply, "but not in rabbis."
This was a telling remark for someone whose father had been a rabbi, originally in Eastern Europe, where Chaim was born in 1929, in Breslev in a part of Poland subject to frequent border changes. In 1933, the family moved to a small, largely Jewish village in Latvia, where Chaim's father found himself in charge of both of the two local synagogues. This experience prompted Bermant to recall, in relation to the custom of celebrating two- day Jewish holidays in the Diaspora, that he had always thought this was "so that one rabbi could minister to two congregations".
In 1938, the Bermants came to Glasgow where, after school, the young Chaim taught for a while in Hebrew classes. One of his pupils was Cyril Harris, today the Chief Rabbi of South Africa. Thus was achieved the final leavening of the unique Bermant accent - Polish-Lithuanian-Latvian-Yiddish- Scottish - in which short, staccato phrases issued through an equally complex arrangement of facial hair, itself consistently at risk from the sparks and smoke of a dangling, untipped cigarette.
An ardent, though far from uncritical, Zionist, Bermant spent several prolonged periods in Israel. He tried kibbutz life in the early 1950s and, after marrying the painter Judy Weil, twice tried to transfer his family life to the Holy Land - in the 1970s and 1980s. However, he found it holier in Hampstead Garden Suburb, upon which he frequently bestowed Eden-like qualities in print.
After higher education at Glasgow University and the LSE, he became a schoolteacher between 1955 and 1957, before joining Scottish TV and then Granada, where he worked for Sidney Bernstein alongside Jeremy Isaacs. Had it not been for that impenetrable accent, he would doubtless have appeared more often than he did in front of the cameras. As it was, he showed considerable flair as a television dramatist with Pews (1980), a play about a non-Jew mischievously conscripted into a quorum for Jewish prayer.
He was a skilled writer of fiction and non-fiction, with 30 books to his credit. His novels, including Jericho Sleep Alone (1964), Berl Make Tea (1965) and Now Newman Was Old (1978) were small masterpieces of sympathetic humour. His non-fiction works, including the acclaimed account of leading Anglo-Jewish families, The Cousinhood (1971) and a biography, in 1990, of the emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits, were invariably informative and readable.
He joined the staff of the Jewish Chronicle in 1961 and three years later became its features editor. But office routine was a constraint and he embarked upon a freelance life in 1966. In the following three decades he wrote for a number of newspapers, notably the Observer and the Daily Telegraph, with great eloquence and some versatility - he once briefly wrote a food column.
But his motivation and his milieu were quintessentially Jewish, and his principal public platform was the Jewish Chronicle. His knowledge and background gave him the authority to expose intolerance and absurdities wherever they occurred, even within the most observant of religious circles. His powers of expression - as potent as any journalist writing in this country - made such exposure effective. He despised fanaticism, blinkered intolerance and injustice and was able to attack examples of them without recourse to vitriol. He was also capable of fond praise and lyrical reflection.
- Gerald Jacobs
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