Obituary: Chaim Bermant

Chaim Icyk Bermant, writer: born Breslev, Poland 26 February 1929; married 1962 Judy Weil (two sons, two daughters); died London 20 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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?