Rabbi Lionel Blue: 'Gays have quite a lot to learn from religious people'
Saturday 12 February 2011
Rabbi Lionel Blue – my favourite rabbi; the nation's favourite rabbi; what's not to love? – lives in a modest terraced house in Finchley, north London, with a sensational interior. How best to describe it? Well, it's the opposite of minimalist, so must, I suppose, be maximalist, and it is magnificently maximalist; stuff everywhere. Aside from the teetering
Towers of books and papers, the place is crammed to the very rafters with knick-knacks and bric-a-brac: baskets of onyx eggs, novelty clocks, royal souvenir mugs, teddies, wooden clogs and that's not the half of it, or even the ten thousandth. Lionel, I say, you're a knick-knack and bric-a-brac maniac. He thinks he should have a bit of a clear-out, but "even though I tell myself that every time I go out I must take a book to the charity shop, I find it very difficult". He does have a lovely, soothing voice; you know, that Radio 4, Thought for the Day voice. It's the sort of voice you want to melt into and never come out of, particularly at 7.45am, when the day ahead looks rubbish, as it so often does.
He is marvellously warm and hospitable. "Can I get you anything?" he asks. "Tea? Coffee? Gefilte fish?" I say that, Jewish as I am, I'm not a huge fan of gefilte fish, particularly the boiled version, which tastes like fishy, wet sweater. His kind face droops sadly, so I add that I don't mind the fried so much. "I have fried!" he says. "You want fried? I have fried!" We shuffle to the kitchen, trying not to bang into anything, proceeding single file. Lionel leads, I follow. He is now 81, a little frail, and uses a stick. Where is your health at these days, Lionel? He says: "I've had a pacemaker and two heart bypasses and I've had two doses of cancer and I have Parkinson's and other bits and pieces, and the number of tablets I take is enormous." Oh dear, I say. He says he is not downhearted about it. "I get by. I seem to have the sturdy Russian peasant stamina of my grandparents. I spend a lot of time in hospitals but I don't mind hospitals. In fact, I like the public wards. They're like the streets I used to live in in the East End. They've got the same bustle."
Into the kitchen, where breakfast cereals and condiments pile up, and where I meet 84-year-old Jim, Lionel's partner since they met through a personal ad in the Gay Times 30 years ago. Did you hit it off straight away? "We both knew what we wanted," says Lionel, "and we didn't want to be the oldest swingers in town. We wanted a home." Jim is on his way out to the launderette with a big bag of washing. Hang on, I say, you have a tin clock in the shape of a rooster, but no washing machine? "We had room for a dishwasher or a washing machine and picked a dishwasher," says Jim. Lionel says: "A sandwich? You want a sandwich?" I say a coffee will be fine for now. Jim departs as Lionel takes me into the living room, which has yet more stuff plus sprigged wallpaper, a swirly carpet, floral upholstery, crocheted throws and wall-to-wall paintings and photographs. As far as I can recall, it's a decorative style that has yet to feature in World of Interiors or Elle Decoration, although it is probably their loss. He wonders why he can't ever throw anything out. "Perhaps," he says, "it's because each thing reminds me of an essential part of my life." He then adds: "But, before I die, I should make a clean sweep of the lot. I am too encumbered and I don't think you should be so encumbered as you reach the horizon of your life." I say: don't talk like that, Lionel. He says he is not frightened of death. I say neither am I but, as Woody Allen once put it, I don't want to be there when it happens. He says: "I would like to be there when it happens. Religion, for me, has always turned things inside out, and things which I feared turned into opportunities or blessings. It's possible that death could be a very illuminating event for me. I don't like pain, but dying is not a problem."
A photograph catches my eye, of a man and woman attired in finery and looking most swish. I point this out, as much to change the subject as anything, and he says the couple are his grandparents, Maurice and Chaya, then asks: "Do you notice something odd about that photo?". I say I do not. He says his grandparents weren't truly wearing such finery, and weren't seated in such a grand room. Really? How so? "They were much too poor for that. They have their heads and hands stuck through a canvas in the photographer's studio." Lionel, as a child, was also poor. His father was a tailor who couldn't find work during the Depression, while his mother, a legal secretary, spent long periods in hospital with some kind of blood problem. Did you mind being poor, Lionel? "Oh, yes. I used to lie sometimes to other children, saying we had a double-fronted house, but it doesn't matter anymore, and my standards still go back to the East End. It's a marvel I've got a bathroom and hot water."
He used to share this house with his mother, Hetty, who lived until she was 93. She and her sister had the ground floor, while Lionel and Jim had upstairs. And did Hetty and Jim get on? "Yes," he says, "although she was very manipulative. When Jim came home she'd say: 'Hard day at work, Jim?' And he'd say: 'Yes.' So she'd say: 'Tired, Jim?' And he'd say: 'Yes.' So she'd say: 'Feel like a cup of tea, Jim?' And he'd say: 'Yes.' So she'd say: 'Make me one, too.'" He laughs. I ask if his parents accepted his homosexuality completely. He says they did, eventually, although when he was 16 they sent him to a Harley Street psychiatrist who asked him to draw whatever he fancied on a piece of paper – a bit of a Red at the time, he drew a hammer and sickle – and then declared it was just a phase he would grow out of. He thinks he knew he was gay at 10 or 11 because "when other boys talked about girls, I was looking at the football team, although, as people didn't talk about such things then, I didn't know what it was about". He sat on his gay feelings, so to speak, until a trip to Amsterdam's gay bars and saunas in his twenties, after Oxford. He spent three months there and while the sexual relief was fantastic, he found he did not much care for the soullessness of the gay scene at that time. "Gay bars," he says, "can be quite chilly and rapacious. I think gays have given a lot, but they also have quite a lot to learn from religious people." Still, it did not put him off sex; not in the least. He is even, perhaps, overly keen on offering sex tips. "When you are in your eighties," he announces at one point, "there's a lot more foreplay and a lot less climax... you don't have to rush so much." Well, I say, that's something to look forward to. (Is it? It depends how much time you have, I suppose).
He has written a book, The Godseeker's Guide, a sort of spiritual self-help manual intended to aid those in search of spiritual meaning. Lionel found his God at Oxford in the 1950s, and his God has a name, which is "Fred". I say if I were to find a God, and I gave it the name "Ginger", do you think we could encourage my God and your God to get together, face the music and dance? Maybe, he says, adding that Fred is most affectionate. "I hold his hand and we sit next to each other and we cuddle." I say that, having read the book, which is also heavily autobiographical, I did wonder if Fred might simply embody some kind of wish-fulfilment. As a lonely child, and a confused young adult, might Fred be less God, and more the accepting, loving friend you never had? He says he has spent a lifetime in psychoanalysis thinking about this and his answer is a conclusive "no". He continues with: "You can't prove or disprove God. In these matters, you have to rely on your experience. I went along with religion for many years not believing it because, after all, a lot of it is not believable, but as I went on in life I began to trust it more and more, and it reshaped me, made me a much nicer person. I went into religion because I had other problems and I stayed in it because the religious thing worked."
His boyhood was not happy. He was an only, isolated child. ("Being a homo child," he writes in the book, "you are rather on your own.") He did not believe in God then, did not have his Fred. He remembers his grandmother telling him that if you prayed for something hard enough it would happen, so he prayed Hitler and Mosley would die, but they didn't, so by the age of five he'd finished with religion. And he never felt safe. "I remember anti-Semitic propaganda daubed on Jewish streets and my father planning my route home from school so I didn't get roughed up. I was sure the Germans were going to invade and I'd end up in a gas chamber." He was evacuated from London at nine and moved 16 times, "so I didn't have any friends". He remembers the first evacuation. In 1939, he was told to come to school with a rucksack, which sounds simple enough, "but my two grandmothers quarrelled over what should go in the rucksack. One grandmother put in all bits of Kosher food, while the other one put in my prayer books, prayer shawls and all that sort of thing. When I tried to put on the rucksack, it was so full I just fell over on my back". He felt loved by his parents, but suffocatingly so. All their expectations were poured into him. "Mum wanted me to be a very astute lawyer, property dealing and all that sort of thing, while dad wanted me to be a boxer." He says that when he first told Hetty he was going to become a rabbi, she was horrified, and said: "Lionel, you are doing this to spite us. All our lives we have worked our fingers to the bone to get you out of the ghetto and what do you do? You jump straight back in again..."
He went to Oxford, studied history, channelled his repressed sexuality into various ideologies – Marxism, mostly – and had a nervous breakdown. I said I'd read he'd thrown himself off a wardrobe. He says, no, "I was going to throw myself off a balcony but then some friends came along, as I rather knew they would." Psychoanalysis and Fred saved him, he says. "Religion gave me back my soul and analysis gave me back my body." I find I am very interested in how Jews do gays. Is there a Jewish position on being gay, I ask. He says the Reform are generally accepting, and there are quite a few gay and lesbian rabbis now, but the Orthodox "sees it as an illness and pity you". He then corrects himself with an anecdote: "Actually, some of them have been awfully nice to me. I went to see a specialist in hospital not long ago and he was a very orthodox Jew. He wore a yarmulke and the tzitzit and everything and he called me 'Rabbi' all the time, which was nice of him. And he asked me if I had any problems, and I told him I lived with a chap, and with my heart condition, could I make love? And he was very nice about that, and I really thought: Lionel, you must not stereotype people." He then says he is too "way out" to be a threat to more observant Jews, "and as I mainly speak to non-Jews on the radio, I can't do too much harm".
I'm afraid I abuse Lionel horribly – treat him like a personal counsellor as I try to probe my own Judaism. He is kind, patient, consoling and says, yes, of course I always hated Hebrew school. "The teaching is so primitive," he says. But, I tell him, my siblings and I used to chant, "We don't want no, syna-go-go." Isn't that awful? "My mother," he says, "never went to synagogue. She thought that religion was for rich people, women who didn't have to earn a living. But she did start going later in life and liked it in the end." What, I ask him, does being Jewish actually mean? As I'm a crap Jew, and do nothing to keep the religion going, do I have the right to describe myself as a Jew? He says: "It could be that, without you choosing it, you're part of a story which you can't escape from. I used to think to myself, in the war, if only one could not be a Jew, but even if you didn't observe Judaism, you'd end up in the same concentration camp as if you did. You're landed with it, and being Jewish means you have the grace to take this heritage and make the best you can of it. Now, gefilte fish... I have fried!" I partake of some fish, then go back to my house which I once thought the most cluttered place on the planet, but no more. Somehow, Lionel Rabbi Blue always makes you feel better about yourself. It's why we all love him so.
'The Godseeker's Guide' is published by Continuum at £9.99
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