Chaim’s ge­nius Chron­i­cled

A col­lec­tion of the JC writ­ings of the late, great Chaim Ber­mant con­tin­ues to stim­u­late, ed­u­cate — and en­ter­tain

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&books -


By Chaim Ber­mant Val­len­tine Mitchell, £17.95 RE­VIEWED BY JEREMY ISAACS

Cfor more than 30 years. One of the most ad­mired jour­nal­ists of his time, he was looked up to not only in Fur­ni­val Street but also in Fleet Street. He wrote a num­ber of books, in­clud­ing nov­els that made many of us laugh out loud; re­turned to the shtetl, search­ing for his Lat­vian roots; and, af­ter his re­turn, left a mem­oir which moves and in­forms. The col­umns — around 2,000 of them — were very fine, as this se­lec­tion by Judy Ber­mant, Chaim’s artist widow, ex­pand­ing upon an ear­lier, slim­mer vol­ume, demon­strates.

But does jour­nal­ism last? To­day’s head­lines, we used to be told, wrap to­mor­row’s fish and chips; jour­nal­ism is writ­ten on sand, washed away twice daily. For the most part, that is true. All the same, what is mar­vel­lously well writ­ten de­serves to sur­vive, as col­lected es­says of ro­bust minds, dis­played on our book­shelves, tes­tify. On the Other Hand takes its place be­side them.

What do we want from a familiar weekly col­umn? We don’t need to be told we’re won­der­ful; we don’t want to be shouted at. We want an is­sue de­fined, an ar­gu­ment started, a meet­ing of minds. Let the writer punc­ture pom­pos­ity, ex­pose ar­ro­gance, ex­e­crate evil. And please, may he make us laugh?

Chaim Ber­mant, week af­ter week, did all of that. He rev­elled in his Ju­daism, but was ap­palled at the in­tol­er­ant ex­cesses of ul­tra-Or­tho­doxy. He was wed­ded to Is­rael but crit­i­cal of many Is­raeli poli­cies and ac­tions. He HAIM BER­MANT, who died 10 years ago, wrote a weekly col­umn for the Jewish Chron­i­cle de­scribed go­ings-on in school-room, syn­a­gogue, rab­bini­cal con­clave and sec­u­lar coun­cil-cham­ber. In th­ese pages, a com­mu­nity comes alive. We meet thinkers he ad­mires, and “per­son­al­i­ties” he re­fuses to take at their own val­u­a­tion. (The piece on Ye­hudi Menuhin and his haughty wife, Diana, is a minia­ture comic mas­ter­piece.)

On the Other Hand cap­tures his tone of voice: not “Oh do shut up!” but in­stead, qui­etly: “Have you thought about it this way?” He was of­ten con­tro­ver­sial. In an es­say here, Speak­ing for My­self, he writes: “I cer­tainly do not dab­ble in out­rage for its own sake. If I should oc­ca­sion­ally seem con­tro­ver­sial it is be­cause I live by the word and re­gard both words and space with rev­er­ence and I feel that if a thing is worth say­ing it is worth say­ing force­fully. My views them­selves, if ex­am­ined in de­tail, are un­re­mark­able. But I take pains to be clear, em­phatic and brief, and if I have built up a fol­low­ing at all it is largely be­cause I say pub­licly what a great many peo­ple think pri­vately.”

“Clear, em­phatic and brief” he al­ways was. One thing he said pub­licly, and re­peat­edly, was that, even al­low­ing for mur­der­ous provo­ca­tion, Is­rael’s at­ti­tude to and treat­ment of Arabs and Pales­tini­ans was heavy-handed, harsh, cruel and counter-pro­duc­tive. Had he lived, he would still be writ­ing that to­day. His anger came not from hos­til­ity, but from dis­ap­point­ment.

A cri­tique of re­alpoli­tik is one strand among many in th­ese var­ied pages. It is a book to dip into, a bed­side com­pan­ion. It would also make, even in the age of “To­day I am an iPod”, a suit­able bar­mitz­vah present, a pretty good guide to the con­cerns of Bri­tish Jewry.

On the dust jacket, Judy Ber­mant ten­derly por­trays her hus­band, bald­ing and bearded in the rab­bini­cal mode of his later years. I knew him when he was young, strong, bub­bling with en­ergy, op­ti­mism and good hu­mour, amazed at his good for­tune that our em­ployer, Granada’s Sid­ney Bern­stein, was stand­ing him red bur­gundy in his lunch-break.

All his life, he em­bod­ied life. I raise my glass to his me­mory: l’Chaim. Sir Jeremy Isaacs is the co-au­thor of a book on the Cold War to be pub­lished in Au­gust


Chaim Ber­mant: punc­tur­ing pom­pos­ity, ex­pos­ing ar­ro­gance, ex­e­crat­ing evil — and mak­ing us laugh

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