THE COMMUNAL GADFLY
HREVIEWED BY GERALD JACOBS ISTORY PROFESS O R G e o f f r e y A l d e r man has , since March 2002, been the sitting tenant on what might be called Opinion Island, set as it is within a sea of opinions. As the JC’s resident weekly columnist, not only does he share space with such blood-stirring names as Aaronovitch and Finkelstein, Freedland and Phillips, but he also directs his views at a readership never too shy to offer its own thoughts, as can be seen in the Letters to the Editor, which also abut his column.
Alderman has now collected together a generous selection of his JC columns under the whimsical title, The Communal Gadfly. A gadfly is of course a blood-sucking creature, and therefore far removed from the strictly kosher Professor Alderman. On the other hand, many who have felt the sharpness of his pen will doubtless have come away from the experience somewhat pale and drained.
Several of his victims — the Chief Rabbi, the Board of Deputies, Ken Livingstone, Harold Pinter, and an assortment of deniers and divines, pundits and parliamentarians — are lined up here in a single volume.
The column has a distinguished lineage. It was written for many years by the late Chaim Bermant, probably the finest — and funniest — of all BritishJewish commentators. And, although Alderman would never claim to replicate Bermant’s brilliant literary style, he does share some of his great predecessor’s characteristics.
Like Chaim, Geoffrey is an observant Jew, a devoted family man steeped in tradition and Jewish knowledge. If anything, he is positioned even closer to Anglo-Jewry’s communal heart. And any resultant lessening of detachment is more than compensated for by the unapologetic candour of his conclusions. He is also blessed with Bermantlike antennae for the detection of hypocrisy, cant and bigotry.
With unusual self-deprecation, Alderman owns up to having, “on occasion, employed sarcasm…” Nothing wrong with that, though, when it is employed to such effect as it was, for example, in August 2003 in a column on the sorry story of Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation’s denial of an aliyah to the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs.
Jacobs — possibly the most learned and distinguished of post-war British rabbis — had long been sidelined by the United Synagogue (in the shape of Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie and Jews’ College principal, Isidore Epstein, who had, it seems, been reluctant to retire from that post in favour of Jacobs) for his view that not every word of the Bible was dictated directly by God. And when Rabbi Jacobs was in Bournemouth that summer for the wedding of his granddaughter and, on Shabbat, naturally attended shul, he was refused an aliyah by the BHC’s then minister, Lionel Rosenfeld.
Alderman’s view of Rabbi Jacobs was that “in terms of intellectual greatness, I would rank him much higher than Dr Brodie, Dr Epstein, Dr Jonathan Sacks, and even Mr Rosenfeld”. Jane Austen would be pleased to have placed in the mouth of one of her characters a flourish as sarcastic as to be f ound i n those last four words. As to Rosenfeld’s plea that he was merely doing what he was told by the London Beth Din, our columnist wondered: “Does Mr Rosenfeld make a habit of consulting the Beth Din before giving each and every aliyah at his synagogue?”
Such moments, where rabbinical policy replaces simple humanity
Our man taking up the case of Helen Sagal, whose son was rejected by JFS