Review: On The Other Hand

By Jeremy Isaacs, May 30, 2008
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By Chaim Bermant
Vallentine Mitchell, £17.95

Chaim Bermant, who died 10 years ago, wrote a weekly column for the Jewish Chronicle for 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 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

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011