Review: The Communal Gadfly
The professor's best bites
Our man taking up the case of Helen Sagal, whose son was rejected by JFS
By Geoffrey Alderman
Academic Studies Press, £29.50
History professor Geoffrey Alderman 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 British-Jewish commentators. And, although Alderman would never claim to replicate Bermant’s brilliant literary style, he does share some of his great predecessor’s characteristics.
Sceptical, spiky, sometimes spiteful but always scrupulous
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 Bermant-like 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 found in 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 with blinkered stupidity, are grist to the Aldermanic mill, as are, inter alia, Jewish critics of Israel, Islamists and their apologists and, almost above all, the antics of those whom he terms the “pseudo-Orthodox”.
Alderman is keenly alert to the vagaries, idiocies, inconsistencies and rank injustices carried out behind strictly Orthodox smokescreens, often with regard to sexual matters. Here, he pillories the “concern with the minutiae of female attire”, ascribing such tendencies to the overwhelmingly male nature of religious fundamentalism, which manifests itself in “a primeval fear of womanhood”.
The ultimate test of a columnist for his reader — and, I can add, editor — is when he is articulating a view with which you find yourself in strong disagreement and yet, at the same time, stimulated or entertained. Alderman passes this test. You would certainly want him on your side. Indeed, a number of individuals — notably would-be JFS parents and others challenging educational discrimination — have benefited from Professor Alderman’s readiness to take up their cases.
This book’s production and design (though not its content) convey the slightly dry flavour of the lecture theatre but the vivid, attitude-laden quality of the prose cannot be gainsaid. Sceptical, spiky, sometimes spiteful but always scrupulous, Alderman’s selection holds one’s attention throughout, even on a second reading.
Unlike Chaim Bermant, Geoffrey Alderman may not be guaranteed always to produce a laugh, but he can be relied upon frequently to raise a smile. Thus, in 2006, he concluded a column about the notorious Mohammed cartoons with a call for all Jews to “protest” against the Danish newspaper’s “insensitive” decision to publish them — by joining him “in boycotting Danish bacon”.
Gerald Jacobs is the JC’s literary and comment editor. He has for most of Geoffrey Alderman’s years as JC columnist been responsible for editing his column