Hypocrisy - the writer's spur

I never intended to become a journalist. I have never been trained as a journalist. I have no journalistic accreditation and I am not a member of the NUJ.

Had I told my parents that I had ambitions in the journalistic direction they would at best have given me "a good talking to" and might even have called in a shrink.

My parents wanted me to become a doctor. Naturally, I acceded to their wishes. Indeed, I am the proud holder of two doctorates, though neither is of the sort that my parents originally had in mind.

My father seriously doubted that one could make a living as a historian (a mishegaas), but accepted that I would be paid a salary as an employed academic. So it was, as an employed academic, that I began to receive invitations to write for the press. It was by that particular side-door that I entered the world of the professional columnist.

Bermant did not 'dabble in outrage' for its own sake, or tell a juicy story just for its juiciness

All this is by way of preamble, to enable you to appreciate how genuinely shocked I was ("gobsmacked" is I believe the mot juste) at being selected as the 2011 recipient of the Chaim Bermant Prize for Journalism, all the more so when you consider how many of the other nominees were (like Bermant himself) eminent career journalists with national and even international media profiles.

I gather that what weighed with the judges was this very column - the one that I have presented to you on this page virtually every week since March 2002, and which Bermant made famous, though the column traces its origins to the informed irreverence of the Reverend A L Green, who wrote for the JC in the 19th century under the pseudonym "Nemo."

Bermant was of course a master wordsmith. In his column, entitled On The Other Hand, he did not (to quote his own words) "dabble in outrage" for its own sake, or tell a juicy story just for its juiciness.

But, like me, he hated "complacency and humbug" and once, in conversation together (over the inevitable glass of very fine Scotch) he and I discovered we had another idiosyncrasy in common - namely that we suffered from an identical allergy; to wit, a pronounced aversion to hypocrisy in all its forms.

There was neither humbug nor complacency in his column. And there were certainly no sacred cows.

Bermant consoled himself, over that glass of very fine Scotch, that, although writing the JC column had not made him many friends, it had certainly made him, what he called, "a better class of enemy".

And so it has been with me. But this is not a personal complaint. Rather, the fact is that, in writing as I do, about the subject matters I choose to write about, I have indeed made "a better class of enemy". What is more, this tells us something rather profound about our communal immaturity where the public media are concerned.

We are obsessively preoccupied with public image. Even when the media feature our triumphs - say, the disproportionate numbers of Jews in higher education or within the learned professions, or showbusiness - we are distinctly uneasy. And when the media focus on our tragedies - say, child abuse or drug addiction - we wriggle and squirm, affecting to see all sorts of conspiracies where none actually exists.

And, partly because of this obsession with image, there is about us precious little accountability and even less transparency. Specifically, the press are rarely invited into the meetings that matter. Within British Jewry, there are too many closed doors.

But it need not be that way. No Beth Din that I know of in this country permits, or has ever permitted, the press to routinely observe its day-to-day business. Yet in Jewish Warsaw, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Yiddish press was habitually allowed to report on matters before the rabbinical court.

Inevitably, matrimonial cases (some tragic, some frankly hilarious) featured prominently in these despatches.

As Eddy Portnoy, who teaches Yiddish at Rutgers University, reminded us in the online Tablet magazine last year, in 1927 the Warsaw rabbinate attempted to ban journalists from the Beth Din, only to be told by none other than the dayanim themselves that "under the current progressive societal conditions, it is simply not possible to shut the door of such an institution like the rabbinate on the Jewish public".

The dayanim were right. So, please, when I contact you to ask for help in getting at the facts behind the news, don't shut the door in my face.

    Last updated: 10:28am, March 21 2011