A study in family and freedom

By David Robson, January 18, 2013
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He died aged 93. A big, handsome, positive-minded man, his last years brought ill health. His memory failed and speaking became difficult. But on Friday night just before his death, there was one thing that animated him — kiddush. He joined in and was word-perfect. Last Pesach, when he hardly had the ability to ask, let alone understand the answer, he still knew Ma nishtana. He was not Orthodox but he was suffused with Jewishness. It was bred in the bone.

As I looked round at his family and friends, gathered for prayers and comfort, I spotted few for who those Hebrew sentences were likely to be their last-remembered mantra. His parents had arrived poor in Edinburgh from Lithuania. There were ten children. He was the youngest, the only one his parents could afford to support through years of education, and like many exam-passing sons of that generation he became a doctor, bringing an unbeatable injection of yichus. By all accounts he was a wonderful GP, providing exceptional attentiveness as well as great commitment to his small Jewish community.

Perhaps the most special moment of an evening when many in his family talked movingly of his role as loving and revered patriarch was provided by an elegantly spoken retired non-Jewish medical man. He had seen the death notice in The Times and gone to some lengths to make contact with the family. His father had been senior partner in the surgery and, as a child, he had known the deceased as “uncle”. He was aware of the importance of the Jewish aspect of his life, kept quite separate from his work, and had been very touched when later and now in London, his “uncle” had chosen him as the consultant surgeon to perform a delicate operation on him.

It felt like the end of an era. He was the last of his generation to die. His grandchildren were spread across continents and professions. One is a solicitor, as the deceased might have been if science had been a blind spot. But the limiting shortlist of traditional Jewish-approved occupations has long ago gone by the board. The room was full of, yea, the third and fourth generations. It was a study in emancipation, a close, loving family but one for whom the world is its oyster (the eating of which isn’t beyond the pale).

The gathering was testimony to his success as both family man and man of the world. He was a model British Jew, respected on all sides. He had been able to look back via his parents to a different Jewishness in a hostile place as well as forward to his life in a far more promising land. We of the next generation or the one after no longer have that. Now it’s the stuff of history books and heritage tours.

His funeral did not just say goodbye to a man, it broke a link with another time and place where Jewishness was of the essence. His family’s love, as well as its happiness and success, is a tribute to what he brought to it but they have moved into a world where not knowing the kiddush by heart is no reason to say you’re sorry.

Last updated: 10:45am, January 18 2013