My father, the cheating rabbi

Saturday Live
Radio 4, Saturday, April 5

There is often a moment as the clock radio clicks onto the Today programme in the morning when the news somehow fuses with your dreams to conjure a strange vision. You know the kind of things — James Naughtie interviewing Gordon Brown as he strums a mandolin aboard an ocean-going liner and The Rev Ian Paisley sitting in the bath eating pink cup cakes.

Normally at the weekend I make sure the alarm is turned off. However, last weekend I obviously neglected to do so because I was awoken by the sound of the radio — and there was a strange dream reverberating in my head involving a philandering rabbi, novelist Nick Hornby, a groundbreaking mathematician and a tap-dancing ostrich.

Until recently I would have spent a considerable time attempting to separate dream from reality. However, now, thanks to the wonder of the BBC iPlayer which allows you to listen and watch BBC programmes on your computer after they are broadcast, it is possible to piece things together more easily.

The philandering rabbi turned out not to be a figment of my subconscious but rather Rabbi Percy Selvin Goldberg, a man with a great following at Manchester Reform Synagogue in the post-war years, and a liking for the ladies. However, although gossiped about, his series of affairs was never openly talked about in the community — until his daughter, writer Sandra Levi, decided to write a novel based on a fictional rabbi who has a series of affairs.

Levi told presenter Fi Glover of her shock when the launch of her novel, Rites and Wrongs, scheduled to take place at the synagogue over which Rabbi Goldberg used to preside, was cancelled at short notice. She added that she had received a letter from a synagogue member containing the words “filth, filth, filth”.

What was amazing about the whole episode, said Levi, was that Rabbi Goldberg had been dead for nearly 29 years and it was even longer since he had left Manchester to go and live in America. Yet by blowing the lid, albeit in a novel, on the steamy goings-on in a respectable Manchester suburb, Levi now felt like a pariah. “It was a bit like I was Mrs Rushdie, like I’d written a Jewish Satanic Verses,” said a still perplexed Levi.

So why had everyone got so upset? She surmised that most of the congregants had been suffering with “a collective amnesia” and they did not wish to be reminded of events. It was clearly a case of time not being a healer.

Yet, the story, as told by Levi to Glover, seemed like the perfect material for a novel.

Levi’s parents’ marriage had been an arranged one and their relationship had not been good. Goldberg had risen to prominence in the Manchester community — he had appeared on television and had ironically pioneered a marriage guidance service while all the time his congregants visited his house bearing gifts in return for a little personal rabbinical consultation.

Levi’s mother’s response was to put copious amounts of garlic in Goldberg’s food, which he hated, presumably in the hope that it would put off his lady friends.

Despite the trauma of living in what was clearly an unhappy home, Levi recalled good times. And she saw the book, entitled Rites and Wrongs, as more of an affectionate tribute to her father than anything else. She said:of him: “You can be a great man and have great faults. Often the two go hand in hand.”

Nick Hornby (yes, he really was on the show) added that if the account is fictional it was usually best not to make too much of a fuss about it: “People are not very good at responding to fiction these days. They give the game away.”

And with that, Glover introduced mathematician Darren Crowdy, who had cracked some amazing mathematical formula or other.

I’m still trying to work out where the tap-dancing ostrich fitted in.

    Last updated: 1:31pm, June 2 2008