My father, the radio rabbi, master of the 'God slot'

Rabbi Hugo Gryn was known to millions for broadcasts in which he brought a Jewish sensibility to bear on the world’s troubles. In this extract from a new book, his daughter, Naomi Gryn, pays tribute to a much-loved communicator

September 28, 2010
Rabbi Hugo Gryn brought Judaism to the masses through talks on the BBC and commercial stations.

Rabbi Hugo Gryn brought Judaism to the masses through talks on the BBC and commercial stations.

My father, Hugo, was a guest on Desert Island Discs in 1994. The producer was unable to find in the BBC collection a recording of one of his requested tracks, Kol Ha'Olam (The Whole World) played by klezmer clarinettist Israel Zohar. My father remembered that I had said I had a copy and called me from the studio. I jumped on my bicycle with the quarter-inch tape, joined him at Broadcasting House in Portland Place and sat with the sound engineer while the presenter, Sue Lawley, and my father recorded the rest of the show. It was his eighth and final music choice, the disc that he would have taken with him to the desert island if he could take only one.

"The words come from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a remarkable teacher and mystic thinker," said my father. "Kol ha'olam kulo gesher tzar me'od, v'ha'ikar lo lefahed klal; the whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing - the ikar - is not to be afraid."

On a dark and stormy night 17 years before, sitting in the car, he had asked me about my plans. Yet to take A-levels, I rarely planned much beyond breakfast, but on this occasion, surprising even myself, I blurted out: "I want to go into religious broadcasting!"

I didn't yet know exactly what that might entail, but to encourage this newfound ambition, my father invited me to come with him to the BBC's television studios in White City, where he was recording an episode of The Light of Experience. I watched from the gallery as he gave an account of how he and his family were deported to Auschwitz in 1944 when he was just 13 years old. It was the first time I had heard him speak about the Holocaust in such a public forum. He was dignified and eloquent and, like everyone else in the studio that day, I was profoundly moved.

In between these two memorable occasions we collaborated on several television documentaries with Jewish themes, including Chasing Shadows, a film I produced for Channel 4 Television in 1989, chronicling his first return since 1945 to his hometown, Berehovo, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. While we were editing the film, I encouraged my father to start writing his memoirs, but he died from brain cancer in 1996 and never found time to finish them. I edited his recollections into a book, also called Chasing Shadows, published in 2000, but apart from this, little of his writings have previously been made public.

He knew about life from many vantage points, and he knew about suffering first-hand

And yet, split between the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies where we, his four children, have deposited much of his archive, and my mother's spare bedroom in Marylebone where we store the rest, there are dozens of boxes crammed with lectures, addresses, sermons and eulogies. Among them are more than 400 scripts for various radio "God slots", written and broadcast between 1976 and 1996. And it is probably for this ministry of the airwaves that my father was best known.

These radio talks were about the values that mattered most to my father: taking care of the needy and the vulnerable, devotion to learning, and his lifelong quest for shalom, or peace. Some are in the style of a meditation or miniature sermon, others are personal recollections or potted histories of his spiritual heroes; nearly always there's a good story at the core. He drew inspiration from sources ranging from the five books of Moses to George Orwell and Mahatma Gandhi. Often he spoke from personal experience or used current affairs as a springboard: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of a "new Europe", race riots, the Israel–Arab conflict, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans. Some of these struggles sound like distant thunder, others rumble on and on.

My father had a knack for public speaking. His voice - chocolate stained with nicotine - was warm and engaging even when challenging people's complacency, questioning society's values, demanding more rigorous attention to our individual and collective morality. His command of English was excellent but my father's accent and syntax, both forged in the central European crucible in which he had been raised, included hints of Hungarian, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Czech and Scottish, as well as a mid-Atlantic seasoning he had acquired during his years as a student rabbi in Ohio, and later when he lived in New York. This lent him a certain authority: he knew about life from many different vantage points, and he knew about suffering first-hand.

Oliver McTernan - then a Catholic priest, now a specialist in conflict resolution - was, with my father, one of the regular contributors to Capital Radio's Reflections. For a long time, these pre-recorded inserts went out during When the Spirit Moves, Al Matthew's Sunday morning gospel music show. But as the years went by, the station scheduled its Reflections slot earlier and earlier until it was better suited to insomniacs than to morning listeners, reducing the duration of the broadcasts to what my father used to say was not so much of a sound-bite as a sound-lick. Fortunately Oliver convinced my father that it was worth the effort of writing and recording their respective offerings to keep alive on Capital a spark of the transcendent and more than a quarter of the scripts reproduced in the book come from those sessions. By contrast, millions heard my father's contributions to the God slot on Radio 2's Breakfast Show and through the BBC's World Service he reached tens of millions, from Antigua to Zambia.

His success as a broadcaster did not go to his head. "The media chews you up," he used to say "and then it spits you out." Yet despite periodic attempts to freshen-up the panel, for seven years - right up until two weeks before he died - his was the voice of reason on Moral Maze, BBC Radio 4's weekly debate on ethical issues. At the end of each show, the masterly host Michael Buerk gave my father the honour of having the last word. It was a kind of a rabbinic benediction, usually in the form of an anecdote or parable, with which he would try to sum up the discussion and restore equanimity for listeners, fellow-panellists and the programme's guests after what often spun into verbal brawls.

In Britain today religion is regarded more or less as a private affair and many people argue that the God slot is a dodo. But I can still hear my father's voice making the case that in this multicultural, multi-faith society, religious education and interfaith dialogue are important avenues by which we can get a measure of insight into each other's beliefs and values and learn how to respect and trust one another.

The radio and television producers with whom he worked understood the impact of a religious leader who had survived the Holocaust and could still see above the trees. His call for tolerance and harmony and the celebration of difference is as urgent in this century as it was in the last.

What remains of my father's God-slot legacy - apart from a handful of studio tapes digitised for posterity by the BBC and some home recordings on audio cassette - is a cardboard box of scripts, each illustrating from a different perspective the point that he most wanted to make, that life - all life - is a blessing, and a gift from God.

© Naomi Gryn 2010. Abridged from 'Three Minutes of Hope: Hugo Gryn on the God Slot' published by Continuum, 2010 at £12.99

Last updated: 4:40pm, October 5 2010