Life & Culture

Chaim Bermant: a novelist at heart

Best known for his columns, the much-loved journalist was an enthusiastic fiction writer, as a new Bloomsbury collection shows


Fourteen years ago, on January 20 1998, Chaim Bermant — still the most celebrated of all JC writers — died suddenly, a month short of his 69th birthday. This was a death that not only brought grief to his family and close friends but one that delivered a blow to an entire community. Hundreds attended his funeral and, for all the sadness, the occasion prompted many an exchange of comical recollections. For Bermant was a big man with a very big sense of humour.

The Bermant family came to Glasgow when Chaim was nine. Those first nine years had been spent in a Yiddish-speaking household in a part of eastern Europe subject to frequent border changes. This dramatic infancy of change and upheaval helped to create the adult Bermant’s unique Polish-Lithuanian-Latvian-Yiddish-Scottish accent, made still more impenetrable by virtue of its being filtered through lips to which a smouldering, untipped cigarette was commonly attached, and around which was spread an untamed abundance of facial hair.

It is not widely known that, beyond these and other newspaper pages, Bermant wrote more than 30 books. Among them, his accounts of the British Jewish community, Troubled Eden and The Cousinhood, made a considerable impact, as did his biography of the late Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, and his memoir of his own childhood, Genesis, was both exhilarating and moving.

But, of all his output, it was his works of fiction that Bermant most enjoyed writing. And now, courtesy of Bloomsbury publishers, these can be savoured anew, with the release, under the Bloomsbury Reader imprint, of a number of his novels as e-books, with print-on-demand editions to follow (Bloomsbury hopes to publish Bermant’s non-fiction titles in due course).

Included in the first run are Diary of an Old Man, a characteristically warm treatment of old age; Swinging in the Rain, an offbeat hymn to the 1960s; Ben Preserve Us, in which he draws heavily on his knowledge of Scottish-Jewish life; Berl make Tea, detailing the surreal wanderings of a man liberated from his marriage and his job; and Jericho Sleep Alone, in which he evokes his Scottish background in the roller-coaster love life of a denizen of Jewish Glasgow.

The novels offer not only a quirky kind of period charm, but a panoply of individuals and types that blend with the real-life characters that popped up in his columns over almost 30 years (and upon a handful of whom some of his fictional creations may well have been modelled). Though the satire in the fiction was not without bite, its main ingredient was humour, inspired by Bermant’s heroes Sholem Aleichem (“the one good reason for learning Yiddish”) and Israel Zangwill (King of the Schnorrers is one of the funniest books in the English language”).

That it was in his journalism that Bermant shone the brightest should not reduce his status as a writer. Journalism, after all, as practised by individuals of the calibre of Dickens and George Orwell is a high literary art. And it is not unreasonable to bracket Bermant with such leading 20th-century exponents as Bernard Levin and Alistair Cooke.

Journalism certainly brought him to the notice of the Jewish reading public. During the time he wrote for the JC, there could scarcely have been a single, identifying British Jew — apart from on the religiously fundamentalist fringe (ironically, a rich source of material for him) — ignorant of his name. Every week for two decades, everyone, from rabbis to rogues — and several who managed to combine both identities — devoured Bermant’s On The Other Hand column. For many, it was the indispensable accompaniment to a Friday-night meal, an aperitif to ease the reader into Shabbat. For others, the content could bring on dyspepsia, apoplexy, or worse.
The latter group would mainly consist of those who feared or felt the glancing but deadly blow of Bermant’s wit that would expose them as bigots, chumps or scoundrels. And this would be delivered by way of elegantly comic observation. His targets were generally not made to look villainous. They tended to suffer the much more humiliating fate of appearing ridiculous.

Bermant’s journalism was not confined to the JC and he contributed, among others, to the Daily Telegraph and the Observer. He wrote a food column for the Independent and, though his comments could hardly be comprehensively informative given that he was strictly kosher, he was always entertaining.

But his JC column was his soap-box. It was where he could exercise his unfailing ability to pinpoint and puncture arrogance, absurdity and hypocrisy. In this regard, the more insistently blinkered members of the Orthodox rabbinical fraternity were his frequent prey.

He was on secure ground here. As an observant, Orthodox Jew and the son of a rabbi, Bermant’s humane outlook could never be seriously faulted on doctrinal grounds. And the more he made fun of the extremist nay-sayers, the more seriously they seemed to take themselves. This at times seemed to endow him with prescient powers.

For example, shortly after he jokingly wondered why our more pathologically scrupulous lawmakers had not declared lettuce to be treif, on account of the tiny creatures that tend to cling to it, came the news that a kibbutz had started producing “kosher” lettuce grown in sealed, plastic bags under rabbinic supervision.

Even more bizarrely, he wrote in 1993: “Only last month, I raised the question of whether tap water is kosher for Pesach. I now have the answer. It is not — or, at least, it is not if it comes from Lake Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee)…

“Rabbi Moshe Aryeh Freund, who is head of the strictly Orthodox Eda Charedit Beth Din in Jerusalem… has discovered that fisherman on the lake use bread as bait and has therefore forbidden its water for the purpose of drinking on Pesach… The amount of bread used is minuscule, while Lake Kinneret is fairly large. On a rough estimate, I would say that the proportion of bread to water would be in the region of 1:613,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (give or take a trillion). Rabbi Freund, however, has no sense of proportion — or, rather, he claims that the halachah has none. ‘Even a single crumb makes the Kinneret unfit for drinking’, he has said. Henceforth, no doubt, the Sea of Galilee will be known as Yam Halechem, the Bread Sea, to distinguish it from Yam Hamelach, the Dead Sea.”

So much for the day job. Thanks to Bloomsbury, you can now see what Chaim Bermant, novelist, social historian and biographer, got up to in his leisure hours.

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