Life & Culture

Legacy of a legend: JC’s star columnist who feared nobody

A memorial event taking place next week in Edgware for Chaim Bermant will unlock a treasure chest of memories for readers


Throughout the second half of the 20th century, two Jewish writers stood at the pinnacle of British journalism.

Both wrote for a number of publications, but their journalistic raison d’etre was the newspaper opinion column. One — Bernard Levin — plied his trade at The Times; the other — Chaim Bermant — wrote for the Jewish Chronicle.

On the face of it, Levin would seem to have enjoyed the far broader brief; he could write about anything and anybody, while Bermant was confined to Jewish subject matter.

Yet it didn’t feel like that. Bermant’s JC column never gave any sign of being hemmed in. His range of subjects bore the stamp of a widely read and highly educated individual in both Jewish and mainstream disciplines — he attended Glasgow’s yeshivah as well as its university, and then the LSE.

He also seemed to possess remarkable antennae for detecting human flaws and foibles, especially pomposity and hypocrisy.

Writing in the JC in the early 1960s under the pseudonym “Ben Azai” and later in his own name, Chaim was able to expose any kind of transgression, whether committed against, or more often by Jews.

Whoever or whatever the target, he unfailingly hit the bullseye. But there was seldom poison in his darts. His ammunition was something much more effective: humour. Week after week, he delivered the comedic goods.

And not just for the paper; at the same time, he was producing book after book, fiction and non-fiction.

Forthright and articulate, Bermant wrote from the head and the heart, without compromise, which, of course, stirred controversy.

Those whom he discomfited within the hard-core reactionary ranks of British Jewry sometimes responded with venom. But they kept on reading his column. For the majority of readers of all stripes, Friday breakfast without a helping of Bermantine prose would have been abnormal.

It was my privilege and pleasure to edit Chaim’s column — with its inspired title “On the Other Hand” — for several years until his sudden death on January 20, 1998, a month short of his 69th birthday. It was a dream job.

Not only was the material compellingly well-written, stimulating, entertaining and often as important as it was hilarious, but Chaim also invariably submitted his copy bang on time and at the exact length.

Apart from the awful day of his death, I can remember only one exception, and as I will explain, even this was not without its humorous side.

Chaim’s background was strongly, and strictly, religious. His father was a rabbi, which lent a note of irony to a view he expressed on more than one occasion that he “believed in Judaism but not in rabbis”.

His Jewish learning was thorough and impeccable. And spiritual: he was an embodiment of the Jew who lives according to the spirit, rather than the letter, of the Torah.

Inevitably, this ruffled the feathers of many of the meticulously holy keepers of the word. Equally inevitably, they were never able to outdo his Jewish knowledge or Yiddishkeit.

Except, perhaps, once… One morning, as Chaim was finishing off an article for his JC column, in which he had been somewhat critical of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, his computer crashed.

Thus came the solitary blemish on Bermant’s record of always meeting his deadline. But he was able to submit the article for publication, though I’ll never know if it was altered from the original version…

Now, on his 25th Yahrzeit, we can reflect on such matters. To mark the occasion, Chaim’s family has organised a memorial event at Edgware United Synagogue next Tuesday when we will join the family in paying tribute to a great journalist, a great Jew and a great man.

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