Editing is a peculiar craft. On the one hand, it can be surprisingly satisfying to refashion the most cliché-ridden nonsense into a seriously readable article. On the other hand, it is entirely gratifying to work on an elegantly written text.
So it is perhaps fitting that On the Other Hand was the name of the weekly column in the JC written by Chaim Bermant that was my privilege and pleasure to edit for a period until it was sadly curtailed 20 years ago this weekend by his sudden death on January 20, 1998, a month short of his 69th birthday.
Chaim was the son of a rabbi. He was born in 1929 in Breslev in a part of Poland that endured frequent border changes. In 1933, the family moved to a village in Latvia and, after that, Glasgow and then London. This upbringing was reflected in the rich Polish-Lithuanian-Latvian-Yiddish-Scottish blend that was the barely penetrable Bermant accent, obscured still more by a thicket of facial hair through which smoke would frequently curl from a dangerously dangling cigarette.
But, on the page, he was as clear as daylight, puncturing pomposity and highlighting hypocrisy. His deadliest weapon was humour; rather than maligning the self-important, stupid or bigoted, he found it far more effective to render them ridiculous.
Despite his intensely religious background, a great many of Bermant’s targets were to be found among the holy ones of Orthodoxy, especially in Israel. The long and sanctimonious battling between Israel’s one-time Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and his Sephardi counterpart, for example, was reduced to farce by Chaim’s insistence on calling them Chief Rabbi Tweedledum and Chief Rabbi Tweedledee.
One Pesach, he drew readers’ attention to the ruling by one Rabbi Freund in Jerusalem that tap water derived from Lake Kinneret — that is to say, all of Israel’s tap water — could not be kosher for Passover because fishermen there used bread as bait.
“On a rough estimate,” Bermant wrote, “I would say that the proportion of bread to water would be…” and he offered an impossibly long line of zeros after “1:613”, ending: “give or take a trillion”. He also pointed out “the meagre toilet facilities around the Kinneret” so “worse things than bread” could be cast upon its waters.
None of this is to say that Bermant was divorced from Orthodox Judaism. Indeed, although he wrote of Hugo Gryn that, “no rabbi in Britain was more loved or esteemed”, some of his material on Reform Judaism now looks antiquated, notably his lofty dismissal of Rabbi Elizabeth Sarah: “I used to think that Julia Neuberger was the best living argument against women rabbis, but Mrs Neuberger is almost the embodiment of Orthodoxy compared to Ms Sarah”.
Neither was he an exclusively humorous writer, as his powerful pieces on Jonathan Sacks’s incumbency as chief rabbi demonstrate. After Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish religious fanatic in November 1995, Chief Rabbi Sacks addressed a memorial event in the Royal Albert Hall and spoke of the voices of hate that had created the climate in which such a monstrous crime could take place. “And what was worst of all,” he said, “some of those voices were religious voices, and what they said, and what it led to, make me hang my head in shame.”
For this, Sacks was criticised by a number of Orthodox colleagues. Chaim wrote a stirring column rebutting such criticism and rallying support for the eloquent and compassionate Rabbi Sacks, whom he described as “becoming increasingly marginalised in the Orthodox world.”
At the other end of the scale, when, in 1997, the would-be inclusive Chief Rabbi slipped his philosophical moorings (to which, I am glad to say, he now seems to have returned) and described, in rabbinical Hebrew, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who had died a few months earlier, as “a destroyer of the faith”. This triggered the JC’s biggest ever postbag, in which virtually every letter condemned this extraordinary act.
Bermant responded to Sacks’s missive, in a specially extended column, by severely admonishing him but, crucially, stopping short of calling upon him to resign. Had he done so, the momentum this would have created would have been unstoppable.
Chaim Bermant’s favourite, and successful, pastime was writing novels. He also wrote important, non-fiction accounts of the Anglo-Jewish community. But — on the other hand — it is as an outstanding journalist he will be best remembered.