The actor and Yiddish scholar Barry Davis was “a Hackney boy” — from beginning to end. It was his cultural milieu, a location to be embraced in all its intellectual richness.
In 1991, he interviewed Harold Pinter. Instead of a detailed excursion into contemporary literature, these two old Grocers’ Company schoolboys (Hackney Downs Grammar) discussed their similar, working-class backgrounds. The interview, The 22 from Hackney to Chelsea was published in the Jewish Quarterly, Winter 1991/1992 issue.
Barry, who has died aged 72 was the only one of his siblings who went to university — a source of great pride for his family. Barry certainly merited the opportunity but it also reflected the impoverishment of working-class Jews at the time and the difficult decisions that had to be made. Their father, Oscar, working as a baker, barely made enough to keep up their home in Elderfield Road, Clapton.
Although Barry studied history at LSE and later taught it at Thames Valley University, it was his passion for Yiddish that really defined him. His mother Rachel, although born in Edwardian England, read and wrote in Yiddish. Barry could distinguish between dialects, Lithuanian and Polish, translate from its masters into English and sing mellifluously in the language. Song, he felt, possessed “a sort of powerful force within it” — and he utilised this as a central tool in teaching the language.
He emerged as the doyen of Yiddish endeavour in Britain and became the chairman of the Mameloshn Ring, a London based group of Yiddish enthusiasts. Through his humour, wit and deep knowledge, Barry became a much-loved and sought-after teacher.
The LJCC, Spiro Ark, Jewish Music Institute, Limmud, University College, various synagogues and private individuals all utilised his talents. He was instrumental in saving the archive of Avrom Nokhem Stencl, the Whitechapel Yiddish poet, and moving it to SOAS, University of London.
He attempted to reclaim the language from the cassandras who predicted its imminent demise. His deep commitment to this cause made him valued and trusted in many different Jewish worlds — from Chasidim to Bundists. He understood the Jews to be a trilingual people — one which possessed a holy language (Hebrew), a lingua franca (English) and a tongue for Jews to converse in between themselves (Yiddish). Even the Labour party in Stamford Hill used his talent in publishing campaign literature in Yiddish translation.
His expertise was called upon whenever a film needed an adviser on Yiddish. Solomon and Gaenor, Kissing Buba, Esther Khan and Wondrous Oblivion – all bear his imprimatur. It led him into “a conversation” with Stephen Fry and into coaching Maureen Lipman. When film directors like Steven Spielberg or Stanley Kubrick sought advice on pronunciation or depiction, it was to Barry Davis that they turned.
Barry loved theatre — and participating in it. At school, he acted in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and greatly enjoyed sending up teachers’ idiosyncrasies in his sketches. He later performed in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, Orton’s What the Butler Saw and Sit and Shiver by Steven Berkoff as Uncle Sam, “the blind old Marxist” from the tailoring trade.
Shaw, Kropotkin, Shakespeare, Marx and Lenin all featured in his lexicon. Thus Barry could public recite King Lear nightly — in Yiddish — with great passion. Indeed, at a celebration of the life and times of the writer Emanuel Litvinoff, Barry translated Hamlet’s To be or not to be soliloquy into Yiddish and evocatively recited it at the event.
As Yiddish editor of the Jewish Quarterly in the 1980s, he translated the poetry and prose of forgotten writers and brought their genius to a new, English-speaking audience. This included Avrom Reyzin’s The Revolutionary and the poetry of Zelik Akselrod. Barry particularly sought to publicise the work of the many Yiddish poets and writers of the inter-war period murdered by Stalin in the cellars of the Lubyanka, or who died a slower death in the permafrost of the Gulag — Leib Kvitko, Peretz Markish, Dovid Bergelson and many others. Indeed, his last published article in Jewish Socialist focused on the flowering of Yiddish culture in the USSR after the October Revolution.
At school, sport was not for him. In contrast, any meeting with him was a trek through unexplored territory of Jewishness. A week before his passing, our lunch chat covered topics from the Judaism of the biblical King Josiah to British antisemitism in 1947.
Barry came of age when homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain. He was a founder member of Icebreakers — a radical group that emerged from the Gay Liberation Front in the early 1970s. He was close to the Gay Left Collective and wrote a review in the group’s journal of Martin Sherman’s play Bent, about the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany.
Barry became a member of the Jewish Gay Group, founded in the early 1970s. He took a leading role in the Kabbalat Shabbat for the Jewish gay community on Friday nights at a location provided by Rabbi Dov Marmur of Alyth Gardens Synagogue. At a time when both Jewish leadership and Jewish media were unwelcoming, many who came from traditional backgrounds very much appreciated this service and Barry’s part in it.
Barry was not conventionally religious. He loved tradition, the joy of family events, the journey of God through Jewish history. While he was able to leyn, he had little appreciation of what he considered robotic Judaism.
As a Yiddishist, he did not despise Hebrew and disparage Zionism, but followed the odyssey of Israel through complex times. He made a distinction between government and state. He was a gentle, modest, compassionate and spiritually generous person.
Many testified at the funeral how he would always sit down and listen intently to personal woes. Even if a friend was in a minority of one, Barry never remained diplomatically silent. He was courageously loyal and never intimidated by the cruelty of the crowd. Money and power were never important to him — and he occasionally suffered in silence at the hands of those for whom it was the be-all and end-all.
At his woodlands burial, his students filled the air with the refrain of Yiddish songs from the works of Anna Margolin and Mordkhe Gebirtig. The melodies lingered, floating above the mourners, grateful that they had known Barry and had learned from him.
He is mourned deeply by his beloved partner of a quarter of a century, Fabrizio, his siblings, Adele, Ivor and Bernard, his nephews and nieces — and his many friends and students.
Barry Davis: born November 12, 1945. Died December 14, 2017