The wit and wisdom of Chaim Bermant, the Jewish Chronicle's crown jewel

For me, as for the vast majority of its readers, the first thing I turned to as the JC arrived each week was Bermant.

CHAIM BERMANT: Jewel in the ‘Jewish Chronicle’ crown (photo credit: Courtesy)
CHAIM BERMANT: Jewel in the ‘Jewish Chronicle’ crown
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A few hours before Jewish families the world over sat down at their Seder table – guests sadly depleted this year because of coronavirus restrictions – Anglo Jewry was stunned to learn that the London-based Jewish Chronicle had folded. It had run out of money. The JC, as it is affectionately known, had been a pillar of stability, sustaining Britain’s Jewish community for no fewer than 179 years. It seemed impossible to imagine life without it.
For more than 25 of those years, until his sudden death in January 1998, the jewel in its crown was its columnist, Chaim Bermant. For me, as for the vast majority of its readers, the first thing I turned to as the JC arrived each week was Bermant. His wit and his wisdom were a marvel and a delight. As someone once wrote “Nobody – rabbi, scholar or politician – was as central to British Jewish life as Chaim Bermant.”
In 2000, his widow Judy published a collection of about 150 of his columns under the title On the Other Hand. They cover a wide range of topics, some of them particular to their time, others as relevant today as when he penned them – but all illuminated by his insight, and many by laugh-aloud humor. He could be very funny indeed.
In “Could you take a letter” he describes an experience only too familiar to anyone travelling from the UK to Israel in the years up to the late 1980s. Someone phones Yankel.
“I hear you’re going to Israel.”
“You want me to take a letter?”
“How did you guess? But you can also do me a favor while you’re at it. You know my married daughter – the one with the bad back?”
“You want me to take an orthopaedic bed.”
It turns out he wants Yankel to take a duvet – as light as a feather. It would be packed so that it was no bigger than a matzo box.
Bermant proceeds to list a range of other things that Yankel is being asked to carry over – a selection of toys for the grandchildren, a video cassette that would fit into a tallis bag, a rifle wrapped up nicely to make it look like a lulav.
I remember being asked – and my wife agreeing – to bring over several packs of sanitary towels, together with instructions as to the hotel lobby, date and time, to hand them over. The memory lingers to this day of writhing in embarrassment throughout the eventual transaction.
Bermant’s range of topics was very wide. One favorite was food. Writing once about cholent, he said that eating it on a hot day was like eating ice cream on a cold one. “A good cholent, with a kugel on top like the crust on a volcano, presumes winter.
Break the crust, and the steam comes hissing through to reveal the cholent itself, rich, golden and burbling, like molten lava. It is a form of central heating… Doctors tell me it’s a slow poison, but what enjoyable food isn’t – and in any case, who’s in a hurry?”
His “Harangue on herrings” is a classic, full of nostalgia for der heim (the eastern European shtetl from which his family sprang). He maintained that they would eat herrings in various forms each day of the week – pickled, soused, smoked, baked, fried in oatmeal (especially delicious), and in sour cream. When he arrived in Scotland, Bermant found that the Scottish love of herrings – second only to the Jewish, he asserted – made him feel instantly at home.
CHAIM BERMANT was the son of a rabbi. He was born in 1929 in Breslev, then a part of Poland. In 1933, the family moved to a village in Latvia and, after that, to Glasgow and then London. Despite his intensely religious background, Bermant seemed to take a delight in targeting the ultra-Orthodox. For example, during the various struggles for influence between Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi and his Sephardi counterpart, he consistently dubbed them Chief Rabbi Tweedledum and Chief Rabbi Tweedledee.
About the wilder activities of the extremist wing of the ultra-Orthodox, Bermant was caustic. In 1996, he penned a piece describing Shabbat in Jerusalem – morning service, home for kiddush, a substantial lunch, a shloff. “And finally,” he writes, “towards the cool of the evening, a riot along the Bar-Ilan highway.”
It was a period during which the ultra-Orthodox were demanding the closure of the highway on Shabbat, while the then Meretz Party was intent on it remaining open. Demonstrations by the one were succeeded by counter-demonstrations by the other. The police, the High Court, and eventually President Ezer Weizman were involved.
“In the olden days,” Berman reported, “haredi demonstrators used to attack drivers and police with stones. Nowadays, they generally weigh in with soiled nappies (diapers).”
Bermant deplored what he believed was the wish of the ultra-Orthodox to transform Jerusalem into “another Bnei Brak.” He predicted, back in 1996, that “as matters go, they are likely to have their way.” His prediction has not yet been realized.
When it came to assessing personality, Bermant pulled no punches. He had an unerring eye for character flaws, and was fearless in exposing them, however eminent the individual concerned. Indeed, he recounts the occasion when he was interviewed by Yehudi Menuhin’s wife as to his suitability to write the eminent violinist’s biography.
“The first thing she said,” writes Bermant, “was: ‘You do have an irreverent attitude to people.’
“I said that I took them as I found them.
“‘But you do look for the worst in them.’
“I don’t look for it, but where I find it, I don’t ignore it.
“Which,” Bermant concludes, “was her way of letting me know I was not the man for the job.”
He found much that he could not ignore when considering the eminent playwright Harold Pinter. He began by asserting that Harold Pinter was a man of few words, “most of them silly.” He was writing at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, following Saddam Husssein’s invasion of Kuwait.
“If ever there was a single instance of unprovoked aggression,” said Bermant, “this was it.” Yet Pinter condemned the US for invading, even though the purpose was to chase Saddam Hussein out of the country. Pinter “sees the world in simple terms… and presumes that any country or cause actively supported by America must be in the wrong.”
He was even unsparingly honest in his assessment of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He praised the good, but condemned those aspects he believed less admirable. Writing in the week of the rebbe’s death in June 1994, Bermant described Menachem Mendel Schneerson as “the greatest Jewish leader of his age, and among the greatest of any age.” He continued: “Like many great men, however, he made great mistakes. some of them so serious as almost to undermine his own achievements.”
Among the less serious, according to Bermant, was that he never set foot in Israel, but nevertheless “intervened repeatedly, and crudely” on a number of issues, and always ineffectively.
The major issue that bothered Bermant was that Schneerson never refuted, indeed remained silent throughout, the “bizarre messianic campaign” mounted by a section of his movement. “We are repeatedly assured,” wrote Bermant, “that the rebbe never claimed to be the Messiah, or even the Messiah-in-waiting,” yet he never stopped it, as he could have done “with a word.”
A third error, says Bermant, was that the rebbe, though childless, never designated a successor. Bermant predicted that the result would be a burgeoning of the Messiah cult and internal dissension over any possible inheritor of the title “Lubavitcher Rebbe.” He was right about the first, but wrong about the second. In the 26 years since the rebbe’s death there has been a leadership vacuum, but even so the Lubavitch-Chabad movement has flourished.
BERMANT AT a 1977 book launch (third from right, back row) Photo Credit: LSE LIBRARY/FLICKR)BERMANT AT a 1977 book launch (third from right, back row) Photo Credit: LSE LIBRARY/FLICKR)
NOTING THAT never in Jewish history had so many young men attended so many yeshivot, Bermant asked: “But what is being taught in those yeshivot? We may presume that the love of God is one subject. Hatred of man would seem to be another.” And he went on to condemn an episode when yeshiva bochers took to pelting men and women who were praying together in the outer plaza of the Western Wall.
“A new race of zealots has been emerging among us,” he wrote, “who – given the reported array of projectiles – seem ready to defend Orthodoxy even to the last ounce of their excrement.”
Chaim Bermant famously sported a large and bushy beard. It was his trademark, affording him instant recognition throughout Anglo-Jewish world. “I hesitate to speak ill of any man, woman or beast,” he wrote in 1986, “and do not suffer from paranoia, but the cat next door is an antisemite.”
The animal in question, Hadrian by name, was thought by everyone in the street the friendliest of creatures, greeting them with tail held high and purring “till he crackles like a Geiger counter.” Yet when Bermant approached him “he will recoil, arch his back and hiss like a serpent.”
For a long time Bermant could not imagine what he had done to earn the animal’s disfavor but, he wrote, “I have alighted on the following possibility. In his youth he underwent an operation which effectively deprived him of his manhood. I don’t know if the vet responsible for the atrocity was Jewish, but I understand he was bearded, and I can only imagine that the poor beast associates me with the unkindest cut of all.”
Much of Bermant’s writings were spiced with his own brand of humor, sometimes leaving the reader rocking with laughter. Yes, he could also write harsh things occasionally, but at his most cutting, his most sardonic, he was never savage. He saw the world with his own unclouded vision, and he wrote of it as he saw it, honestly and without fear or favor. It is difficult to mistake a piece by Chaim Bermant as coming from any other pen. The style was the man – and even now, 22 years after his passing, those of us who followed him assiduously, week after week, miss him badly. He is irreplaceable.