Chaim Yitzchak


On the Other Hand
Photo Gallery
The Whisky Trail
Contact us

Chaim BermantChaim Bermant established himself as the doyen of Anglo-Jewish columnists through his feature On The Other Hand in the Jewish Chronicle.

In addition he wrote a great deal for The Daily Telegraph. Successive editors of the obituaries department relaxed in the knowledge that a telephone call to Chaim Bermant would result in the arrival, often within a couple of hours, of a perfectly turned portrait of any Jewish figure - at once sharp, accurate and informative. He was no less valuable to the books editor, producing reviews in which sound judgment was frequently spiced with mischievous wit.

Chaimwas also a prolific novelist, who never seemed to receive anything but good reviews. "Mr Bermant is unlikely to leap to the top of the best-seller list," wrote Janice Elliott of the The Last Supper (1973), "but his modest saga does point the difference between competence and art."

The roots of Chaim's achievement lay in a certain tension between temperament and intellect; he was at once orthodox by upbringing and liberal by disposition. A loyal Jew, he loved the traditions of his faith (and indeed of England), but inclined to scepticism when confronted by rabbis. The spirit rather than the letter of the law was his guide, and he set himself against all fanaticism, especially against those whose first instinct was to say no.

Chaim did not hesitate to express views which few Gentiles would have dared articulate. "If you want to write in a manner offensive to many Jews," he once said, "it is not enough to be a Jew; you've got to write in a Jewish newspaper."

Even in The Daily Telegraph, however, he was prepared to attack the number of museums dealing with the holocaust. "The array of such museums and memorials," he thought, "gives a perverse view of Jewish experience, perpetuates Jewish fears, and has a pernicious effect on Jewish life."

Chaim also gave short shrift to Jews who refused to set foot in Germany. The first Germans he met in Israel after the war, he remembered, were "saintly and dedicated young men of almost insufferable rectitude." And when he visited Germany, he discovered not so much an economic as a social miracle.

He was more inclined to worry about the religious bigotry in Israel. Many Jews had fled from Russia, he held, to escape not so much from poverty and persecution, as from the restraints of their own faith. One of the fundamental ideals of Israel had been to create a society where the rabbis would no longer be in charge - or, as Chaim put it in a typically felicitous phrase, the Jewish state had been founded "when God was not looking." He could hardly feel optimistic about a country pullulating with Talmudic academies.

Chaim Icyk Bermant was born at Breslev, a frontier town just inside Poland, on February 26 1929. His father was a rabbi, and he had two elder sisters (another sister died young). When he was four his family moved to Barovke, in Latvia; and when he was eight they emigrated to Glasgow.

His strong Jewish roots were therefore combined with a shifting sense of nationhood. "In Latvia I was known as a Polack," he said, "in Poland as a Lett, and in Scotland as a foreigner." Later, in Israel, he would discover that he was treated as a Scot, referred to variously as Scottie, Mack or Jock. "In a sense," he reflected, "I had come home."

Certainly he loved Glasgow, while his affection for Scotland embraced a keen appreciation of whisky. His accent in English bore traces of both Latvia and Glasgow; by contrast he always insisted that he spoke "the Queen's Yiddish".

At the outbreak of the Second World War Chaim was evacuated to Annan, in Dumfriesshire, and billeted with a farmer and his two sisters, who treated him like a cherished son.

"I was the first Jew they had met," Chaim recalled, "and when they came across an obscure passage in Scripture they would turn to me - though I was only nine at the time - as if they were reading part of my family history."

The sisters were rigorous in ensuring that their charge ate only kosher, but after he wrote a letter to his father, enthusiastically describing the preparations for Christmas, the rabbi arrived to remove him.

Back in Glasgow, he was educated at Queen's Park grammar school and also received a training in religious studies at the Glasgow Yeshiva. Then in 1950, harbouring Arcadian visions of becoming a Gallilean shepherd, he went to work on a kibbutz in Israel, only to make the disconcerting discovery that the local shepherdesses did not conform to his Arcadian ideal. Moreover, plants withered under his every touch.

After two years Chaim returned to Britain to study politics and economics, first at Glasgow University and then (less happily) at the LSE. From 1955 to 1957 he had a black period as a schoolmaster in a secondary modern school at Ingatestone in Essex - an experience that would bear fruit in his novel Here Endeth the Lesson (1969).

In 1957 he became a scriptwriter for Scottish Television, and then moved to Granada Television in Manchester, where he was a colleague of Jeremy Isaacs on World In Action.

In 1961 he began to work for the Jewish Chronicle, and from 1964 to 1966 was its features editor. But he was a natural freelance, with an appetite for work, literary dispatch, and an encyclopaedic knowledge equal to the hazards and demands which that status imposes.

In the 1960s he established himself as the writer of a weekly column for the Jewish Chronicle, under the pseudonym Ben Azai. From 1978 this appeared as On The Other Hand, under his own byline.

Meanwhile his novels had been flowing without interruption. The first, Jericho Sleep Alone (1964) was a joyful account of a young man's failure with girls, examiners, colleagues and employers; still more, though, it was a celebration of Glasgow.

Berl Make Tea (1965) succeeded in rendering another feckless hero both lovable and funny without any resort to Jewish schmaltz. In 1965, Chaim wrote Ben Preserve Us , about a millionaire Rabbi called Ben Bindle, who arrives in the Scottish town of Auchenbother and falls victim to the Jewish community's determination to find him a wife.

Diary of an Old Man (1966) highlighted Chaim's special talent for writing unsentimentally about old age. Swinging in the Rain (1967) concerns a manufacturer who is appalled to find his moronic son, whom he had dispatched to an expensive school, emerge as a pop-art idol. Now Dowager (1971) shows a rich Jewish widow manipulating her family.

Chaim returned to the theme of old age in Roses are Blooming in Picardy (1972), which describes an 80-year-old on a kibbutz, in mourning for a wife he had never been able to get on with. His next novel, The Last Supper (1973) demonstrates that a Jewish funeral, with the traditional seven-day shiva, offers ample opportunity for family fireworks. Point of Arrival (1975), about an immigrant community in East London, was as remarkable for its descriptions of the Pakistanis and Indians who were moving in, as the Jews who were moving out.

In The Second Mrs Whitberg (1976) the reader is taken back to Glasgow, where a conspiracy to marry off a widower spectacularly misfires. Now Newman Was Old (1978), in which a blameless businessman suddenly emerges as the Casanova of Crocus Hill, concentrates on the foibles of old age.

Chaim's characters are invariably brave and resourceful in making the most of their circumscribed lives. The Companion (1987), about a middle-aged maid-of-all-work and her querulous mistress, is a novel full of humour and humanity.

Chaim also wrote a number of non-fiction books on Jewish themes. Troubled Eden (1969) is an account of the Jews in Britain. The Cousinhood (1971), about the Anglo-Jewish gentry, was one of his few books to be a commercial success. The Jews (1978) dealt with every aspect of Jewish achievement. Lord Jacobovits (1990) was an authorised, but by no means uncritical, biography of the Chief Rabbi.

Some of Chaim's best journalism was collected in Murmurings of a Licensed Heretic (1990). It shows him at his best, a man of daunting industry and colossal learning which is always worn lightly, and entirely to the reader's entertainment and ease.

Chaim married, in 1962, Judy Weil; they had two sons and two daughters. Azriel, Danny, Aliza and Evie.

Home | Bermant Family | Biography | Tributes | Books | Contact us | Danny | Links | News | On the Other Hand | Photo Gallery | Plays | Quotations | Whisky Trail

If you have any questions, please contact our Webmaster or phone (+44 20 8815 9691). © 2005 Danny Bermant. All rights reserved.

Home Page Judy Bermant Aliza Bermant The Bermant Family Evie Bermant Azi Bermant Danny Bermant Bermant news