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Chaim BermantBy Judy Bermant

'Bearded, with cigarette forever smouldering between his lips, he shuffles round the house in a moth eaten cardigan. Calls himself a writer and pokes away at this typewriter, while he talks to himself. He can be seen early in the morning and late at night, strolling through the streets of the suburb, hands waving, that never ending cigarette burning. '. To this, his self portrait in Belshazzar, - a story of our family seen through the eyes of a cat - I would add that Chaim Bermant was a tall, burly figure with a noble, domed head, normally very sunburnt from constant walking and gardening. He looked like something of a cross between a benevolent Santa Claus, and a biblical patriach, with wild curly hair (what was left of it!) and a wild, curly thicket of a beard, full of whimsical touches and witty asides, and a mischievous glint in his eye. He had a shy, almost comical way of looking at people and a great, deep chuckle. An extraordinarly loveable man, he was undeniably charismatic and unforgettable, both in personality and in his physical presence. He was also something of a frustrated actor and used any opportunity to perform! He was much sought after as a public speaker, although people rarely understood anything he said, owing to his thick scottish accent with it's underlying yiddish intonation.

Chaim was completing Genesis, the first volume of his projected five part autobiography, when he died of heart failure on 20 January 1998, aged 68. Two days previously, he had returned from Israel where he had met survivors of his shtetl Barovke, in Latvia, whose existence we had discovered only a week earlier. He was immensely excited about this, and hoped to incorporate some of the notes he had made during this trip into what was to become his final book.

Genesis: A Latvian childhood was published posthumously in May 1998. It describes the first nine years of Chaim's life, growing up in a remote Latvian village where his father was Rabbi, up to the moment when the Bermant family left for Glasgow shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. In a way, Genesis encapsulates everything that was Chaim. Brimful of 'Bermantian observations and quirky characters, it is also wry and funny, bucolic and earthy, sharp and witty, tender and poignant, all in turn!

Chiam Ikyk Bermant was born in Breslev, a frontier town on the Polish border on 26 February 1929. He was the third of four children born to Rabbi Azriel and Faige Bermant, and the only son. He was four when his Father became the Rabbi, shochet (ritual slaughterer) and general factotum in Barovke. There, amid lakes, streams and forests, he, his three sisters and his parents lived there until, in 1938, Rabbi Bermant acquired a new position in Glasgow, thanks to personal intervention from relatives living there. In Glasgow, Chaim attended Queen's Park School and Glasgow Yeshiva (Talmudical College). He later spent a year at the Bachad Kibbutz training farm in Thaxted, a year organising Bnei Akiva in Scotland and Sunderland, and a further year in Israel.

He eventually graduated from Glasgow University in 1955 with an MA and an M.Litt. in Politics and Economics and went on to gain an M.S.c in Econonmics in the London School of Econonmics in 1957. During this period, in order to supplement his grant, he taught economics, mainly to Arab students, at a Further Education College in Tunbridge Wells. He also worked for two years as a schoolmaster - an experience he hated but later exploited in several of his novels.

Although Chaim had long nursed ideas of hecoming an author and journalist and had contributed to a variety of newspapers and journals from his teens onwards, he had chosen Economics and Politics at university rather than English Language and Literature. He was convinced that this was a wise choice and it served him well in later years. In 1957, Chaim became a scriptwriter for John Grierson at Scottish Television and later for Sidney Bernstein at Granada, where he was a colleague of Jeremy Isaacs, working on programmes such as 'Searchlight' and 'World in Action'. In 1961 he began work for the Jewish Chronicle and became its Features Editor from 1964 to 1966.

Chaim was writing a series of articles on the 'Independent Synagogue' when we met and - after a whirlwind courtship - married in 1962. Chaim had been visiting the Stamford Hill Adath Synagogue, founded by my great-grandfather Julius Lunzer (and where later we were to be married), when I found myself sitting next to him at the Kiddush and lunch to which we were both invited. Chaim was being attacked as a representative of the Jewish Chronicle and I was doing my best to defend him. This was at the height of the cause celebre known as the 'Jacobs Affair' which had been taken up by lewish Chronicle editor William Frankel (1958-77): Rabbi Louis Jacobs, a highly admired teacher and thinker, had written the book We Have Reason to Believe. The views he expressed in that book led to his rejection as principal of Jews' College (and possibly for the post of Chief Rabbi as well).

Our first daughter, Alisah Yona, was born the next year, 1963' and was followed shortly afterwards by Chaim's first novel in print, Jericho sleep alone. The title was culled from a character in Les Enfants du Paradis, a film Chaim much admired. Jericho was the first of a string of novels that were to flow from his pen, and in 1966 he felt secure enough to take the brave - some said reckless - step of going freelance. By this time, we were expecting our second child and had moved from a three-room flat in Hampstead to a sizeable home in Hampstead Garden Suburb - with a sizeable mortgage to match! It was a risky step to take, but one that neither of us ever regretted. Chaim had at last fulfilled his dream. He had his own study, surrounded by his books and his 'livestock' - as he described us. He was in his element!

Although he often described himself as lazy, he was in reality highly self-motivated and rigorously disciplined, and he set himself a punishing daily routine from which he rarely deviated. By 1972 we had four children, two daughters and two sons. To quote Chaim's own words: 'We were living from hand to mouth, but it was a large hand and an even larger mouth. Any self-employed writer who manages to feed himself and his family and keep his house in a reasonable state of repair, is extremely lucky!'

At this stage, 1973, we tried Aliyah en famille for the first time and stayed a year. We repeated this again ten years later. On both occasions Chaim ended up as Correspondent for The Obseruer, first during the Yom Kippur War and then in the 1983 war in Lebanon.

When, in 1974, we returned to our London home, Chaim wrote several books on Israel, including Coming Home, his first attempt at autobiography. The book mirrored the conflict between his need to develop further as a writer in Britain and my emotional ties with Israel.

Chaim had been a regular contributor to the Ben Azai column in the Jewish Chronicle since the late 1950s. By the mid-1960s he was the author of the paper's'Personal Opinion'column, and in 1979 'Personal Opinion' became 'On the Other Hand', under Chaim's own by-line and photograph. He used his column to write about Jewish life and tradition with Iyrical warmth and humour, but also to expose its intolerances and absurdities, whenever and wherever they occurred.

He became unofficial ombudsman to the Jewish community at large, and, no matter how many deadlines he had or how busy he may have been, he always had time for those who sought his help, whether it was a wouldbe convert to Judaism, an Agunah (chained woman) seeking a 'Get' (Jewish divorce) from an absent or recalcitrant husband, or perhaps just an aspiring young journalist starting out in his or her career. He never, ever turned anyone away, and I do not imagine anyone knew of the huge postbag of letters and number of phone calls he answered, nor of the amount of time he would give to talking with people who were in need of help and advice.

As Anglo-Jewry's columnist-in-chief, he also became the community's voice of conscience and for 40 years he castigated, ridiculed or praised its foremost figures and institutions. William Frankel, writing about Chaim after his death, called him 'Anglo-Jewry's Jonathan Swift'. Chaim felt it to be his responsibility, like the prophets he so admired, to admonish, educate and point the way forward. This he always endeavoured to do with considerable erudition, elegance and wit. He was also, unfortunately, prophetically ahead of his time. He was the first to suggest that Jewish hands were responsible for some of the worst bombing outrages against Palestinian Arabs, and in presaging the eventual growth of a violent Jewish underground. He was vilified for this from all sides as a 'self-hating Jew' but the attacks never deflected him from the courage of his convictions. He argued for talks with the Palestinians and the PLO long before anyone else was doing so. Chaim was not only very critical of the abuse of human rights in Israel, but he also relentlessly pointed out inconsistencies and injustice in general, and, in particular, the fanatical right-wing Jewish nationalism and the blinkered vision developing within Orthodox Rabbinic opinion. He felt this to be a betrayal of the humanity that he believed is inherent in Jewish ethical teaching. Naturally, this gave rise to a great outcry against him, and daily calls to the Jewish Chronicle (and to ourselves personally) to have him sacked, as well as to regular death threats. In addition to his impact rhrough the printed word, he was influential behind the scenes in Arab-Jewish dialogue. Nothing in his life caused him greater anguish than to see so many of his repeated warnings become a daily reality in Israel.

Chaim also wrote regularly for national newspapers and journals (The Sunday and Daily Telegraph, The Observer, The Guardian, The Independent and The Times newspapers, among others). He wrote regular obituaries, columns under his own by-line, profiles, book reviews, opinion and travel pieces, and so on. He even wrote a food column for The Independent until he was rumbled: he could only write about fish and even that was restricted because of kashrut observance! Chaim also wrote scripts for radio and television, including the BBC play Pews and several for Anglia's 'Tales of the Unexpected'. He appeared in several productions in person, including, in 1981, one of the BBC's 'Everyman' series which featured our family just before our eldest son's Barmitzvah. He published over 30 fiction and non-fiction books, and contributed to and edited many more.

Chaim's 'Personal Opinion' column for the Jewish Chronicle was also syndicated in other Jewish newspapers throughout the world, such as the Los Angeles Jewish Times and the Australian Jewish News. He was invited on lecture tours in many countries - America, South Africa and, most recently, Australia in 1994, where he was invited to meet his 'critics'. He managed, in turn, both to infuriate and to charm them. Our first meeting in Sydney was a reception with a group of Jewish businessmen, very hawkish politically. They were totally opposed to Chaim's visit, which had been organised by the Australian Institute of Jewish Affairs, and furious that they had been overruled. When we entered that boardroom and looked around the table, we thought we were facing a Iynch mob; you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. One after the other, each got up and spoke of their anger with Chaim'sJewish Chronicle column. They all labelled him a cold-hearted cynic who drew blood only in order to shock. When they had finished speaking and sat down, there was a pause. Chaim sat quietly for a moment. Then he slowly got up, drew himself up to his full height and spoke in even, measured tones, without notes, for a considerable time. Using his remarkable intellect, and his knowledge of world affairs and Jewish history, he delivered a passionate and polemical battery-charge that utterly demolished their arguments. Much more than that, they understood at last that this was no cynical journalist manipulating his pen to poison for its own sake, but a man of honour and principle who wrote as he did because he stood by the truth of what he was saying. By the time he sat down there was no one in that room who doubted his sincerity and depth of feeling. His greatest antagonist became his greatest ally, and was to be seen sitting at the forefront at each of Chaim's subsequent lectures. This reminds me of the time, 15 years earlier in South Africa, when Chaim attacked his hosts, the Jewish Board of Deputies, for their lack of courage in not taking a much stronger stand against apartheid. We were never invited again.

Chaim tried hard to live up to the high standards of decency and integrity that he expected from others, whether speaking out on major world issues, or in smaller, more personal incidents. For example, he would not accept any of the 'freebies' commonly offered to journalists, as he did not want his independence of spirit to seem compromised in any way.

After his death, we received letters from many hundreds of people, some known to us and, touchingly, many who were not. There was a letter from a Catholic lady who offered prayers and recited a daily Mass for his soul. The Muslim Women's Helpline wrote to say their members found Chaim inspirational. A prison inmate, who had been corresponding with Chaim, wanted to start a 'Chaim Bermant fan-club' and a Welsh clergyman donated money to a Glasgow Synagogue to purchase siddurim in Chaim's memory. This is a random sample of people who wrote to say that they had once picked up aJewish Chronicle, read his column (or one of his books), and were hooked for life. Even hardened Fleet Street journalists wrote warmly to say the same.

Above all, Chaim cared about people. He was a deeply affectionate family man who enjoyed nothing better than to have his close family and friends gathered round his Shabbat table. He delighted in being a committed Jew and a valued member of his community.

For me, he was a man who looked a little like I imagine Moses (one of his heroes) might have looked, an enchanting companion, brimful of chein and mischief, my loving and beloved husband, and, as Rabbi Tony Bayfield so memorably described him, 'A bit of a miracle'.

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