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On the Other Hand

Chaim Bermant

Excluded from the wedding feast (15 June, 1979)

You could put it all down to pique.

There is no reason why Willy Stern should have invited me to his daughter’s wedding, for, after all, I did not invite him to my daughter’s wedding (the fact that my daughters are, alas, still spinsters is, in this context, besides the point).

But everybody else appears to have been invited and the fact I was not suggests not so much oversight as willful exclusion.

But who, you may ask, is Willy Stern? – though if you do ask, it suggests that you never read the papers, listen to the radio or watch television, for Mr. Stern used to be one of the biggest landlords in Britain and is now the biggest bankrupt in history, and went bust a few years ago to the tune of 104 million (give or take a million).

Anyone can go bankrupt, and quite a few people have, but to go bankrupt for 104 million (give or take a million) requires a bit of doing, and as a result, Mr. Stern has risen from the rank of mere businessman (or ex-businessman) to that of celebrity, which is perhaps why the Evening Standard sent a reporter and photographer (were they there by invitation?) to cover the affair and described the banqueting tables “crammed with fresh salmon, salads, casseroles, pancakes... gateaux, rum baba, cheese cakes and an assortment of dainty fare.”  I could only wish I could live as well with my solvency as Mr. Stern does with his bankruptcy.

Now, if you should see a hint of reproof in all this you would be mistaken.  The Talmud tells us (the Talmud would) that we should not condemn a man until we are in his place, and it is unlikely I will ever go bankrupt for 104 million (give or take a million) or even half that sum. I lack Mr. Stern’s charm.  Where he, in his heyday, could breeze into a bank and come away with ten or fifteen million in his picket, I get irate phone calls from my bank manager if I’m overdrawn by as much as a fiver.  But I can understand how he got into his difficulties. He has many children, and so have I, and the cost of Jewish education being what it is, things do mount up.

I have met Mr. Stern face to face only once.  He is a dapper, personable young man – with, I may add, an extremely personable wife – immaculately attired and beautifully mannered.  The meeting, appropriately enough, was in a house of prayer (I am told that apart from the bankruptcy courts he is rarely to be seen anywhere else) during morning service and I could not take my eyes off his tefilin, for if mine were an 800 c.c. job, his were in the 5-litre class, and once on, it looked as if the tefilin were wearing him rather than the other way round.

But that wasn’t all.  Half-way through – as if he had run out of fuel – he took off his first pair of tefilin and whipped on another, so that while the rest of us were merely praying, he seemed to be laying siege o the heavens, as if determined to get undivided attention.  And to be sure, a man who owes 104 million (give or take a million) needs it.

The wedding, which was attended by some eleven hundred guests (give or take a hundred) should be seen in the same light.  Had Mr. Stern been a common or garden bankrupt, or even a common or garden gevir, he could have invited a few hundred guests, thrown around a bit of cholent and a few bottles of sasperella and that would have been that, but as the biggest bankrupt in the world he has to keep up appearances.  Moreover, as I have indicated, he is a deeply devout man, and a pillar of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations to boot, and to have had a smaller affair might have suggested that he was wanting in faith.

But what of the rabbis?  I am told that there were about two dozen divines (give or take a divine) at the wedding, including some of the holiest men in our midst, and I have no doubt that he whole affair was glatt kosher, that the salmon wasn’t turbot, that the rum in the rum babas (to say nothing of the babas) did not have a liquor base, that the cheese cake was made with kosher milk, and that the wine was hamehadrin min hamehadrin; but did no one among them feel that there was something about the whole affair which was rather less than glatt kosher?

One would never accuse Mr. Stern of good taste (except in the choice of his wife), but did no rabbi take him aside and put it to him that a man who owes over a hundred million pounds – including several million to the British taxpayer – should not, to use a Yiddish expression, kirch in die eigen, and conduct himself with a certain degree of modesty?

I have heard lavish feasts denounced from every pulpit in the land – Reform, United Synagogue and Adas – which has not, however, prevented rabbis from feasting lavishly when the occasion arose; but then one cannot really tell people what to do with their own money.  Mr. Stern’s case is different in that the money wasn’t his own.  It wasn’t mine either, but I wonder what Gentiles – who must have included a number of Mr. Stern’s hapless shareholders – thought of Jews, Judaism and Jewish ceremonies when they read of the affair.  I don’t suppose Mr. Stern cares for in the circles he moves the term chillul hashem has ceased to have currency.

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