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
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
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
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.