There will be beautiful, insightful and loving obituaries about Rabbi Lionel Blue, the much loved minister, teacher and, famously, speaker on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, from those who knew and loved him well over many years. He was known for his jokes, his insights and his honesty about his homosexuality. Sadly he passed away on Monday 19 December, aged 86. I myself encountered Lionel only at the very end of his life, when he was living in a home in Golders Green, coping with the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease, the cruel condition that rendered it so hard for this extraordinary communicator to do just that, for it made not only movement but also speaking extraordinarily difficult.
This is not where you will read erudite analysis or an account of a life, or even of the work. I am simply asking myself and others like me why we have been so profoundly affected by Leonard Cohen’s words, music and life.
For a time now, aware that the man who told us all “I’m your man” was an octogenarian, I have been confiding that I hoped he would live to a great age because the world would be a poorer place without him. It was a better place with him in it. I think I feel this way because of the arc of his life, with its many pathways, both sacred and profane, as shared through his music, confided to me and so many others through his gorgeous, elegant poetry and lyrics.
On Monday 7 November, one of music’s most eloquent and able songwriters passed away. Leonard Cohen was 82 when he died peacefully at his home in southern California earlier this week. His son Adam said touchingly in an interview with Rolling Stone, “My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humour.”
“He shone with the sun”, lilted singer Rosie Archer in a soaring paean that took place as part of many poignant moments during an afternoon of tributes to the playwright Arnold Wesker, who died age 83 on 12 April 2016.
Held at the Royal Court Theatre, Wesker’s spiritual home despite the theatre having turned down Chicken Soup with Barley (it premiered in 1958 at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre), the evening was filled with warm memories of the late playwright from luminaries across the arts world.
Shimon Peres was the ‘almost’ man of Israeli politics who was expected to win, but always lost. He was prime minister for a few months in 1977 after Yitzhak Rabin’s resignation and then for a similar period following Rabin’s assassination in 1995. His longest time in office as prime minister was in the national unity government with the Likud from 1984-86. He was expected to succeed Yitzhak Shamir in 1990 but then was thwarted by a last minute about-turn by Charedi politicians on orders from their rebbes. He was then expected to defeat Netanyahu in 1995, but the advent of Hamas’s suicide bombers put paid to that hope. Even when he stood for president in 2001, the walkover never happened and Moshe Katsav succeeded to the post instead. Peres only became president in 2007. Such an unprecedented string of disappointments would have crushed most politicians.
Sir Arnold Wesker, who has died at the age of 83, first came to prominence in the late 1950s as one of the playwrights dubbed ‘Angry Young Men’, though he later rejected this label. I would say advisedly so, for his famous trilogy of plays drawing on his background in the Jewish East End and upbringing in a family with a strong Communist identity, introduced one of the most memorable positive heroines of post-war literature. Beatie Bryant, the Norfolk-born heroine of the middle play in the trilogy, Roots (the first being Chicken Soup with Barley, and the last is I’m Talking About Jerusalem).
I was lucky enough to meet Sir Arnold when Roots was wonderfully revived at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013 and I was invited to meet this great, delightful and erudite man at the Brighton home he shared with his beloved wife, the supremely resourceful and devoted Dusty, on whom the radiant Beatie was modelled. I say invited, because the hugely hospitable Dusty made what she called “a light lunch”, to which my husband Steve was also invited and it was truly memorable – both for Dusty’s cooking and for the conversation over lunch. And that’s on top of what I was privileged to record for JR OutLoud with Arnold while lunch was cooking, when he spoke at length about the inspiration for Roots and much more about his life and work.
Arnold was still supremely articulate despite the Parkinson’s Disease that dogged his later years. I had also had the pleasure of speaking to him on the phone some years before about Shylock, his take on The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock and the Merchant of Venice are close and supportive friends and the pound of flesh the result of a nonsensical bond, genuinely made as a gesture to the draconian Venetian authorities, that goes horribly wrong. But meeting him in person and being welcomed into their home by this wonderfully complementary pair will always be a very special memory for me. My heart goes out to Dusty and I am sure all readers will join with me in wishing her long life.
By Judi Herman
Listen to Sir Arnold Wesker discuss his life and works in 2013 on JR OutLoud.
We were so sad to hear of the death of the pioneering historian David Cesarani on October 25. He contributed over the years to Jewish Renaissance, but here JR editor Rebecca Taylor recalls her first meeting with him at the legendary Kosher Luncheon Club in London’s East End.
I first met David Cesarani in the late-1980s. I must have been about 20-years-old and was writing my final-year dissertation for my English degree at Cambridge University. I had chosen a geekily obscure area of literature to focus on – a body of work with political leanings that emerged from the Jewish East End in the 1930s. It focused on novels such as Simon Blumenfeld’s Jew Boy and William Goldman’s East End My Cradle, which grappled with relating the immigrant experience alongside experimenting with the new forms of modernist writing, and pitched all this against a background of political debate about how the ‘working class’ should best be represented artistically.
Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE 19 May 1909 – 1 July 2015
At the age of 106, Sir Nicholas Winton peacefully passed away in his sleep at Wexham Park Hospital on 1 July 2015. The poignant day also marked 76 years since 241 children – of the 669 Sir Nicky saved from Czechoslovakia – evacuated Prague by train. Sir Nicky was a true humanitarian; on the eve of the Second World War he instigated the Czech Kindertransport, which saw hundreds of children escape safely to homes that Sir Nicky had arranged for them in Britain. For this selfless act Czech President Miloš Zeman awarded Sir Nicky the highest honour of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion (1st class).
In May 2003 I had the honour of meeting this extraordinary man. Sir Nicky was in his mid-90s at the time and I was lucky enough to be asked to make a feature for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour with Sir Nicky and the daughter of one of his “children”, pilot Judy Leden, a world champion microlight flyer. She had planned a very special treat for his 94th birthday – a spin in a microlite aircraft. It made Sir Nicky the oldest person to fly in a microlight and by doing so he raised money for one of his favourite charities, Abbeyfield, who provide housing and support for the elderly.
Recording their in-flight conversation as they circled his Berkshire home was quite a challenge, but a total joy. I got to record him at his home afterwards too and he was witty, charming and welcoming – a truly great human being.
By Judi Herman
“My proudest moment was the number Reviewing the Situation. I suspect that, because I gave my all to the role, and because I was working with such a fine team of people, it inhibited my future career. I turned down quite a few offers afterwards because I thought the people didn’t come close to those I’d worked with on Oliver! which, in retrospect, was a mistake.” – Ron Moody, 8 January 1924 – 11 June 2015.
Judi Herman reports on the recent death of actor Ron moody, one of the last remaining adult actors, bar Shani Wallis, from the 1968 musical Oliver!.