A Friend to All

An abridged version of an address at a memorial service for Rabbi Sidney Brichto, who died on 16 January 2009

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At the end of Ritual Slaughter, Sidney Brichto’s book about growing up Jewish in America, he wrote: “I shall die happy, if someone offers me something to which I will be able to say in my dying breath, ‘Yes’.” I am sure that Sidney died a happy man. I have never met anybody who was blessed with a more positive attitude to everyone and everything he encountered. Just as Sidney said “Yes” to God, when he was called to the life of a rabbi, so he said “Yes” to friendship with Jews and Gentiles alike.

It was, as he said, his deep commitment to Jewish life that made him feel so secure in the company of non-Jews.

Perhaps because Sidney was the “baby” of his family, he relished the late Pope John Paul II’s description of the Jewish people as the “elder brothers” of the Christians, and he reciprocated with a genuine affection for the younger religion, despite the past centuries of persecution in the name of Jesus. Certainly, Sidney had the intellectual confidence to use his vast biblical erudition to engage with issues that were not only scholarly but controversial for both faiths. He liked nothing better than to test on his Christian friends the bold ideas that inspired him to be the first rabbi to translate not only the Hebrew Scriptures but also the New Testament into English.

Such debates, however heated, always ended with Sidney giving us his infectious grin and announcing: “I enjoyed that!” Those of us who were there will never forget a gathering of the Israel Diaspora Trust with the late Zaki Badawi. Much as he enjoyed the company of the founder of the Muslim College, Sidney did not flinch from saying exactly what he thought about the impact of radical Islam on British society. Both men were members of the Athenaeum. I think it gave Sidney, the rabbi from Philadelphia whose parents spoke only Yiddish, considerable pleasure to feel just as much at home in this very English institution as any Anglican bishop.

America, England and Israel – he loved all three and he rendered all three valuable service. But it was Israel which aroused Sidney’s deepest hopes and fears. It was through the IDT that I, like countless others, first got to know Sidney, and it was important to him that this unique gathering should include Gentile voices as well as Jewish ones. His witty and charming book, Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish, was designed to explain Jewish life and humour to non-Jews – an impossible task, you might suppose, but nothing daunted his irrepressible optimism.

Sidney understood that Israel, like the United States, is essential not only for the survival of the Jewish people, but also for the survival of Western civilisation. He was tireless in defence of Israel, boundlessly grateful to Israel’s friends and – despite his sunny temperament – impatient with Israel’s critics, at any rate if he judged their motives to be malign. It was a source of great sadness to Sidney that the atmosphere in Britain, which had been sympathetic to Israel when he arrived here in the 1960s, has become steadily more hostile to the Jewish state.

In an essay last August for Standpoint, which he did so much to encourage, Sidney went so far as to suggest that Zionism was now more trouble than it was worth, and that the term should be dropped. When he could not persuade the majority of his friends at the IDT that such a concession would be wise, it was typical of Sidney to concede defeat with a good grace.

Moral courage, wisdom and humour in the face of adversity: Sidney had plenty of all three. He was a mensch. But he also had a profound sense of the mystery and wonder of God’s creation, which found eloquent expression in his translation of the Torah. When my wife and I took our children to visit Mount Sinai, we read to them from Sidney’s version the account of how Moses received the Law. To be in that awe-inspiring place, accompanied by the timeless Word of God, was indeed a sublime experience. Sidney had a mind that was always open to the sublime. Like Samuel, Sidney said “Yes” to God’s call; and he went on saying “Yes” throughout his life.