Christina Farrell meets a religious leader who has never lost his sense of humour
here's a stern note On Rabbi Lionel Blue's front door requesting no junk mail. I'm trying to equate this with the effortless charm and the "Good morning, John, and good morning, Jim" and "good morning" to listeners across the nation who stop, butter knife in hand. to listen to his "Thought for the Day".
The door swings open and the rabbi swings into action. Lionel Blue is offering fruit cake and coffee — "Only plastic coffee, dear, do you mind?" He's a rabbi who loves Christmas, and embraces the Christian contemplative tradition. "Jews are not a silent lot," he confesses. "If you say you want spiritual guidance they put you on a committee."
He is currently touring with his one-man show and Continuum has recently published a new anthology of his work, entitled Best of Blue. His CV includes a spell as a cookery columnist for The Universe. His sitting room reflects his ecleticism: a comfortable mix of English chintz, photographs of Jewish matriarchs and Lowryesque paintings of matchstick men, heads bowed.
On the wall is a sampler with a verse from the American slave poet Phyllis Wheatley: "Let placid slumbers soothe each weary mind, at morn to wake more heavenly, more refined." So that explains the 7.45am witticisms.
An oil painting catches my eye. It is one of Lionel Blue's own works, painted from memory, and depicts a political march through London's East End at the time of the Spanish Civil War.
The young Lionel may have grown up in a devout Yiddish household with an indulgent Russian grandmother. or bubbe as he affectionately calls her, but his roots were radical. Born in London in 1930, he witnessed the rise of Fascism in Europe and was active in the Aldgate Riots when the East End's Jewish community rose up against Oswald Moseley's Blackshirts (Lionel filled buckets of water to throw at the Fascists).
The threat of Fascism meant he lost his faith. Bubbe had explained
that if you prayed for something that wasn't selfish then God would deliver. Lionel prayed with all his might for the demise of Adolf Hitler and Moseley and yet "there they were, flourishing like the righteous".
So, aged five, he ditched the Almighty and embraced the Reds.
He was evacuated in 1939 but returned to London in 1940 . At night, when the sirens sounded, the family would make for the safety of the local brewery vaults on Mile End Road. He recalls on one occasion reaching the brewery but his mother was far behind. He could see her, in the distance, her heels clip-clopping on the cobbles, silhouetted against the blaze of bombs and gunfire. She was too late. The warden, under strict instructions to prevent overcrowding, locked the gates. He lifted the distraught boy up so that he could say goodbye.
"I bit him," says Lionel Blue proudly, "and he opened the gates and let her in."
In 1950 Lionel went up to Oxford to read History at Banjo!. It was a troubled time; he felt socially inadequate and was sexually confused.
"I was gay and simply didn't know how to deal with it," he recalls. Redemption came one rainy Thursday afternoon when he took shelter in a doorway in St Giles. The door opened and an old lady took his hand.
"I found myself in a Quaker meeting for farmers. I thought, 'What's a Yiddish boy doing in a place like this?' It was all very strange as I'd only just left Marxism."
He was face to face with God and the silence "wasn't empty".
He got up and testified. In that moment he realised that the issues he feared to face had made him more compassionate and had given him an insight into God's mercy. "Whether it's John of the Cross or Simone Weil, it's when you slip and lose your balance that you make your first real prayer, which is 'help!' I suddenly saw my life in a very different way." Encouraged by an AngloCatholic friend, who had funded his studies by selling stockings on Petticoat Lane, Lionel set off to find his soul at a monastery in the north of England.
"I thought I was going to sort out my sexual predicament but everyone else, it appeared, thought this was a matter of conversion.1 was the cherry on the cake," he grins.
He rang his mother and she sobbed down the phone that if he renounced his Jewish roots she would commit suicide — "and your father too".
Didn't that put rather a damper on proceedings?
"I was still quite fired up with the whole idea that as a Christian you should 'leave your mother and father and follow me' but at the last minute the bishop took against me."
The church may have rejected Lionel Blue but the spirit — "Old Smokey" — was with him.
"I had discerned that there was such a thing akopirituality and, as well as a mind, I had a soul that could apprehend it. It all seemed to point in the right direction."
He was ordained as a rabbi in 1960 but still sees himself as a window between faiths. "I've given bits of Judaism to the Catholic Church and they've given bits to me — there's reciprocity," he explains. "My role is that of spiritual entrepreneur."
He is a frequent visitor to the Carmelite Priory at Boars Hill, near Oxford. He stays for two or three nights and then scampers back to Finchley. Before he's converted again? He smiles that cherubic smile: "My mother is praying on the other side and she's a tough cookie."
He has "issues" with the Church. He's never really gone in for miracles, for example, and sees in Christianity the need "to believe an awful lot".
"I'm not really a very good believer," he says. "The things I can grasp are the things which I can validate in my own life's experience." '
That validation extends, most specifically, to the Church's attitude to condoms and Aids.
"Condoms arc not the perfect answer: the perfect answer is, of course, faithfulness. But we have to work for an imperfect world in which people are the way they are. It is impossible to ask men in different cultures to act like monks with no vocation."
In over 30 years of broadcasts for "Thought for the Day" he has steered away from the vitriol and solipsism of some of the contributors. Humour, he insists, is an essential part of the Jewish psyche, a way of dealing with betrayal and bitterness, and this is what makes him so engaging. You can find God, he argues, in cold custard. You just have to look hard enough.
We discuss anger. Why, I ask, do some people who profess great religiosity enjoy attacking others? He looks away, older, saddened.
"Maybe if you think you know it all it's galling that others don't accept it. In truth there aren't that many religious people; most of us have doubts. Hypocrisy is one of the greatest religious problems and in a funny kind of way it has to be."
He used to consider himself an awful hypocrite — giving friends wise and profound advice and not adhering to it himself. "But then sometimes you get a moment of pure illumination. It can take a lifetime for the rest of you to catch up."
Despite Ken Livingstone's protestations that London is a multi-racial integrated mix, the city has seen a rise in anti-Semitic attacks. I ask Lionel if he ever feels threatened.
"Yes," he replies, and then pauses. "But not as much as a gay Muslim who really does have a hard time of it. All fundamental religion disapproves of people like me. I am the child of an openly secular society who just happens to be religious. You might be gay but you can still have a broken heart."
His fear is that religious people will be ghettoised and that in fleeing the society that shuns them they will become alienated further.
"I grew up in a Jewish ghetto defined by what you are, by where you live. I start from where people are in life. Not from where I think' they ought to be."
He has served for many years on the standing committee of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe. His recognition of the need "to meet people where they are" has shaped his views on Israel. When Israeli troops moved in to annexe the Arab quarters of Jerusalem his reaction was one of anger.
"I said this is occupation and it has proved to be a poisoned chalice which one day they will wish they'd had the sense to reject. Every war that Israel won she had to win, but every victory made another war inevitable.
"My Zionism went back to the 1940s, before the proclamation of the State of Israel. We had this great dream of a co-operative country — communal settlements making the desert bloom — a kosher, social democratic paradise. It was a good vision."And suddenly he looks a bit lost, the dream gone. He hasn't been back to Israel since 1961.
"When the chance is missed the price of peace becomes higher," he
says. "I fear the time when the price will become unpayable and we are getting near that stage now."
For most of his adult life he has tried to provide a paradigm in Europe of proper religious co-operation.A model for helping, not hurting, He believes women hold the answer.
"Put men together and it Will take a week for them to have serious, open discussion. Put women together and they'll be talking within one day. Women listen. Men don't. Women start not with the perfect solution, but with what works."
What makes him proud as a Jew? "Hope," he says emphatically. "Hope and humour."
Lionel beat prostate cancer some years ago but now has Merkel's cancer. Pockets of the disease have emerged in populations in Tel Aviv and New York — a link, it appears, to his Russian genes.
"As you get old you end up as a bionic person," he muses. "I've had a heart bypass and I'm epileptic though the good thing is I seem to have grown out of being depressive and obsessive." He beams at me. "It's one of the nice things about old age."
He's also clearer about his faith, freed from the insecurities of youth. He's never lost the sense that prayer transforms everything, even the most domestic and mundane events.
He has spent a lifetime talking to God, so what will be say to the Almighty when he's finally called? "I'll tell him I turned out exactly as He knew I would, so what was the deal? He's got a lot of answering to do."
Best of Blue is published by Continuum, priced 19.99