Radio Rabbi Creates Community Over the Airwaves

By Deborah Waroff

Published January 30, 2004, issue of January 30, 2004.
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LONDON — Rabbi Lionel Blue is arguably the most popular Jew in the United Kingdom. He is funny and irreverent and considered by some to be an iconoclast. Cherub-faced rabbis who share recipes, pen travel books and yuk it up onstage in stand-up routines, after all, are few and far between.

But mainly, Blue owes his status as one of England’s favorite clerics to the BBC.

For 30 years, the rabbi — ordained in 1960 by the Reform Leo Baeck College — has been sharing his punchy punch lines and spiritual advice with listeners of BBC Radio Four’s influential and widely followed early morning news broadcast, the “Today” program. Each morning, British audiences are offered 2 minutes and 45 seconds of “Thoughts for the Day” that are loosely linked to current events. Blue is a frequent contributor to these mostly spiritual snippets fondly known as “Godspots.”

Blue, who turns 74 on February 6, had just finished his autobiography on the recent winter day when the Forward called on him at his cozy semi-detached house in northwest London’s heavily Jewish neighborhood of Finchley. For the past year he has devoted most of his time and energy to the book, to be published later this year by Hodder & Stoughton.

While composing his radio “Godspots” — one of the “great civilising forces” of Britain, according to one critic — he thinks about what people need, he told the Forward: be it humor to help them get through the day, consolation for losing jobs, “a bit of stiffening” to get them up and to work on a cold winter’s morning. The results seem like meandering rivers of disparate thoughts that wind up coming together with a message.

A commentary on the merits of charity, for example, began with him cooking a “ghastly” meal, after which he turned to memories of World War II and came round to several jokes, including, “Have you heard of the yidishe beggar in Nazi Berlin who put up a notice saying, ‘No Jewish money accepted’ and made a pile from the contributions of approving Aryans?”

In another riff, on religion’s lack of help for people getting divorced, Blue mused on the appropriate dinner for marking a divorce. “The divorcee,” he concluded, “might prefer lumps of meat cooked rare, impaled on skewers. Grrrrrrr. Good morning!”

In a recent “Godspot,” the rabbi struck out — wryly — on a far more personal chord: the increasing acceptance of gays. Blue himself is gay and speaks freely about the life he shares with Jim, his partner of 20 years. “The holy spirit is blowing away centuries of prejudice,” the rabbi said. “I feel it at high-class functions. Jim and I are no longer placed by the swinging kitchen doors along with the wisecracking au pairs. We’ve made it to the top table.”

And not just at parties. He was named the country’s most influential cleric of any faith in a 2001 survey — one compiled by a panel of eight British pundits for a BBC Four television special “The Godlist.” Amazingly, he outscored the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as the Pope, despite the fact that Jews number only roughly 266,000 of the United Kingdom’s 59 million residents.

Blue’s fan base extends beyond the spoken word. Author of a dozen books on everything from recipes and travel to prayer, Blue won the 2003 Jewish Chronicle Award for best book for his “To Heaven, With Scribes and Pharisees.” And his invariably benevolent face can often be seen commenting as a guest on BBC TV or found at the Leo Baeck College teaching a class on prayer, as he did last semester.

Revered for his wry and astute sensibilities, Blue’s preoccupations often take him into frontier territory. He speaks readily about what he sees as today’s No. 1 problem: loneliness. Religion scarcely addresses it, he said, noting that families today are often composed of friends, not blood relatives.

To get a better idea of Blue’s ties to Judaism and to people, a reporter followed him north to Nottingham late last month for the Limmud Conference, an annual event where 2,000 participants spent four days exploring all things Jewish — from midrash to Israel’s club scene.

As Blue spoke about “My Unofficial Life” to a full lecture hall, he verified his reputation for being exceptionally honest and open and transmitting doses of kindness and warmth to the listeners. “He bares his soul,” said one Limmud attendee, Peter Sevitt.

Today, Blue’s comments no longer seem to stir the controversy they once did, even when he speaks critically of rabbis whose sermons are too long and don’t relate to people’s needs. He’s wary of scriptures. “Most people,” he said, “are not interested in scripture.” Even so, he does attend services — at the West Central Liberal Synagogue, which he described as “friendly.”

“People have gotten used to him, and we regard him rather warmly,” said Willie Kessler, former chairman of Leo Baeck College, describing the rabbi as “slightly idiosyncratic, but a very nice man.”

But what about his early life? Blue told the Forward about his childhood as part of the West End’s Jewish working class. The son of a tailor, Blue earned grants that enabled his Oxford University education, which was followed by a Reform rabbinical program he completed under the tutelage of Leo Baeck. Later, during “the post-war chaos of the 1950s,” he said, he traversed continental Europe rebuilding congregations, then became European director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in 1962.

Today, however, “My congregation is the radio congregation,” he said, “and they are the nicest congregation there is — of all faiths.”






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