I met Lionel Blue at his home in Finchley last year. The house was like the rabbi himself — small, understated and, above all, different. High taste the mauves and pinks of his floral upholstery were not. But this home was authentically his. The living room lay stuffed with ornaments and books and manuscripts. They spilled onto the floor there was so many. Kabbalah, the Raj, The Jewish Enlightenment: physical signs of a life well read.
By this time Lionel was beyond his best. I found him sitting silently on a chair before a zimmer frame watching television. He was weak and could not couldn’t stand up to greet us. Here was the man whose warmth, gentle eloquence and chirpy “good morning” on Thought for the Day made him the most loved religious figure in Britain – above the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, according to the 2001 BBC survey – but the Parkinson’s meant it was a clear strain now for him to say hello. In fact, he was barely audible.
Lionel never feared death. He lived his early life pained by his sexuality and physically repulsed by his body. He was crippled by depression during those years. But he made a point of not fearing physical pain or his own mortality and had survived two spells of cancer, heart problems and epilepsy by this stage. Still, Lionel had once written a book called, “Body and Soul”, and when I met him on this occasion I could not help wonder if the former had corroded the latter.
Yet soon Britain’s first openly gay rabbi did the thing he had done his whole life and defied expectations. It took a while for him to warm up, but within minutes he was yapping away about his teacher Rabbi Werner van der Zyl and their theological differences. Once upon a time Werner had travelled from north London to find an errant Lionel in the gay saunas of Amsterdam. Lionel had fled rabbinic school to explore his sexuality, an experience he later described as a ‘bit like a sexual rugger scrum’, and was initially resistant to leave. Yet Rabbi Werner persisted and persuaded him back to Britain to resume his tutelage and help lead High Holy Day services. Here, five decades on, Rabbi Werner had saved Lionel again. The memory of his mentor fuelled a long and animated conversation.
By the time our half hour was over Lionel was so enjoying himself he insisted we must come back to hear more about Leo Beack’s anti-mysticism and the Germanic origins of British Reform Jewry. Yet his carer told us he was set to move into a care home next month and I assumed, rightly, that we’d never get the chance.
Lionel knew life was transient. He was emotionally engrossed by commuters in the concourse of Euston Station – ‘seeing them. . .makes you want to go up to them and cuddle them’ – and described this world as akin to an airport’s departure lounge. It was clear he was preparing to board his next flight.
While Lionel Blue won widespread recognition for his words, his actions were just as remarkable. If anyone wants a marker of how brave his decision to come out was, do not look alone to what the legions of listeners, LGBT campaigners and rabbis said responding to his death. Momentarily consider what was not said and in particular the Chief Rabbi’s response to Lionel’s death this week: shameless, shameful, radio silence. In a homophobic community, Lionel decided to show the world the person he was. And the world loved him for it.