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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
In his autobiography, Sidney described his childhood as a series of tensions that shaped the rest of his life. He wrote about how he struggled with his physical limitations caused by a congenital hernia and asthma. Intellectually, he was pulled between his immersion in the sacred Hebrew texts and his growing love of classical literature. Because he came from a line of Hasidic rabbis and Talmud scholars, he felt caught between his Orthodox upbringing and what he called his “heresy”- his conviction that ideas mattered more than ritual behavior.
Sidney wrote: “Judaism is my only inheritance and I made the most of it.” From his grandfather, he learned that the intellect was the essence of human life. From his father, he learned a love of Judaism and Jewish books. From his brother, Chanan, he learned about the wider world of literature and culture.
Sidney’s life is a testimony to the ways in which he overcame what he called “the polarities and inconsistencies of his life.” This is what he wrote: “Because I needed to survive by my wits and not by muscles, because excitement was only possible for me in the world of ideas, I have always enjoyed a good moral or intellectual battle. It makes me feel alive, no doubt in the same way a soccer player feels when his team’s effort has led to a goal. But as soon as the game has been played, I seek a conclusion, reconciliation, peace, and a return to good fellowship. The achievement of a compromise is, in my view, a victory.”
Sidney was a man of passion and of peace. We all know the Sidney who became righteously indignant when he saw as an injustice to Israel or the Jewish people. In this, he was relentless. But this is the same man who loved people, brought friends and colleagues together, reconciled after disagreements, and multiplied friendships in the world. He was, indeed, the consummate networker.
Sidney expressed many of his lifelong principles through his work on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. (As the Centre’s new president,) I have only worked with Sidney for a few months but he has quickly become more than a colleague. He became my friend and mentor.
Sidney was a passionate supporter of the Centre from its early days. He later served as a governor and, more recently, as its fundraiser. He threw himself wholeheartedly into helping the Centre because Judaism was his only inheritance, because of his love of Jewish learning, and because of his passion for the intellectual enterprise.
Sidney worked tirelessly to introduce his friends to the Centre and encouraged many of them to become involved. In this, as in all his pursuits, Sidney was determined, relentless, and persistent. I ask myself, ‘Why did he work so hard and for so long for Jewish studies at Oxford University?’ I think Sidney wanted nothing less than to offer his friends a great opportunity. He knew that learning had changed his world. He wanted to help others be similarly transformed. Sidney described his own graduate education in Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College this way: “I became proud not only of Judaism’s history, but of its philosophy. My Jewishness did not deny me the best of life but, on the contrary, it gave me the means to enrich it.” I think he wanted to help others have that same opportunity.
Sidney embodied what the author of the Hebrew text, Two Tablets of the Law, described as the Jewish ideal: ‘A man who loves people and is loved by them, a person of peace, a complete person, one who strengthens the world in his words and daily conversations.’ Sidney strengthened the world; the world needed him, and we will miss him.
May Cathryn and his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Hamakom yenachem etchem betokh shear avlei tzion viyrushalayim.
And may Sidney’s memory be a blessing.
David Ariel PhD,
© Copyright 2009 NPLS