In the Hebrew school, sitting on plank benches with timber-cutters’ children, Isaiah received his first formal religious instruction. It was also his first experience of schooling, and to the end of his life he could still remember the words of a song he learned with the other children, about the stove in the corner that kept a poor family warm. From an old rabbi, he learned the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The rabbi too was never forgotten. Once he paused and said, ‘Dear children, when you get older, you will realise how in every one of these letters there is Jewish blood and Jewish tears.’ When Berlin told me this story, eighty years later, in the downstairs sitting room of his home in Oxford, Headington House, for a split second his composure deserted him and he stared out across the garden. Then he looked back at me, equanimity restored, and said, ‘That is the history of the Jews.’ 

— Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life 

June 3, 2021

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