Lady Jakobovits: The first lady of Anglo-Jewry

May 13, 2010
Quizzical, interested, listening and sympathetic: Lady J seemed to have time for everyone

Quizzical, interested, listening and sympathetic: Lady J seemed to have time for everyone

Lady Amelie Jakobovits was in my house five years ago watching the forced removal of the settlers in Gaza by the Israeli army.

She stared at the TV and cried. What she found so distressing was not the political situation that had led to Israel's decision to evacuate Gaza. It was that Jew was fighting Jew, relayed to her with graphic, brutal realism. As far as rights or political expediency were concerned, Amélie was prepared to be pragmatic. But this violence she could not bear.

When she died last Friday, the street in Hendon where she and Lord Jakobovits had lived since his retirement as Chief Rabbi was cordoned off as crowds came to reflect on whatever succour she had given them. They heard the Chief Rabbi and others recount her virtues. But there was a sense within the crowd of a private grief. Publicly, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks praised all the eshet chayil qualities that made her an outstanding rabbi's wife. In the Yiddish-punctuated English with which some Charedim pepper their sentences, she was lauded for her charitable works, her personal kindness, her almost psychic knack of knowing who was in need of a visit from her.

I had personal experience of it when my ex-husband suddenly died in 2001. Her near-mythic spiritual antennae brought her to my door within hours. For some, her presence at times of bereavement was almost intrusive. For others it was a pure gift. She had that brusque, edgy Gallic way, that sharp intuitiveness that made her see, with penetrating blue eyes, deep into the corners of your mind - even those you would rather have kept sealed.

Her empathy made her among the most exalted women in Anglo-Jewry.

Her humanity shone through

Jonathan Hoffman

She has been praised in almost elegiac terms. But it was this slight abrasiveness that gave her edge, gave her the stardust beloved of politicians; it made her earthier, less ladylike, more real.

Orthodox to the core, Amélie counted Progressive Jews among her friends. One of her sons-in-law suggested at her funeral that another person may have been criticised for associating with "such people", possibly revealing a point of family controversy. In the past, others criticised her for late arrivals, brief attendances, but her charm always won through. Although her phone bill must have been phenomenal, she, herself, was contained; she would deliver her goodwill message and then quickly bow out of the conversation.

Perhaps rebbetzins like her are born rather than made. Her family's escape from the Nazis was an epiphany for her; she decided as a teenager to dedicate her life to her people. She referred to her mother's joie de vivre as though it were a mantra. Her father courageously told her there was always a moment of beauty within even the most dire circumstances.

The capricious and feisty young girl who accepted her parents' choice of partner was awestruck by Immanuel Jakobovits's intellect, but this soon developed into an enduring love: his deeply ponderous and reflective manner was mitigated by her energy and quick wit.

People who entered their home might have anticipated a scholarly, bookish environment. But Amélie was a Frenchwoman who never lost either her accent or her sense of chic: the elegant bungalow was modern and light, full of her own personal atmosphere.

A forceful spirit in her own right, there was always something touching about her loyalty and deference to her beloved "Mano"; to his wisdom and sense of ethics. She was jubilant at his peerage and could not bear to see him criticised.

Bitterness and resentment were not part of her nature, but when Rabbi Sacks succeeded Lord Jakobovits, she was not entirely comfortable with the new role thrust upon the retiring first couple of Anglo-Jewry. Her admiration for Rabbi Sacks's abilities was unquestioned, but she was deeply upset at the debacle over his non-attendance at Reform leader Hugo Gryn's funeral in 1996.

Amélie would certainly have been excited by the political changes now taking place in Britain. She would have debated the deals on the table between the three parties last week. But in the end it was her family that counted; that and the future of the Jewish people.

She claimed she never spent a single night alone in her home during her 11 years of her widowhood. One of her innumerable grandchildren or great grandchildren always stayed. The birth of a great-grand-daughter, announced at her funeral, is a lyrical reminder of the time to come.

Gloria Tessler is the biographer of Lady Jakobovits

Last updated: 2:05pm, May 13 2010