I never get tired,” muses Jennifer Jankel. “I get up, and I get going.”
This is rather a good thing, as at 77, Jankel packs more into her life than most people who are years younger. First and foremost she is chair of the Jewish Music Institute, which has grown into a — literally — all singing, all dancing glorious amalgam of noise and energy, particularly over the summer months. The 2017 programme will be unveiled this month.
The JMI has done much to promote all kinds of Jewish music, from classical to world, and extending its reach to dance classes and Yiddish language and song. This week it secured an Arts Council grant for the annual Klezfest music school which takes place over the summer.
Jankel also does a great deal of work for her shul, North West Surrey Reform Synagogue. When we meet she’s already been at the JMI office at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and then to a meeting with Reform Judaism’s Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner. She co-ordinates her community’s Share and Care team, working to support those suffering from isolation and loneliness, and in need of social care.
Sixty years ago, some foolish teachers at St Paul’s School for Girls judged her not university material, and she’s been proving them wrong ever since. The daughter of band leader Joe Loss and his wife Mildred — “my glamorous, gorgeous mother” — family life was dictated by her father’s touring schedule, when he wasn’t playing at the Hammersmith Palais. Summer holidays were spent on the Isle of Man, where he was the resident band at the Villa Marina theatre; the Christmas break was in Glasgow for Green’s Playhouse and there would be another week in Blackpool, when he featured at the Tower Ballroom.
Loss was a celebrity, regularly mobbed by fans, although without the riches that a superstar would earn nowadays. Jankel’s pride in and love for her father is evident, she tells me how Spike Milligan called him “the very best gentleman in the whole of the business” at his funeral and asked for permission to leave a rose on his grave.
Jennifer learned the piano, but her talents and interests lay in speech and drama. She qualified to teach those subjects. But the decision that changed her life came when her mother moved her from St Paul’s to the French Lycee. At 19, she took a job as a bilingual secretary for the top French shoe company of the time, Charles Jourdan. She stayed for 27 years, becoming UK managing director aged 29, and later a vice president of the company. It was, she says, “a wonderful career and a glamorous life,” reminiscing about flying to New York for the opening of a flagship store, wearing glorious-sounding boots made from patent kidskin with a curvy heel. Eventually Jankel left Charles Jourdan and, with a former colleague, started her own shoe business, Luc Berjen.
At this point in the interview I feel acutely aware that I am wearing hideous pink trainers, so I ask Jankel’s advice about finding the perfect footwear. She loves boots — she is wearing some covetable Luc Berjen ones made from the softest Italian leather — and waxes lyrical about a Charles Jourdan style called the Maxim, which came in many colours and patterns, was sensibly priced and heeled, and should clearly be revived immediately. Italian leather and craftsmanship is the best, she says, comfort is key, and heels and shapes can be interesting and stylish without endangering your health.
She married at 22, and had four children with her husband Robert — “My creative, crazy, stay at home husband.” He may have been based at home, but he was not exactly a house-husband, starting out restoring vintage cars in the family garage and eventually founding the iconic 1970s car company Panther, which produced a road-worthy six-wheel sports car, the sumptuous 1975 Deville which cost £22,000 (twice the price of a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow) and was Cruella de Vil’s transport in the 1996 film 101 Dalmations.
The house itself was in Surrey which Robert bought without consulting his wife, but she forgave him when she saw how large it was, more than big enough for their four children. To run the family business, they eventually moved to a converted farmhouse with nine acres of grounds, where they had a herd of deer.
There was a problem though, as there was no shul within walking distance. “I had always been a shul goer,” says Jankel, and she had become involved with the Reform movement through youth work in the East End, which “opened my eyes to a different type of Judaism.” There was a local boarding school for Jewish children, and, with the headmaster Harry Cohen, the Jankels put an advert in the Jewish Chronicle and attracted twenty families to form what is now the North West Surrey Reform Synagogue, which has grown to a thriving community of 300 families. The shul has links with other local communities, and also works closely with Nightingale House in south London. “It’s more of a challenge to be Jewish outside the main centres,” says Jankel, but it’s one she takes in her stride.
The early 2000s were a difficult time for her, seeing the death in five years of her mother-in-law, her husband and then her own mother. Both mothers had been living with her. She shed “lots of tears,” and closed her business, but, typically, did not slow down in the slightest.
She and her mother had become involved with the Jewish Music Institute when it endowed a lectureship in her father’s name, first at City University and now at SOAS. The current Joe Loss lecturer is Dr Ilana Webster-Kogen, who specialises in Ethiopian music. Among the courses she teaches are one on Klezmer and another on the Jerusalem soundscape.
Jankel acknowledges that some in the Jewish community view SOAS with concern, after its students’ union became the first in the UK to back the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. She says that the JMI has an excellent relationship with the college’s management, and she loves being part of a multi-national community, as well as the JMI's energetic, young team. Furthermore, being based at SOAS leads to many encounters and events that build bridges. “Music is great for pulling people together.”
In 2012 she relaunched the JMI, helped by musician Sophie Solomon. Two years later she commissioned composer Jocelyn Pook to create a major multi-media work, Drawing on Light, inspired by the children of the Terezin concentration camp. The work has been performed to great acclaim, and part of it was sung by the Zemel Choir on Newsnight, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Jankel is profoundly moved by it: “It sits in my blood and my heart; inside my soul.”
She has a broad taste in music. Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra bring back memories of dating her husband (“Robert and I would have hot chocolate and fruit cake and listen to music.”) Barbra Streisand and Vera Lynn bring back memories of her father, who was a big fan of Streisand, and who worked with Lynn. The forces’ sweetheart made her first recording with him and Jankel is still in touch with her family. She’s a fan of Amy Winehouse, is convinced that Elgar must have had a Jewish grandparent and enjoys the world music that she has encountered at the JMI.
She’s a regular at Limmud, where she has studied for years with, amongst other lecturers, Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb from the Conservative Yeshiva of Jerusalem. She especially enjoys the Limmud Shabbat. “It’s like a big family.” And, of course, she has a big family of her own, with her four children and grandchildren.
“I love to listen and learn,” she says. She’s talking about music, but I think it applies to almost everything in her busy life.