Louisa Clein's pilgrimage

Louisa Clein grew up in a village with no Jewish education but has come to find a home in Judaism as an adult


It is probably not something a rabbi would recommend to prompt a trip to shul: try a church service.

But when Louisa Clein attended mass for the recent BBC series Pilgrimage, she confessed to feeling uncomfortable afterwards. “It made me want to go to synagogue,” she said.

The actress, whose TV career includes Judge John Deed and Emmerdale, was one of seven celebrities from different faith backgrounds who retraced the steps of Saint Columba, the sixth-century abbot who brought Christianity from Ireland to Scotland. It was an experience that had a deep effect on her, as she reflected, tearfully, at the conclusion of the three-part series: “I spent a lot of my life hiding being Jewish and actually I’m really proud of it.”

When she did the press launch for the programme, she told the JC, “We all had to sit in a panel and introduce ourselves, I sat there with microphone and said ‘I’m Louisa Clein, I’m Jewish.’ I took a step back and thought to myself that’s probably the first time I have ever announced it to the world like that. It has been something I have whispered my whole life and I’m not exactly sure why.”

Her 15-day journey took in different places of worship and spiritual landmarks and on-the-road discussions about belief. Hers is a story of Judaism reclaimed.

She and her sister, the cellist Natalie Clein, who appeared last year in her friend Robert Rinder’s documentary series, The Holocaust, My Family and Me, are daughters of a mother who survived the Shoah hidden as a child in Holland.

They grew up in Sandbanks in Dorset and though Bournemouth is not far away, they remained distant from the organised Jewish community. “My parents wanted us to not feel different, especially my mum,” she said. “We’d come to London every year for Passover, with my dad’s side of the family, but that was pretty much the only festival we celebrated.

“We would have apple and honey on Rosh Hashanah but apart from that, no Jewish education. I don’t blame my parents for it, I have no feeling of animosity towards them for the lack of Jewish life.”

Culturally, the family was Jewish, she said, “My mother is a Jewish mother and you can’t hide that. I always knew what I wasn’t, I never quite knew what I was.”

As a music scholar at secondary school, she sang in the school choir. “I would sing in a Sunday morning in church. I’d be one of the very few people who would go up and take Holy Communion.” She recalls the vivid sensation one morning of facing a full church of worshippers and feeling arrows pointing at her, “This is the Jew.”

What changed was moving to London to go to drama school, where “I met the most incredible Israeli drama teacher who opened my eyes to a lot. I had family in London who would invite me round for Shabbat dinners and slowly I found a community. When I met my husband [barrister Jeremy Brier] that solidified the Jewish world that I became part of.”

The family belong to Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, where

their three children go to cheder. Once she would have felt a stranger in a synagogue, but now she can experience the familiarity of being part of a community. “Having not spent my childhood going to services, either once a year or once a week, for me it is still learning what it all means.

“I love the music, I love the songs. I have been very lucky in that all the synagogues we have
been to over the years in London have had extraordinary rabbis and I love listening
to them talk.”

One thing that she discovered through conversations with her fellow-pilgrims was that “religion when you are a child is slightly boring and a bit of an annoying subject to learn, or the way it has been taught a lot of the time.

“But as you get older, it becomes a much broader thing— it becomes about spirituality, it becomes about philosophy, about life and nature, everything. So now when I go and I listen to the sermon or I talk to the people around to me, it is enhancing, isn’t it?”

She accepted the invitation to take part in the programme, she said, because she wanted to test herself physically and to take the opportunity to explore the West Coast of Scotland, part of the country dear to her father. And she also wanted to learn more about other people’s religions.

In the gurdwara she visited with former England cricketer Monty Panesar, a practising Sikh, she was attracted by the spirit of community inclusion she encountered. The Benedictine chants she heard at the monastery on Iona felt “holy”. “We were walking in some of the most incredible scenery and I found spirituality looking out at the cliffs, looking at the ocean.”

There were no Jewish sites to stop by along the way, so instead to represent Judaism, she hosted a Friday night dinner. The programme shows her rolling kneidlach for the soup and  reciting the berachah over Shabbat candles.

“The rest of the pilgrims were so beautifully open and generous in wanting to learn with their questions that it gave me a sense of real pride in sharing that,” she said.

“I really hope that I was able to show our community as a joyful, generous, kind faith —because that’s what we are.”

While the rise of antisemitism can seem frightening, she said, “We have got to be able to show the beauty of the Jewish faith, not to be frightened to come out.”

Pilgrimage can be seen on BBC iPlayer

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