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Recalling those encounters of the royal kind

As the nation prepares to celebrate, we look at the Queen's Jewish connections

    Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth enthroned on a bejewelled howdah in Jaipur, India in 1961.
    Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth enthroned on a bejewelled howdah in Jaipur, India in 1961.

    As the nation pays tribute to the Queen for her official 90th birthday this weekend, we may be tempted to wish her "till 120".

    Moses lived to 120, a fact I recall being taught at primary school. But little did I know how this knowledge would be applied 25 years later. I was working at Buckingham Palace during the Diamond Jubilee in 2012, and one of the special events that year, held in the spectacular ballroom, was a gathering of the leaders of an exclusive group of historic organisations called "Privileged Bodies".

    They had a special status which carried rights to convey a message of congratulations to the monarch in person on significant anniversaries.

    The Board of Deputies, dating back to 1760, was among them and at the end of his address, the-then Board president, Vivian Wineman, wished the Queen "to 120".

    On returning to my office, the Press Association's royal correspondent had been in touch to ask about the significance of the blessing. The query was immediately referred to me and I summoned my primary school knowledge.

    Annie Liebovitz with her portrait of the Queen
    Annie Liebovitz with her portrait of the Queen

    While this was an unusual infusion of Jewish ideas into the red-carpeted grandeur of the palace, a number of Jewish people have played a fascinating and under-stated role in the Queen's reign. For me, a chance conversation with a spry and modest 91-year-old in shul one Shabbat last year led to a surprising discovery - that Reginald Davis worked as a royal photographer for more than 50 years.

    This included private sessions with the Queen. Known as "Reg" by all his clients, he carried out private shoots for the British and other royal families over the course of his long career.

    The first royal engagement he covered was when the-then Princess Elizabeth returned to the UK from a tour of South Africa in 1947 with her parents and her younger sister.

    It was on this tour that she gave what was to become one of her most famous addresses, on her 21st birthday, when she declared that her "whole life whether it be long or short" would be devoted to the service of the Commonwealth.

    Mr Davis photographed the Queen's Coronation in June 1953 but his most memorable engagement was 15 years later when he had a private session photographing the Queen and all her children at Frogmore in Windsor.

    He recalls: "That session produced a marvellous sequence of pictures. They generated huge media interest, and I gave interviews all over the world."

    In total, Davis carried out hundreds of engagements and covered over 50 royal overseas tours, travelling on the royal yacht Britannia on three occasions.

    He also photographed foreign royals, including the Iranians in the 1960s, and authored nine books on royal photography.

    Displaying obvious affection for the Queen, he highlights the human side of the monarch. On a tour of India in 1961, a number of the travelling media pack left their shoes behind at Gandhi's shrine and proceeded to a reception with the Queen in bare feet covered with sand, which she found very funny.

    In 1963, Mr Davis fainted in the heat of a state visit to Fiji and, five days later, when the Queen saw him in New Zealand, she asked him how he was. A royal photographer who played by the rules, Mr Davis was never part of the paparazzi and, indeed, later in his career refused to cover Princess Diana's engagements because of the rat pack.

    A proud Jew and United Synagogue member, he says he "never heard any comments about religion" throughout his entire working career.

    Another Jewish figure whose media work brought him into contact with the Queen is the documentary-maker Edward Mirzoeff.

    Schooled at Hasmonean, he had a highly successful career at the BBC from 1963 to 2000. One of the high points of this was his landmark documentary, Elizabeth R, to mark the Queen's 40th anniversary on the throne in 1992.

    As it happened, that year turned out to be her "annus horribilis", soured by her children's marital strife and the fire at Windsor Castle (although the documentary was broadcast at the beginning of the year, before the Queen's troubles started).

    Mr Mirzoeff wanted the programme to capture some of the Queen's personality. As he explains: "The concept the royal household had for the programme was to show the Queen's constitutional role. I thought that this would not make a warm, human film. I wanted to make a human portrait through seeing the Queen at work."

    The director was very proud of the final programme and it attracted a staggering 18 million viewers when first shown on the BBC.

    He reflects: "The palace gave us an extraordinary degree of access over a long period. We filmed a state visit by the Polish President Lech Walesa and a number of other engagements and investitures."

    Above all, he recalls that "the scene from the programme that people remember best is the Queen in the royal box at the Derby, talking to the Queen Mother, watching the beginning of the race on TV, and then running out to watch the finish from the balcony."

    Someone else well known to the monarch is the financier and philanthropist, Jacob Rothschild. Operating from Spencer House, a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace, Lord Rothschild is part of the prestigious Order of Merit.

    Appointments to the 24-member Order are made personally by the Queen to individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the arts, literature or science.

    Lord Rothschild's mixing with royalty comes naturally, given his family's history. His great-grandfather Lord Nathaniel Rothschild was the first Jew to be appointed as a Lord Lieutenant, one of the monarch's representatives in the counties (he was appointed to the post for Buckinghamshire in 1889).

    Of all the Jewish people to have contact with the Queen, perhaps the most quirky case is that of Rabbi Jacob Snowman. When she gave birth to Prince Charles in 1948, the 77-year-old rabbi was called upon to perform a circumcision on the young prince, then still a royal custom imported from the Hanoverians.

    Two Jewish women have had more recent encounters with the monarch. Last month, ex-JFS pupil Gaby Lebetkin met the Queen after she won a gold award at the Chelsea Flower Show for a design depicting the Queen's head in profile.

    Meanwhile, Vanity Fair magazine has a front-page photograph of the Queen with her corgis taken by the American Jewish portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz - the result of a photo session earlier this year.

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