I am new to London. After about a month of living here, I wanted to get to know the Jewish community in which I live; so I attended a local panel discussion. The title of the panel was something strangely specific like "Managing Your Relationship with Your In-Laws." The panel's subject was not particularly interesting to me, but I wanted to hear some of the speakers, well-known psychologists and teachers, and this was my chance. I was vaguely aware that Lady J, one of the panelists, was a beloved and renowned figure, but I did not know much about her. I did know that I was impressed by the title "Lady" as I am an avid reader of 19th century novels. Who knew that the title still existed? I was a naive American out of a Henry James novel.
I sat in the first row and waited for the panelists to enter the room. When they did, a very pretty and feminine elderly lady with delicate jewelery and rosy cheeks sat in front me at the panelists' table, and while the other panelists were pouring water for themselves and arranging their notes, this rosy-cheeked lady smiled and said in a melodic French accent, "Hello, what is your name?" During our discussion, she learned that I was new to London, and then she said, "You look so happy! You don't need to listen to this panel!" I blushed. I wanted to say, "You just made me feel happier!"
I felt aglow from the conversation as I basked in her presence. This woman had an ineffable quality that made me smile inside. Then the panel began, and I learned that this was none other than Amelie Jakobovits, the former chief rabbi of England's widow, affectionately known as Lady J.
It became evident, early on in the panel, that Lady J's perspective on the subjects discussed was so wise and clear that, at a certain point, everyone, including the other panelists, simply began to ask her questions. She was the fountain of clarity, and we were thirsty. At one point she revealed her "10 Commandments: Recipe for a Successful Marriage and Parent-Child Relationship," a card she held in her hands; and we were on the edges of our seats. What are your 10 commandments, we wanted to know? Before reading them to us, one could already see what some of them were by witnessing her charming banter. For instance, whenever one of the panelists referred to their children as "my children," Lady J would admonish them with a friendly pat on the back of their hand: "our children," she would say with a smile, emphasizing the importance of always keeping one’s spouse in mind.
The daughter of Elie Munk, the former chief rabbi of Paris, Lady J was born in Germany; the family escaped, and they survived the Holocaust. She met her husband, Immanuel Jakobovits, when she was 19, and her husband went on to become a leading figure on medical ethics and later, the chief rabbi of England. She and her husband were a famously dynamic team; they even named their home "Immalie," an amalgam of Amelie and her husband’s first names, which reflected their harmonious merging. After her husband's death, Lady J continued her work and became more and more active as a speaker and patron of hospitals and other charitable organizations. She was a sparkling force for good.
A friend whom I had gushed to about Lady J, later told her how much I enjoyed meeting her and that I needed some advice about life in London. Lady J then called me, inviting me to have lunch in her home! We ate in her kitchen, and as she served me the soup, she offered to help me with various things such as ideas about how to find work, advice about marriage, and information about the community. Here is one thing she said about marriage: "The goal is not perfection but rather, harmony." I gazed around her kitchen, which was filled with photos of her children, grand-children, and great grand-children (amounting to over 100!) and little sayings and plaques such as one that said, "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice."
These past few days, London has been filled with sadness: Lady J passed away a few days ago. As people tell stories about Lady J, I feel amazed that she took the time to serve me lunch so recently. Between her speaking engagements, relationship with her family, visiting the sick, and reaching out to people, she was an extraordinarily busy woman. I just learned that, when not giving talks or sitting by the beds of ill people or holding the hands of the bereaved, she would call people throughout the day to congratulate or comfort them, or just to say she loved them. Apparently, she would sometimes make 600 phone calls a day. I also learned that she reached out to everyone wherever she went--whether they were religious or not, Jewish or not Jewish. I actually witnessed an otherworldly moment myself: while standing in line (in a queue, I should say) at the bank a month ago, there was Lady J at one of the tellers doing a transaction; and then--I saw it with my own eyes--the teller came out from behind the counter and gave her a kiss. Have you ever heard of a bank teller giving a customer a kiss?
I saw the "Immalie" plaque myself on her house, when I visited her for lunch. Its solid simplicity declares itself with modest dignity on the front of the house. It goes without saying that afterward, I twinkled my way home, and entered our apartment (sorry, flat!) glowing; my husband was worried: it looked like I had fallen in love again. He was right. This time it was with Lady J.