A magazine of St Marks Parish, Hamilton Terrace, NW8 Volume 3 No 5 March-May 2000
Maggie Currey talks to Rabbi Louis Jacobs
Rabbi Louis Jacobs, 79, has been in charge of the New London Synagogue in Abbey Road since 1964 and his retirement later this year will mark the end of an era. A professor and scholar of repute with a PhD. in Jewish Historical Studies, he has written more than 40 books, worked at Harvard and lectured widely in America; for his services to British education and Jewish scholarship he was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1990. But though a long, fruitful and profoundly serious career as a scholar and theologian has made him a revered figure in the world of Anglo Jewry, it has little resonance for the average non-Jewish Londoner.
What many older readers of all faiths are likely to remember, however, is ‘the Jacobs Affair,’ which began quietly in the late 1950s with the publication of a controversial book called We Have Reason To Believe, reached crisis iii the 1960s and prompted the great cartoonist Osbert Lancaster to inspiration: he pictured the chief Rabbi saying to the Archbishop of Canterbury: “You must be glad that the Bishop of Woolwich is a goy.” (The Right Reverend John Robinson had recently written Honest to God, creating a similar furore for the Anglican church.). And such was the quietly charismatic scholar’s impact, through the various media, that somewhat to his bemusement he found himself greatly in demand as speaker and sage – not least as technical adviser to Barbara Streisand, for her 1982 movie about a Jewish singer, Yenti. (He had come to media attention once more in the early 1980s, when his views again clashed with those of the establishment over matters of orthodoxy, but he rode the storm and support for him remained undiminished.)
I went along to the rabbi’s home in Clifton Hill, and later to his imposing, Byzantine-style synagogue, to discover a little about a remarkable man, and about a controversy that has pursued him down the years, and appears to provide the key to the man. He expresses it this way: “I am an Englishman as well as a Jew and although my faith is traditional, it is not fundamentalist. It is tolerant: the type of Anglo-Jewish orthodoxy that strikes a compromise – muddles through, if you like – and possesses an inherent liberalism: a liberalism that the right-wing fundamentalists of the 1950s and 1960s found intolerable.” What simple example can Rabbi Jacobs give of this compromise approach to his faith? He shrugs. “In the New London, I have mixed choirs but not mixed seating, and we do not pray for the restoration of sacrifices.” (In more strictly orthodox synagogues, these are part of prayers for the restoration of the Temple of Israel.)
Allowing history a voice in the understanding of Judaism is a pragmatic approach that will have been influenced by his background. He was the treasured only child of Harry Jacobs, a Manchester factory manager. “We were orthodox, but no more so than was the average Jewish working-class family and my father thought I should have my head examined, when I said I wanted to go to theological college.” But in the tolerant, English way – Harry had been born in England, to parents who had emigrated from Lithuania – young Louis’ father agreed, and he was a rabbi by his early 20s. After six years in Manchester, he was appointed to the prestigious New West End Synagogue at St. Petersburgh Place, Bayswater – “the anglicised synagogue par excellence”- where he developed a devoted congregation. “But I felt the need to move on and I was offered the job of tutor at the Jews’ College, on the understanding that 1 would become head of it, when the principal retired..”
By this time We Have Reason To Believe was out, and Louis Jacobs’ belief – “that the Torah (Jewish law) comes from God, but develops through the dynamism of the people”- had caused dismay among right-wingers in the Jewish establishment. In fact the rabbi believes the book became a peg on which the fundamentalists hung their opposition to his widely-supported accession to the leadership of what for over 100 years had been the only college for training iii the Anglo-Jewish ministry. It was opposition that it became impossible for Chief Rabbi (later Sir) 1srael Brodie to counter. “The dispute had become political and I resigned in 1961 from my post as tutor.” He was deeply hurt by the establishment’s rejection of him and resolved to return to St. Petersburgh Place. “But that, too, was opposed – again, the issue had become a political one.”
It had also become widely-publicised by the media, delighted to find yet another thundering row in the realms of the faithful; this one took a dramatic turn when Rabbi Jacobs, banned from the Bayswater synagogue, was appointed to the old ‘cathedral’ synagogue building in Abbey Road – the St. John’s Wood synagogue had moved to Grove End Road – and Jacobs’ erstwhile Bayswater congregation moved en masse to Abbey Road. “Rift Empties Synagogue Seats” clamoured the front-page headline of The Observer on July 26, 1964 and other papers followed suit. (The Jewish Chronicle remained the robust supporter of the rabbi that it has unswervingly been since the 1950s.) Thus came the Bayswater congregation to the synagogue that is the flagship of the Masorti movement, and today its members number about 1,000. That sounds like a lot of worshippers to an Anglican, these days: how many of them were young, I asked? “Not as many, as we would like, but my son, Ivor, established a daughter group in Fmchley and many of the younger ones and their families are now there.”
Which brings one to the joy of Louis Jacobs’ life: his family. The rabbi smiles whenever he speaks of them and particularly when he talks about Shula, his wife of nearly 55 years. Both their sons, Ivor, 54 and David, aged 47, are in London with their families, but their daughter, Naomi, is married to an Israeli.