Introduction/ Narrated by Harry Hurst
A podcast series compiled from oral histories and produced as part of a digital exhibition exploring how Liberal Judaism has evolved since it was co-founded by British visionary Lily Montagu in 1902.
This episode explores the theme of memories of the hon. Lily Montagu
Lilian Helen Montagu was born in 1873. She was a British social worker, magistrate, writer, and religious organizer. Along with Claude Montefiore and Israel Mattuck she formed the Liberal Jewish movement in England. In this episode, Liberal Jews remember Lily and the legacy she has created. For some this is deeply personal; Lily was instrumental in bringing Jews from Germany to safety in England to flee Nazi persecution in the late 1930s. Some of the voices here speak of owing their very lives to her. Others remember Lily, along with her sister Marion as the leader of the West Central Club. ‘Lily’s girls’ as they were called, were working class Jewish girls. They received lessons at the club and the opportunity to worship and socialise. Others remember Lily attending or leading religious services. Participants pay tribute to Lily’s deep spirituality and her innovative decision to move Sabbath services to the afternoon. Lily died in 1963, so many project participants did not meet her. And yet as these stories show, liberal Jews feel indebted to her and are inspired by her pioneering work as a social reformer- even if they never met her in person.
“I knew she was a very famous human being. We always knew if Lily Montagu was in the congregation, because whatever prayers were said, it was guaranteed at a split second after everybody finished – Lily was still praying. Always the same, you said ‘amen’ 123 and then Lily would say amen.“
“So My mother stayed in close contact with Lily, and her two companions, her sister Marian, and her companion, Miss Lewis. And she used to take me to services as a seven or eight year old. And I remember sitting with Miss Lewis having to be very formal and quiet during the service.
We maintained contact and then when I was about 11, my mother, who had been attending the Brixton Orthodox Synagogue became rather tired of hearing: ‘Where’s your husband? Are you a widow? Why don’t we ever see your husband?”
My father was a hatch, match and dispatch Jew. He never went to synagogue. So my mother went to Lily and said, ‘what on earth can I do I’m being so embarrassed by these people?’and Lily said, Go to Streatham Liberal Synagogue, they won’t ask you about your husband. ‘Become a Liberal Jew!’
I kept in touch with ‘Miss Lily’ as we called her. Over the years, she would invite me to one or two of her garden parties where she had the children of the women she called ‘her girls,‘ one of whom was my mother. So I knew her fairly well.
And when it came time for us to get married – we obviously got married at my future husband’s synagogue, The Settlement – and Miss Lily volunteered to officiate at the wedding so there we were, married by a rabbi… by two, Sir Basil and the Right Honourable Miss Lily so were thoroughly married!
“I know she was highly respected in our family. My father used to talk about oh, well, Lily Montagu came around to our house. She very much wanted to make Judaism relevant to Jews in England. I mean, you know, like you see that they used to sing ‘All things bright and beautiful” at the shul and things like that. ”
“ Well, she was a large lady to start with. And without wishing to be unpleasant, very much a spinster.
I never ever thought of her in terms of any romantic connection, (she may will have had them, but if she did, it was news to us). And she and her sister, Marion, who were very close, they were always together, they were formidable, were big, they were big people. And we were little people…
And they’d achieved so much and especially in terms of the clubs that they’d run, or she in particular had run. Later we met the product of people who’d been in her girls’ clubs and boys’ clubs.
“And you come to shul in the afternoon. So they will have the 3 o’clock afternoon service. For me it was better because I had to get there, because it’s not round the corner like I could walk there I need to get the tube to go. So I joined there, I thought it’ll be a nice afternoon and you get home, it’s okay, it’s still light after the service as it’s not that long. And I enjoyed it because I got to know people and, all, a lot of our members from the old shul joined.”
“The Shabbat morning services are in the afternoon. They’re at three o’clock in the afternoon, I think it’s three or two. And that is because Lily Montagu probably 100 years ago or maybe a bit less decided that it was really important that the young Jewish women who worked in the factories and the shops and the offices I think and had to work on Saturday morning or they wouldn’t have a job, that it was really important for them to be able to have somewhere to have a weekly Shabbat service. ”
“at that time, in the 20s, the West End had a fairly big Jewish population, which supported quite a number of synagogues, but of course, most were orthodox or United. And the services were, for obvious reasons, held on Saturday mornings. Now there weren’t all that well attended, certainly by the women, the women had to work. And the West End at that time was the centre of a very prosperous clothing industry. And they worked five and a half day week. Saturday afternoon and Sunday, you were left to yourself. But services were on Saturday morning, and certainly the Jewish girls that had been at Lily’s club, couldn’t attend. So, Lily decided that the services would be, she would do the shacharit service on Saturday afternoon. And of course, built the West Central congregation around that situation, and here we are still holding our services at West Central on a Saturday afternoon. ”
“And I love that about, you know, that even as early as 100 years ago, that that kind of flexible and what I would call advanced thinking was already already in operation. So I like that story. And yeah, I just, I just like that they did it. And that here we are.”
“And it’s wonderful. It means that people don’t have to get up at the.. Early in the morning to get depending on the synagogue, some synagogue some liberal synagogue services start 10 o’clock but the majority are at 11 o’clock? Who’s awake at 11 0’Clock?”
“I never knew her, but I did serve for a time in the community that she started, that started out life as the West Central Club for Jewish Working Girls. And what I loved about her approach to Judaism, she herself did not understand herself to be a Liberal Jew necessarily. She’d grown up in the Orthodox world, and what was difficult for her is that, amongst the girls at the – the Jewish Working Girls Club, there were so many of them where the – the official community, the Orthodox community said, “You work on Shabbat so you can’t be a good Jew, so we don’t have anything to do with you.” And instead of judging them for wanting to help their families and to bring in some income and needing to work on Saturday mornings if they were going to get a job, and working in shops or in the rag trade, Lily Montagu said, “How can I give the gift of Shabbat back to these girls?” So, she set up the club, so that they could come and have a Saturday morning service even if it was at three in the afternoon. And I thought yup. I always want to start with where people are, and if I can do that then I will have fulfilled something of Lily’s legacy.”
Rabbi Janet Burden
“her recognition that you’ve got all these Jews that are not going to fit in to mainstream orthodox Judaism, simply because of the working reality of not being able to work on Shabbat and all the rest of it. She recognised you know that something must be done to make people just become more included. And the reality would have been that if it wasn’t for Liberal Judaism’s ideas, so many Jews would have been lost, either become indifferent to their heritage or become Christian.”
“I met my husband at a wedding. And the wedding was conducted by Lily Montagu. Instead of a male conducting it, it was a woman. I know that sounds a bit futile, but it didn’t seem to me. But I’ve always been a feminist. So it didn’t seem to me to be unreasonable because I’d been so sort of alienated from Orthodox Judaism that I never went to synagogue so well. You know, I wasn’t really aware of how at that time, so few women were involved. It just seemed okay. And the reason she conducted. It was not only that her family were members, mother had been what would call Miss Lily’s girls, The West Central. So it was very appropriate which that she conducted the wedding. That’s actually I suppose it must have been the first time I’d seen a woman conduct a marriage ceremony now it’s quite, absolutely normal.
The founders of the Belsize Square synagogue, it was called the new liberal congregation then and they were indebted to Lily Montagu. They were all German refugees. They came from German Reform Judaism. But they chose so went, they could have been the founders. I can’t remember the exact year but it’s probably something like 38’ 38.They could have stayed independent. Or they could have joined the British reform movement. And they chose to join the liberal movement, because they were so indebted to Lily Montagu, Now Lily must have done an enormous amount for them for them to say we’ll join your will join your movement.
“When my cousins came to England, finally, they also set about getting visas for the rest of the family. And one of those visas I got to come to England. Now, how was I going to get there? Nobody else had a visa. My father advertised me in the Jewish Chronicle. And he got several replies. But he finally accepted an offer from a Jewish family in London, a doctor’s family. This family was a part of the Liberal Jewish synagogue. And the Liberal Jewish synagogue at that time had a chairman, Lily Montagu, she was the chairman. She realised what was happening on the continent. She called a meeting and she said, ‘We must help’. And several families came forward. And in fact the Liberal Jewish synagogue made it possible for three children to come to England. I came from Vienna, another one came from, I think, Germany and I’m not quite sure where the third one came from. But anyway the date finally came. And I was on one of the very first Kindertransports, leaving from Vienna. I would just say she saved my life.”
“ My parents arrived in January 1939 and my mother was eight months pregnant. And it was a very difficult time to leave as you can imagine. In fact, I can’t imagine it at all. But Lily was personally very, very supportive and incredibly helpful, arranged for my mother’s confinement. Had people or indeed herself helped to find accommodation for them. They lived in Stoke Newington, they had a room somewhere above a shop. It was very simple. It was very basic, but it was safe. And that was crucial and my father became an assistant to Rabbi Mattuck at LJS. And that was his job. That was his first position here. All thanks to Lily. And my father was basically Lily’s boy. Wherever she needed him to go whatever she needed him to do he would happily do it,
When my father was Rabbi in Dublin, and Rabbi in Liverpool, we came to London quite a lot for conferences and we came as a family. And we used to stay in Bayswater. We stayed in the house. And we were guests in the house. And that was always very elegant and very English.
And very revelatory, because it was not what I was used to all my sister, but we were always very, very charmingly received and very, very beautifully looked after. So she was very, very what one might call hands on
But very much a product of her generation. Yes. But I, I do. I do find it strange and it does make me smile, the image that I have of her as being very formal and very old fashioned. But I have the the knowledge that she was a radical. And those two those two points are hard to reconcile. And to me, that’s, that that’s, that’s really it makes me smile because I don’t think of her as a rebel. I can’t think of as a rebel because she, to me was personified as this very, very senior Lady in black and wearing a hat or she actually reminded me of a of a European advocate, you know, she looked, she looked very much part of establishment as opposed to radical.
She must have had the most wonderfully persuasive way of getting her way. Because she didn’t do it by violent argument.
“I didn’t know her as such, but she used to be around all the time. She was often on the beamer, the al memmer as we called it in those days. I remember her turning round once, she was wearing her purple hat. They had like – is it a seven-sided hat they used to wear, I can’t remember, with the tassel on the top, and she said, “I think I am a quarter rabbi.” Well those were the days, she couldn’t become a rabbi, a woman rabbi.
I didn’t know her well. I’d heard stories of her, though, from my husband who used to work at the Settlement in the East End, and he always used to tell the story of when she came down one day. She’d been in a hurry and she’d put her dress on back to front and even the girls in her group couldn’t turn round and say, “Miss Lily, you’ve got your dress on back to front,” because she wouldn’t care. … She was always looking after other people and being very charming, if a little austere.”
“In forty-seven I was a nurse in Birmingham, and another colleague of mine showed me a letter and she said, “This is from Lily Montagu from London.” And I said, “Who is she?” and she said, “She is a lay rabbi and she sends me a letter every month to strengthen me and help me. As a refugee I had many obstacles and I’m so glad she writes to me.” And I said, “Why doesn’t she write to me?” [Laughs], and she said, “She doesn’t know you.” And then later on, when I met my husband,– and we got married and he said, “We are going to be married by Lily Montagu”. And I said, “Oh, that’s lovely. I’ve even heard of her.” And he said, “We’re invited to her home, and we will have tea there.” And I was most impressed and I was very – felt very humble in her presence. And she was very natural and told, asked us what we did, doctor and nurse, and she made – I remember her sermon which had the theme of giving service to other people. And then she came another time to our synagogue here. When she gave the blessing at the end of the service, I really felt this was like a high priest in the old days in the temple. And I shall never forget it.”
“Lily Montagu has always been an enormous influence on my life. One of my heroines, I suppose I’d say. She was an enormous influence on my father, Rabbi Harry Jacobi, and I don’t think he’d have been able to become a rabbi without his support. And I grew up knowing about her, reading about her. Looking back at the letters that my dad – that Lily Montagu sent my dad, and my mum – and we were thinking how she had time to write all these letters. So, when I was born, she wrote a lovely letter, when my mum arrived in the country, she wrote a lovely letter. And she was so unfailingly supportive, at the time when other people – because my dad had left school at fourteen, and there were some other people who just didn’t think he’d cut it. And she had this faith in him. And, so, you know, apart from being an amazing figure, she just believed in people. And that’s really important.
She’s, for me, a role model who, for her, her faith and her work in the world were just inseparable.”
Rabbi Margaret Jacobi
This podcast series of oral histories is part of the exhibition: Lily’s Legacy – Voices and Visions of Liberal Judaism, a project supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
It was produced by Miri Lawrence and Lucia Scazzocchio, Sound editing and design by Lucia Scazzocchio, and special thanks to all the contributors who agreed to share their stories. For more information about what you’ve just heard, do visit the exhibition website, www.lilyslegacyproject.com