June Jacobs by Jenni Frazer for the JC July 2018
In the 80s and 90s, if you were at a Jewish public meeting and June Jacobs walked in, you knew you were in for a treat.
Inevitably, June’s contribution — from a defiantly left-of-centre perspective — raised the hackles of many present. Some, it is true, merely disagreed with her politically.
But many men at these meetings — and they were overwhelmingly male-dominated — seemed personally affronted that a woman — and a strikingly attractive woman, too, not someone they could write off with rude jokes or gestures — had the temerity to be intelligent, too.
It is a measure of June’s extraordinary reach that among those her family first chose to apprise of her death were Palestinian politicians and a strictly Orthodox rabbi — all of whom, I am sure, will equally mourn her.
I first encountered June — and there was nothing grand about her, she was always “June” rather than “Mrs Jacobs” — at a Soviet Jewry event at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields. Playwright Tom Stoppard was there, I think, giving a reading; and members of the 35s, the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, were there, too.
June was founder and first chair of the National Council for Soviet Jews and was on familiar terms with every refusenik you could think of, regularly travelling to Moscow and Leningrad to meet and help those who desperately wanted to leave.
But even after the success of the Soviet Jewry campaign, when she became president of the International Council of Jewish Women, her heart, I think, was with Israeli politics and the peace camp of the left.
One of her specialities was her generous open-handedness, characterised by the legendary kitchen suppers she would hold in the basement of the Camden house she had lived in for decades. Saying vaguely, “I can’t cook, you know, there are just a few bits”, June would lay on a small banquet with enough food to feed hundreds, welcoming everyone with down-to-earth hospitality. Israeli politicians were frequent visitors and June knew not just the front-of-stage “stars”, but also the backroom boys, the movers and shakers who made things happen.
She came over as slightly dithery, though she was anything but. Think of a British Jewish version of Lucille Ball, and you’re getting close. Add a great sense of style and dress, and always, always, a carrier bag full of vital papers.
She had a wicked sense of humour and frequently enlivened dull meetings for me by telling me glorious, unreportable and unrepeatable gossip about the protagonists. I can hear her now, her blonde hair always immaculately styled, cracking up laughing about some slightly pompous Jewish community leader.
And she was a ferocious letter-writer, too, principally to the JC, but often elsewhere. That was the thing about June — she owed nothing to anyone, so she didn’t care about offending anyone. She was overwhelmingly her own person, beholden to no communal macher, content to plough her own furrow. She wasn’t rich, but she managed a fearsome travel schedule, slotting in two or three obligations on one trip so that one event subsidised another. Every time I met her she was off somewhere else, often to Latin America, with a travel itinerary few people half her age could manage.
The community establishment, I think, didn’t know what to make of June Jacobs. She was a maverick, a woman who wouldn’t behave like a quiescent housewife, but a woman who was determined to have her say. She made other women feel better and more confident about being independent of mind and spirit, in the days when “feminism” was a dirty word, and when you could write the number of strong-minded Jewish women leaders on the back of a postage stamp. I also think she paved the way for some of the tough-minded women we are fortunate to have in our community today: because I am as certain as can be that without June, there would be no Marie van der Zyl, no Laura Marks, no Louise Jacobs.
And as for those endless, dreary, prolix, communal meetings… if I encountered June Jacobs there it brightened up my day entirely. Ten minutes of conversation with June would cheer me up, even as she was helping me to learn who to trust — and to whom I should never give the time of day.
In short — and this fond tribute must necessarily be so — there was no-one quite like June. Men and women alike — not everyone, of course, she had her enemies, too — spoke warmly of her, as once met, never forgot. She made an impact and she made a difference, and that is something to which we could all aspire. She will be greatly missed.