Jennifer Emanuel

Jennifer Emanuel

22 November 1929
Birmingham, United Kingdom
27 September 2019
London, United Kingdom
Words by
Michael Emanuel son

“A harvest of light is sown for the righteous, And joy for the constant in heart.” (Psalm 97 v11)

Jennifer Margaret Emanuel, née Cassell z”l   —     טויבא בת ר׳ אליעזר וחיה ז״ל


What a woman! What a life! Her warmth; her energy!

My mother Jennifer was “of her time”. And until only very recently a lady with an inexhaustible strength to be present for everyone. She understood the importance of family and community: that you invest, nurture and love both, and they love, nurture and support you right back.

One thing you can say of Jennifer: she wasn’t short of an opinion. She also had a self-deprecating and mischievous wit, and a way to provide support that just made things feel better. Visiting her in hospital the day before she died, her response to Rabbi Josh’s “Hello Jennifer, how do you feel?” was a shrug: “Could be worse”.

She is probably now looking across all of us saying: “This is ridiculous! Haven’t you better things to be doing than be at my funeral?” But she will also secretly be counting heads, and smiling, knowing she was loved and made a difference to so many.

Our friends referred to her as The Oracle

My mother never allowed herself to admit she had, what her Talmud class called, a “robust intellect”, and she visited this lack of confidence in her academic ability on her children and her grandchildren. Whenever we got bad test results growing up her phrase would be: “Never mind, we aren’t the clever ones, we’re the nice ones” as if this was an either/or option. This was deep-seated, even though we have all experienced her insatiable thirst for knowledge—her desire to understand, and her wisdom on so many things. So much so that Sarah and I had access to an information mine all our lives. It was like living with our very own Melvin Bragg. Our friends referred to her as The Oracle. Ask her a question about just about anything and she would start with what she did know, then pull down books and come back with the actual answer, or near enough. She so missed this part of her life when we all transitioned to internet search engines.

The person we knew for so many years was a product of her age and her circumstances. Born in Birmingham on 22nd November 1929; as her mother, our grandmother Charlotte Cassell, would say: “in time for lunch”. She learned both self-reliance and the importance of extended family from a very early age. An only child, her parent’s marriage didn’t work, and at two she and her mother moved down to London to be with her mother’s family. Charlotte, who was severely disabled with childhood polio, needing now to work, assembled a wonderful team of indomitable women around Jennifer to help raise her. They moved several times, though each time her grandmother “Dolly” would take a flat in the same block and became a second mother. And Charlotte’s twin sister, Winnie, and husband Henry, adopted the two of them into their family—so much so that she and Winnie’s children, Kenneth and Neville, thought of themselves more siblings than cousins. Then there were all her Birmingham aunts and her grandparents on her father’s side, who all remained close.

More role models arrived with her education. Mum won a scholarship to South Hampstead High School, which at that time had evacuated to Berkhampstead. There she was taken in to live with four teachers, who had rented a large, unheated house, big enough to take in some of the girls. These amazing women, who taught Classics, Maths and PE during the day, also looked after 20 girls, of all ages, for the duration of the war. Sharing facilities with the girls of Berkhampstead School meant spending half the day in classes, half playing hockey and other sports, whatever the weather. In summer holidays, unable to return to London, Jennifer generally decamped to her aunt Gwendoline in Minehead and spent blissful summers cycling around the moors. She loved these times alone. But our mother not only survived, she thrived. And as she reflected later, she was blessed by the education she received: in today’s world these women would have been in academia not teaching high school.

Theatre was always a very large part of our mother’s life. She enjoyed drama at school. And after the war ended, fell in love with the London theatre scene. Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson were setting up the Old Vic at the time and Jennifer would often tell of how she could see great plays for pocket money—sixpence for a stool or one-and-six for a seat. By the end of 1947 she was working backstage at Amersham Playhouse, and then toured Britain as a stage manager with the Caryl Jenner Mobile Theatre (later the Unicorn Theatre), a company run by yet more indomitable woman.

But her life as a stage manager was cut short by a detached retina, caused by lifting a heavy box of stage paint and, at 22, she decided to go back to school. In 1952 she was accepted onto the Social Science & Administration course at LSE, studying Applied Social Studies under the Eileen Younghusband herself, the pioneer of modern social work training. From there moved to the Great Ormond Street Hospital where she remained until 1958.

To a difficult woman, from a quite impossible man!

It was about this time Jennifer also joined the Berkeley Group, a group for younger members at West London Synagogue. And Sarah, Hannah, Charlie and Sophie and I are very grateful she did, because we only exist as a result this group, and the chilly weekend the group spent at Bracklesham Bay in March 1956. This was this weekend Jennifer first met Charles. He had a car, he had a flat, and he had two tickets to Glyndebourne for June (Mozart’s Escape from the Seraglio). Her mother wholeheartedly approved: yes, she needed to remain friendly. … They were married by Rabbi Reinhart at West London on July 18, just a few weeks later.

If ever there was a coming together for mutual benefit it was Jennifer and Charles. Our mother created a warm, loving home for a man of great dignity and integrity, not to mention mischievous wit. He provided her with safety and surety: an anchor, and the opportunity to create her own nuclear family, not one borrowed from others. As a little love note we found tucked in a book of poems reveals: “To a difficult woman, from a quite impossible man!”

Jennifer continued her volunteer work while we were growing up. In addition to work with Alyth, she was active on The Council for Christians and Jews, trained as a Marriage Guidance Counsellor, and became increasingly active in Norwood, including helping found their Mother and Baby home in South London. Then in 1976 she returned to paid employment, joining Barnet’s Social Work team, where she made many friends, and helped develop the adoption and fostering services for the borough.

In due course she gave up her Barnet work to be more active in Norwood, chairing the Family Services Committee for 6 years, helping Norwood become an adoption society for Jewish families, being a trustee on the Norwood Executive, and member of the adoption panel until, past 70, she felt it inappropriate to serve longer.

My mother had always been the helper, it wasn’t easy for her to receive

After our father died in 1991, Jennifer immersed herself even more into supporting her immediate community. Moving to Spencer Close, Avenue House grounds became her garden, and she became a volunteer gardener at The Bothy, where she made many new friends; and always active in Alyth life, she took on more. As members of the community and the residents of Spencer Close found, Jennifer was always the one doing the stuff that she felt needed to be done, even when it wasn’t glamorous. Seeing the danger for her co-residents at Spencer Close, years of badgering Barnet Council finally produced a Keep Clear zone at the entrance; many further years of letter writing and calling, she managed to get a pedestrian refuge built—now known by those who use it as Jennifer’s Island—for people crossing Regents Park Road north of East End Road. At Alyth she took on a welfare role, firstly as an active member of The Guild, and then as ‘Member for Welfare’ on the Synagogue Executive. She felt very honoured when she was appointed a Vice President of the Synagogue, and again in 1997 when she was made Kallat Torah. For 60 years she has been involved in caring for the Alyth community and beyond, visiting the sick and elderly on a weekly basis, delivering Purim and Sukkot flowers and fruit. She helped found the Synagogue’s bereavement group, and she’s been a regular at Alyth Seniors’ Club for 30 years, always as a helper (of course!).

I happened to be visiting the day my mother was on the receiving her first Alyth sukkot basket. If looks could kill. My mother had always been the helper, it wasn’t easy for her to receive.

Even though she was now eligible for gift baskets, she continued to take on new projects, like the refugee drop-in, which she continued to volunteer at, even in her last few weeks. As she said to Sarah—she needed to feel useful. Plus, she thoroughly enjoyed participating in the drumming circles.

Like her relationship with her mother and grandmother, Jennifer became a second mother for Hannah, Charlie, and Sophie, and a proxy aunt to many, in our family and beyond. They, like Sarah and me, will miss her constancy in our lives. She leaves a huge hole. With Paul’s never-ending support, Sarah has made sure to call or visit every day since our father died 28 years ago, in recent years taking on an increasingly extensive and exhausting role, making sure Jennifer could live independently for as long as possible.

She loved the city, the mountains, lakes, forests, and islands, and rolling up her trousers to stand in the Pacific Ocean

I too have enjoyed coming over regularly from Seattle, spending 10 – 12 weeks a year staying with her and having quality time. I did this quite deliberately. In 2005 I left full-time work so I could be in London regularly. I considered Jennifer as much a friend as a mother. At that time, she was fit and well, and still able to hike across the moors; and, Hannah, Charlie and Sophie were still of an age to think Uncle Michael “pretty neat”. I knew this time was too precious to miss just because I was busy working and living 5,000 miles away. I remember telling friends, I didn’t want to be looking back 15 years from then with any regrets.

Well here we are, 15 years from then, and I have none. Well one: I should have asked for 25.

But as time went on Jennifer’s world became smaller. For as long as Sarah and I remember her, and certainly up to her mid-80s, she was still a young woman. She loved coming to Seattle. She loved the city, the mountains, lakes, forests, and islands, and rolling up her trousers to stand in the Pacific Ocean. I think she also liked being herself, in a place where people didn’t know her. My US friends fell in love with this ever-so British lady, but didn’t see her as anyone’s mother, or grandmother, or volunteer of good deeds. She was just Jennifer, another friend. It offered her a sort of freedom.

But in the last few years everything started to catch up: she could no longer go on long walks, she no longer felt safe to use buses and trains on her own, or to go to exhibitions, concerts and plays. With her eyesight failing, even reading was no longer enjoyable. She continued with Alyth Talmud classes, but in the end even this became too much.

We will miss her greatly, but her body was failing her so badly. She would not have been happy with the very little lung capacity she had left. Last week, after a week of trying hard, and nearly succeeding, on Friday afternoon, in our presence, Jennifer—our mother, grandmother, mother-in-law and friend—slipped out of life, so very gently, so very peacefully. I am just so glad she found it easy to go.

And this point she would say: “This is ridiculous. What we all need now is a breath of fresh air!”

The memory of this beautiful woman is a blessing!

Words by
Paul Langsford son-in-law

Jennifer was never the stereotypical mother-in-law, so frequently disparaged by comedians.  For sure, she was definitely out-of-the-ordinary.  And this is what I want to celebrate.

I crossed the threshold of this very house for the first time in 1979, when it was Jennifer and Charles’s family home.  I had just turned 26 and my relationship with Sarah was only a few weeks old.  I never imagined I would be standing here over forty years later reading these words.

My memory of those early days is how welcome Jennifer and Charles made me feel. Open, warm, generous, and non-judgmental.

I enjoyed her famed directness and took her admonishments on the chin

As the boyfriend of their daughter, and like all boyfriends in a similar position, I knew it was paramount that I made a favourable impression.  My anxiety was short lived.  Jennifer showed real interest in me, who I was, where I came from and what had moulded my life.  In her disarming way she put me at ease. We struck up a rapport quickly.  I enjoyed her famed directness and took her admonishments on the chin.  You always knew where you stood with Jennifer and felt able to discuss anything with her.  She truly was a friend to me.

I soon realised I was not alone in this.  What characterised Jennifer was how she had an abundance of time, kindness, concern and love for everyone. She was a friend to us all.

She had a richness of attributes.  She was interesting and informed, cultured and widely read.  Conversation could be wide ranging, educational and challenging.  She was a socialist at heart, concerned for the underprivileged and vulnerable.  Her moral compass was strong.

She was empathetic to the plights of others. Taking people under her wing in their hour of need.  She understood their circumstances and spoke directly to them.  Many of you have told me how she was there for you too.

She was loyal and supportive, even when sometimes it wasn’t deserved.

She commanded attention and people listened to her ideas and opinions.  She was fair and balanced in her thinking.  She delivered tough love when it mattered.  Consequently, and, not unsurprisingly, she was revered and  respected, and much loved.

a community matriarch

Over the last few days, I have heard my mother-in-law—no, my friend—referred to as a matriarch—a community matriarch.  I, and we, are so proud to hear this said.  Of course, she would be saying to us “That’s ridiculous!”

Matriarch is not a sobriquet easily earned.  It was earned by her deeds and actions.  She was a committed Reform Jew and, continuously, served Alyth in a myriad of ways—always concerned for the wellbeing of the community and its members.

She set the bar high, and Sarah and I have tried hard to follow the example she has set. She taught us all that what you put in you get back in spades.

Much of what we, Sarah and I, know about ‘family’ and Jewishly being ‘family’, we have learnt from Jennifer (and Charles).  And my Jewish journey has been made possible by her and their unfailing support through thick and thin.

Jennifer has been the heart and glue of our immediate and extended family.  She set the tone and example of how we live our lives.  We take our values from her and we only hope we live them as well as she did.

She gathered us all around her for Friday nights, festivals and all manner of simchas and events—keeping the connections with our Jewish heritage strong.

And she was never happier than on a Friday night, with all her family seated at her table to see in Shabbat.  Often, she would have tears in her eyes as we all sang the Kiddush blessings and her children and grandchildren hugged her and she hugged them.  This was the apotheosis of her week and her life.

Jennifer, may her memory be for a blessing.

Words by
Hannah, Charles & Sophie grandchildren

Sophie — Grannie Jennifer was a lady who knew her mind.  As a strong, intelligent and independent woman who played an indispensable role throughout our lives, Grannie has passed on many values, mantras and life lessons.  So, we thought that we would share a few that particularly capture our wonderful Grannie.

Sophie —Thank you for showing us that if you talk to strangers you will in fact make friends.

Hannah —Thank you for teaching us independence, the value of enjoying one’s own company and being self-sufficient.

Charles —Thank you for returning to Hannah’s primary school playground to pick up a one-year old Sophie, whom you had left there.

Hannah —Thank you for teaching us to play cards, a penny a point,and that the best way to win at racing demon is to cheat.  And if you should lose, to remember: “those who are lucky in cards are unlucky in love”.

Charles —Thank you for demonstrating if you whistle for things, they will come to you: keys, clothes, spectacles and even buses. But apparently not women.

Sophie —Thank you for showing us you are never too old for rollie-pollies, rambling and paddling in the sea even into your 80’s.

Charles —Thank you for always knowing better than the SatNav, and never needing to rely on Google.

Hannah —Thank you for encouraging us to pick up litter and give up our seats on buses. And shaming others into doing so.

Sophie —Thank you for teaching us good manners; never eat in the street, to always ask to get down from the table, and to never split infinitives.

Charles —Thank you for the life hack that tumblers are not only safer to drink from but also hold more wine.

Sophie —Thank you for demonstrating that the best way to excuse yourself from dinner parties is to point out how tired everyone ELSE must be.

Hannah —Thank you for always leading by example. The mark you made on our lives is indelible.