Rabbi Sacks and his wife Elaine, in their own words
Relative Values interview, on family, faith, antisemitism, and love at first sight
This article was published in The Sunday Times on Sunday 8th September 2019, as part of their Relative Values series
Elaine and I met in 1968. I was studying philosophy at Cambridge University and was deep into existential angst. Lo and behold, I saw these two young ladies walking across the courtyard at King’s College. I thought, this is the person most unlike me I’ve ever encountered. She radiated joy.
It must have taken me all of three weeks to propose and I profoundly regret that it took so long. I bought a ring in Woolworths and got on one knee at Oxford Circus. I never had the slightest doubt. We married when I was 22 and she was 21.
My father came over to England from Poland as a child — they were a very poor family. I was the eldest and sometimes that brings you closer to your parents’ pain. My father was an intelligent man, but never had an education. I was aware of all the opportunities that weren’t available to him, so there was an enormous thing about giving my parents pride and some sense of fulfilment.
I had these completely opposed personalities from my parents. My father would rather lose a friend than compromise a principle and my mother kept all the friends my father lost. He was impossible to satisfy. But he lived to see me inducted as Chief Rabbi [of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, in 1991] and, as a deeply religious man, that was something not un-meaningful to him. To see him on crutches, climbing the steps to the St John’s Wood Synagogue, that was the moment I thought, “Dad, I did this for you and I’m glad you’re here to see it.”
I was 48 when he died. It did leave me empty. When they’re no longer around, you have to say, “What am I doing for me?” That’s challenging. You’re launched out on a sea alone.
When I became a father myself, I was a little distant. I travelled a lot as Chief Rabbi and I was always thinking about my next speech. It’s been a very loving family — Friday evenings, if nothing else, were sacrosanct family times. I think my children were OK, but was I the world’s greatest father? No. That’s why Elaine was so important for our children.
When I started as Chief Rabbi I spoke about a decade of Jewish renewal. Today, we have a community that is younger and more knowledgeable than it has been in the past. We built more Jewish schools than in any other period of Anglo-Jewish history. Our prayer services were terribly boring and now they are lively and engaging and participative.
Being a loyal Jew means believing in the people of whom you are a member. Lots of people in the UK say they are a member of the Church of England as a religious identity, but few of them say they go. That is believing without belonging. Judaism is the opposite — belonging without believing.
It was shattering to me in 2001 when our daughter, then 19 years old, studying at the London School of Economics, came back having attended an anti-globalisation rally that turned into a diatribe against Israel and Jews. She was in tears and said: “Dad, they hate us.” That was a big wake-up call.
When I see anti-semitism returning to Europe and the failure of some parties and politicians to confront it, I find it very difficult to find faith in human beings. I think some of the anti-semitism was hidden and it’s simply become liberated from the constraints of various taboos. How has Jeremy Corbyn dealt with anti-semitism in the Labour Party? I stand by what I said about him, absolutely. I feel that this is a genuine stain on the fabric of British political life. To find something as manifestly evil as anti-semitism and not deal with it? Jews must not be left to fight anti-semitism alone. We do not want to portray ourselves as the victims.
I have a persistent lack of belief in myself. There’s some kind of pain, which is perhaps an inherited thing. There’s a sadness in Jewish music, a kind of minor key, that I heard when I was two or three years old. It’s an existential sadness that I can’t eliminate, however hard I try. That’s probably what allows me to communicate with people who are unhappy.
Elaine is the balance in everything. When I was going through difficult times as Chief Rabbi, she was stable. It’s not easy being the child of somebody in the public eye, and she was the source of strength and confidence that our three children needed.
Elaine is joyous, positive, always finding the good in people. She is the world’s finest anti-depressant.
My mother thought that if I could get into a radiography school at either Oxford or Cambridge, there would be all these lovely young men — and there were! I was training to be a radiographer when I met Jonathan at Cambridge. He was President of the Jewish Society. I trotted along to a meeting and that was that, really. It was love at first sight. I thought he was quite different from anybody I had ever met. He was scholarly. He was going places. I didn’t really mix in university circles. I grew up in Willesden, northwest London, a regular middle-class child. We went to the synagogue, but we were not over the top, religiously.
I was 25 when I had my first child. Back then I was regarded as getting on a bit. I stopped working in radiography to look after our children. There are moments as a housewife when you think, oh for goodness sake. But if I had followed my career or married someone else, then I wouldn’t have been to such amazing places or met such amazing people. I have gained far more than I lost.
Our eldest was 16 when Jonathan became Chief Rabbi. It instantly changed family life. We had security, and they were all very nice people, but it was still intrusive, having them in the house. I was shy at first as the Chief Rabbi’s wife. Once, an older Rabbi’s wife said to me, “You know they’re terrified of you? Try to talk a bit more.” People thought I was being stand-offish. I soon learnt that if you’re giving a little speech or a prize-giving at a school, they’re on your side, they’re not out to get you.
I did feel the responsibility of the job, but I didn’t feel bowed under by it. I don’t get that affected by stress, I can shake it off. I sleep well at night and Jonathan doesn’t. We also got a huge amount of honour. You are made much of. Various people would come to the house for meetings, visiting royalty or those in parliament, four lots of prime ministers. People often ask who I was most impressed by, but I don’t have an answer. You realise that everyone is just human.
There is certainly more anti-semitism now than there was 20 years ago. It’s in the papers every day, it’s extraordinary. Recently, one of our friends was leaving the synagogue with his two sons and a man harangued them, said “you Jew” and swore at them. The kids always looked forward to going to synagogue with their dad and now they are nervous to go.
I hope I have passed to my children good, solid morals. When people are part of a community, whether it’s a football club or a religion, it gives them something to grasp. It keeps you together. There is so much loneliness now.
My greatest joys in life are simple. We live near Hampstead Heath and just love it. If we go for a muddy walk, the next day I will find my shoes sparkling clean. Jonathan likes cleaning them. If everything is tidy, then his mind is clear to think.
We’re different. I’m always cheerful and he’s quite serious. But all these years together? You need to be pretty romantic.
Jonathan on Elaine
She regards swimming in the Hampstead Heath ladies’ pond as a quasi-mystical experience. She comes back just brimming with the joy of life, completely transformed by it.
Elaine on Jonathan
He always wears a yellow tie when he is due to give important speeches or on special occasions.