It’s fitting that the Jewish community’s cultural hub is Anna Pavlova’s former home, writes Stephen Oryszczuk. And what a home it is, too. Ivy House is a listed building perched on a hill between Hampstead Heath and Golders Green.
Remnants of glamour still percolate the three floors, in the Grand Hall Terrace and Garden Room, but it’s more functional than frilly these days.
Staff work mainly from the First Floor, but exceptions include the screw-loose admin team behind reception and ‘dusty Stuart’ – the film archivist, holed up down in the basement. Meanwhile, marooned across the car park in a new building designed principally for kids’ activities, is technology tiger Iulian.
You don’t need a whole day to work out that this place is a strange mix of refined and frenetic, mature and manic. To my mind, it’s made all the more magical for it.
The reception area is my favourite. Not only is it the operational nerve centre, it is also a meeting point and major junction – two functions that conflict quite dramatically. Because most rooms, stairways, corridors and cafes lead off from here, the traffic is incredible, with people rushing hither and thither, so naturally this is where everybody chooses to stand and chat.
“It’s like a lunatic asylum in here,” says one. “No, it’s like a Jewish organisation,” says another.
Life begins with Gillian (pictured below right), the no-nonsense, knows-everyone receptionist who looks me up and down suspiciously. I haven’t felt like this since I was caught copying maths homework from Richard Meehan.
While she is the face of LJCC, the brains sit behind her. There, in a command-and-control office overflowing with paperwork and dog food, is Janette – a 16-year veteran despite her young age.
“I started as child labour,” she says, before telling me about her eight month old pup Shnooky, who accompanies her to work on Fridays. “He only eats the venison premium,” she says. Of course he does. This is a Jewish dog, after all.
Upstairs, away from the madness lives Mandy – marketing maestro, point of contact and, as of last year, my Jewish mother (not being ‘of the faith’ she decided I needed help and adopted me – I’ve been putting on weight ever since).
Mandy’s team, including Tammy and Sara, have window views, unlike Carolyn (literary festival) and Murray (fundraising), who seem of cheery disposition despite staring only at walls.
Nearest to the cakes (and Ziva’s mum’s delicious homemade cookies – pictured below left) is Laurence, who co-ordinates the kids, and who looks as pained as one would expect from someone in that role. Opposite him is the team’s newest member Rachel – in her first week and still finding her LJCC feet.
Over in the corner is the Holocaust education team, including a young Austrian lad, here on his national service year. “We get one every year,” explains Ziva. “They’re all either called Lucas or Moritz.”
On the other side of the first floor is ‘the management.’ General Manager Alan Fell is a good brain to pick, as is Trudy Gold, the former boss, who will be a huge loss when she departs for a fun-filled life of retirement.
The current boss, Louise, looks perky despite having just spent hours working on 30,000 word dissertation. “I’m doing a Masters degree in Jewish Culture,” she explains from an office dominated by a huge copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. “I love the idea that I have spare time,” she sighs, as another email drops in her inbox.
Gillian’s giggling. I ask why. Minutes earlier she pressed the gates open to the sound of the buzzer. When the buzzer kept buzzing, she opened them again. Still, the buzzing continued, so she got on the intercom and gave the gateway pest both barrels. “It was the electrician,” she says. “He was testing the door!”
I head off into the whirlwind. My first stop is a beginners’ language class, where one of a dozen or so learners tries asking ‘how much do I owe you?’ in Hebrew. The answer comes back: 2,000 shekels. Or is it 200 shekels? The student’s not sure. The Israeli teacher tells her to think carefully, adding: “It’s an important difference!”
Next up is an acrylic watercolour course (pictured right), then a talk on Imperial Venice, a game of bridge, a session in the chess club and a Pilates workout. In the evening there is a jazz night celebrating Edith Piaf, a clubhouse session for the kids and a talk on 1943. In short, there’s a lot going on.
The talks are given by the tireless William Tyler, whose lecture earlier in the day taught me that some of the first books printed in Venice in 1469 were printed in Hebrew (one for the pub quiz).
Tyler – who owns up to being a Protestant – covers classic texts, early “pornography” and the Counter Reformation, when books were banned. One text – not noted for its excellence, he says – is described as a latter day ‘Pippa Middleton title.’
It’s difficult to know what to include when recording a day at Ivy House. You could write about how the disposition of Harold Schogger’s bridge brigade (pictured left) reflected their sunny upstairs room, while that of the chess club downstairs seemed to strike a sympathetic chord with their dark and dingy basement dwelling.
You could write about how Romanian chef Adriana adamantly denies that she sells horsemeat disguised as beef at the on-site kosher cafe. You could write about any number of things, but alas, space is limited.
An important aspect is work behind the scenes. Over a working lunch, as they tuck into something non-horse, Judy and Mandy take Louise through the final version of the summer brochure, while Laurence, Carolyn and Rachel discuss the kids’ literary festival. Upstairs, Alan and Co. debate how best to resource a time-consuming bid for funding that would allow them to extend the outreach programme.
There are some important decisions to make. Do they play safe and print 10,000 brochures, or do they go for the 12,000 they think they’ll need but which could prove an expensive over-estimate? Do they spend £3,000 on a bid for project funding that could yield nothing or everything? Do they use their remaining outreach money to do more with the current kids or something with a new batch? Every decision is worked through as a team.
The day is coming to an end, and I find myself leaving at the same time as a posse of auditors, who have tied David and the finance team up all day. As we pass a disgruntled electrician buzzing at the gates, I ask the auditors whether LJCC passed their tests. “Yes they did,” says a man in a grey suit. “Yes, mine too,” I say.