She was the oldest female contestant on Strictly’s dance floor, but now actress Lesley Joseph has broken new ground for a very different reason – as the first Jewish woman to ever bless the Pope.
The Birds Of A Feather star made the surprising admission ahead of the airing of BBC2’s Pilgrimage: The Road To Rome, in which eight well-known personalities, all with differing beliefs and faiths, don their hiking boots and set off along the Italian section of an ancient 2,000km walking trail, the Via Francigena.
Lesley joins actor Les Dennis, former Strictly professional dancer Brendan Cole, comedians Stephen K Amos and Katy Brand, Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford, Irish Eurovision Song contest winner Dana and television presenter Mehreen Baig along the lesser-known pilgrim’s route from the Swiss Alps to St Peter’s Square in Rome, a distance of 621 miles in 15 days, before being treated to a private audience with the Pope.
Of that experience, Lesley – who is known for her long-running role as man-eater Dorien Green in the popular ITV sitcom starring Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke – says meeting Pope Francis was both “extraordinary” and “incredibly moving”.
She tells me: “We were taken aback at how approachable he was. There were eight of us, all of multi-faiths, some believers, some non-believers, but aside from the religious aspect, on a historical stage it was just extraordinary that we had half-an-hour with one of the most powerful men in the world. When we got outside, we were all in tears.
“For some obscure reason, I also blessed him! When he came round, he said you don’t look 72 and I said, ‘oh bless you’. Then I realised I’d just blessed the pope, like any good Jewish girl would do!”
Speaking of her Judaism, Lesley reveals that while she is not practising, she does “identify with being Jewish” and that her mother came from an orthodox background.
“My great-grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Zundel Maccoby, was the Kamenitzer Maggid, a rabbi from Russia who came over here and the whole of the East End would stop to hear him speak. He has a hall at Bar Ilan University named after him. My grandfather, Abraham Mundy, ran the Jews Temporary Shelter in the East End to help immigrant Jews who came over. Meanwhile, my mother was one of 12 and they lived a very Jewish life, but because of this I think most of the children went away from it, especially after the war.”
The 72-year-old actress, who has two adult children, also feels a special reverence for Yom Kippur – and often attends synagogue with her close friend, Maureen Lipman, who she met at drama school.
She explains: “I love spending a day in a synagogue and just having a day of thought and contemplation. What I like about it is that Jews all over the world are going through the same moment and are joined by a common thread. That I find very moving.”
Likewise, she felt very proudly about her Jewish identity while embarking on what was essentially a Catholic pilgrimage – because for Lesley, the experience was less about religion and more of learning about other people’s beliefs.
“Actually, I asked the Pope how he felt about the group being multi-faith and he said he was thrilled to open this pilgrimage to everybody,” she recalls. “It’s about what you find in yourself and what you feel about your own faith when you get to the end.
“I did go and get blessed in a church and lit candles, because there’s something about religion, the theatricality of it and of believing in something.
“But this pilgrimage for me wasn’t about any one faith, it was more about getting on with other people of all different faiths and humanity, that’s what really joined us together.”
Revealing that she still feels “very bonded” with the rest of the group, Lesley says the experience left a lasting impression on her and her own thoughts about spirituality.
“I feel a lot of my life has been very spiritual,” adds Lesley. “It’s about acknowledging there’s something more up there. I’ve had things happen in my life where I’ve thought that is not just a coincidence, that is my father looking down, or that is planned and was meant to happen.
“I do think there’s something else up there that is guiding us and I don’t believe this is all there is. I’d like to think that when you do go, there is something more.
“Spirituality to me means how you deal with things here and now, how you deal with others and being kind. So in that sense, it did feel like quite a spiritual pilgrimage for all of us.”
Pilgrimage: The Road To Rome begins on Friday, 9pm, BBC Two
- Lesley Joseph
- Pilgrimage:The Road To Rome
- Birds Of A Feather
- Via Francigena
- Pope Francis
- Les Dennis
- Brendan Cole
- Stephen K Amos
- Katy Brand
- Greg Rutherford
- Mehreen Baig
- Dorien Green
- Linda Robson
- Pauline Quirke
- Rabbi Chaim Zundel Maccoby
- Kamenitzer Maggid
- Abraham Mundy
- East End
- Jews’ Temporary Shelter
- Maureen Lipman