The Jewish Chronicle
Renaissance man who opened up a world of Jewish culture and identity
HE WAS an unconventional property developer, a businessman with a unique vision. And it was the 19th century slum off London’s Oxford Street that caught Robin Spiro’s imagination. St Christopher’s Place had been redeveloped for social housing in the 1870s. It was a street of historic shops — lamp makers, cheese-mongers, drapers and bookmakers — and The Lamb & Flag pub to which local anarchists would flock. But the area declined and by 1967 the properties emptied and the office developers came in. Demolition was on the cards.
But Robin Spiro saw the beauty of preserving the small period shops and blending the past with the present. The vibrant business and tourist hub that is St Christopher’s Place today was the fruit of his fertile imagination.
Yet just as he had brought renewal to an ancient London thoroughfare, his vision would generate a revolutionary form of Jewish education to ever widening circles within the UK, Eastern Europe and the USA. Although not everyone was convinced at first, that vision became the Spiro Institute, launched in 1978 with his wife Nitza. It offered Jewish education at sixth form level, Hebrew and Yiddish lessons, Yiddish theatre, and a flowering of Jewish concerts of every historic Jewish genre, plus academic study and Jewish interest tours. More than educating Jews about Jewishness, Spiro wanted Jews and non Jews to find a place together.
In her eulogy to Robin Spiro, who has died aged 90, Rabbi Alexandra Wright of St John’s Wood Liberal Jewish Synagogue said: “It isn’t possible to do justice to your vision — the gulf stream that is Judaism was forensically examined in its relation to the sea around it of which it is a part.”
She described him as a –“Renaissance man – who combined business acumen and worldliness with academic pursuits, a love of tradition and a very great love of Judaism.”
Originally the Spiro Institute was supported by the Hebrew University with a programme devised and tutored by its leading Jewish history lecturers and situated on the Jerusalem campus.
It fell to Robin Spiro to introduce the teaching of a new Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board A/O Level into some 30 schools both private and state, with students divided 50/50 into Jews and non-Jews. This continued for 15 years until the A/O level was removed from the curriculum. The Hebrew University provided office space in their St. John’s Wood building.
As the Institute developed it worked with the Open University on a course of Jewish history and culture with audio recordings and films broadcast by the OU and the BBC. It introduced the first Jewish film festivals at the National Film Theatre, and the Israeli Film Festival at Hampstead’s Everyman Cinema, forerunners of the current Jewish Film Festival and the Israeli Film Festival or JMI.
Robin Spiro was born in Manchester, the son of Solomon and Ena, where his grandfather had a linen business. One of his uncles became Lord Mayor of Plymouth. He and his sister Judy grew up in North West London. An older brother had died as a baby. His talents were soon noted and an early school report described him as “one of the best students they had ever had.” His adult life was partly defined by the death of Solomon, a former warden of St Johns Wood Synagogue, and a prominent figure in the Jewish community. However, early in his adult life Robin had disconnected from his Jewish roots.
When the Second World War broke out the family left for New York. The family returned to the UK for his barmitzvah and he was sent to Millfield School followed by Harrow. There he proved his prowess in sports and particularly excelled in cricket, going on to play for the MCC at Lords.
He then joined the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars cavalry regiment and studied law at Oxford University. After his father died Spiro travelled to Israel to reconnect with a Jewish heritage that he had previously left behind.
He tried to enter Nitza’s Hebrew class at Ulpan Akiva, but she decided he was not suitable. With dogged determination Spiro persevered — even though he never quite mastered the Hebrew language — but he sensed Nitza would become his wife. Their marriage lasted 53 years. Handsome in his youth, he was distinguished by what were later described as “his infamous eyebrows.”
The pair spent a year travelling in India, before Spiro brought Nitza to England to be near his mother. His business career started with a few family properties in Plymouth, which — as his daughter Idit explained — “with his trademark charm and acumen he built into a large business empire in London and throughout the UK”.
He launched into his post-graduate studies in Modern Jewish History in Oxford, while encouraging Nitza in her own studies and teaching.
In the course of their passionate love affair, Robin could be a jealous husband, observed one of his children, Yanni: “He would not tolerate other eyes (or hands) on his beloved — “in the first few months of married life in India, when Nitza went to the hairdressers, Robin took umbrage at her head being massaged, so the poor hairdresser was left with a crushed toe and an empty chair as Robin ejected Nitza from the salon, giving new meaning to being swept off her feet.”
It was in many ways a strange coupling. He with his public school and army background; she, a powerful independent woman with a communist father. Each already had three children from previous marriages when they met, and then went on to have three more together.
The Institute continued to grow under the Spiros’ leadership and guidance for over 20 years and gained an international reputation. But it ended in an internal power struggle between opposing interests in 1999, which led to its re-incarnation as Spiro Ark. Proud and dignified, Robin Spiro refused to engage in blame over past differences.
What held it together during its difficult times was a rare family bond and the hospitality of their home, described as a social hub of NW London. “Perhaps he was too forgiving, too much the gentleman, although his temper would flare when he felt his values were broken,” suggested Rabbi Wright.
Idit described her father as a “wonderful wordsmith, and that skill was demonstrated in birthday song writing, with a designated song for each of us”. In the last days of his life Idit had memorised and read him the final stanza of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem: Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Robin Spiro is survived by Nitza and their children, Rebecca, Idit, Ayelet, Edan, Doron, Dafna, Minkie and Maayan (Yanni) and 14 grandchildren. GLORIA TESSLER