Louisa Clein is on a pilgrimage

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Louisa Clein is on a pilgrimage

The Jewish actress is walking 1,000 miles for a reality TV show.

On Kol Nidre she was sleeping on the floor of a freezing cold church with seven strangers while Yom Kippur was spent watching a Mass ceremony in a cave. This is not the way most nice Jewish girls spend the high holy days, but for actress Louisa Clein it was still a spiritual experience.

The former Emmerdale star was one of seven celebrity contestants taking part in the award-winning BBC2 reality show Pilgrimage, filmed last September and which will air next week. Over 15 days the ‘pilgrims’ of different faiths followed in the footsteps of sixth century Irish monk Saint Columba from Donegal in Ireland to Scotland and the Hebrides, covering more than 1000 miles.

While the Pilgrimage was mainly focused on a Christian experience, each of Louisa’s fellow travellers – interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen who describes himself as a non-conforming Christian, Sikh cricketer Monty Panesar, lapsed Catholic and TV personality Nick Hewer, reality show star and Christian Scarlett Moffatt, Muslim comic Shazia Mirza and Paralympian lapsed Christian Will Bayley – talked about all the faiths while walking along some of the most scenic routes of the British isles. Laurence Llewelyn Bowen said he had “never walked so far not wearing Cuban heels!”

“When I was offered the chance to be in it, it was so left-field but so interesting that I said yes,” recalls Louisa, 42. “When else would I get the chance to do something physically challenging while at the same time doing something really spiritual?

“I saw we would be walking on the Isle of Mull and that made me certain it was something I had to do – my father was a doctor there before I was born and it was a very special place to him. There was also the thought that as the mother of three young children, some enforced time on my own would be quite nice – although I started missing the kids after half a day.

“But the whole experience was something really incredible. We did a lot of reflecting and talking as we walked. The whole point of a pilgrimage was to become more aware of your surroundings and we were in some absolutely incredible spaces. I don’t know if I came out of the journey any wiser or more spiritually aware but certainly everything felt heightened. I questioned a lot of things and appreciated what I was doing.”


Louisa with her sister Natalie Clein OBE


Louisa was there to represent the small Jewish community and cooked a traditional Friday night dinner for her fellow pilgrims, which she posits as one of the highlights of the show, while they stayed in a youth hostel in Loch Ness. “It was a big eye-opening moment as they all said, ‘Do you do this every week?’ And they couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I reminded them you don’t have to be Jewish to have a big family meal once a week.” But she admits that there is a big part of her which is still learning about her heritage.

Her mother Channa was a Dutch Holocaust survivor – she was given to the care of a non-Jewish family from babyhood to the age of five while her parents managed to survive the war by hiding with the resistance – who came to England as a teenager to work as a musician. While she married a Jewish man, Louisa’s father Peter, they lived a life where their Jewishness was something almost secret. The only festival they celebrated was Passover, when they would return to see Louisa’s father’s family in South London.

“There is a part of me that still feels quite exposed in coming out as a Jew,” admits Louisa. “Because of my mother’s experiences, we grew up with a very non-Jewish lifestyle in Bournemouth and I had no Jewish education. We were the only Jews in the village, as it were, and my mother was very keen that we didn’t feel different.

“But the problem is, you can’t hide who you are. My darling mother had this foreign accent, nobody could pronounce our surname. We were this crazy creative family who were into music and had big curly hair. We didn’t really fit in and I later learned that we were known as ‘The Jews’.

“So to go on a television show and talk about being Jewish feels like quite a thing. There is so much antisemitism that we have to deal with – I think I surprised the others by talking about the security we have at our schools and synagogues – but I am also a proud Jew and a staunch Zionist.”

Louisa’s entrée into the Jewish world came via a drama teacher when she attended The Drama Centre in London. She immediately felt at home in North London – eventually moving to Golders Green partially because she loved the long hours of the bagel shops.

“I just found myself drawn to the Jewish community, it felt really familiar,” she says. “It means that finding my Jewish identity and the pride I have in it is my choice and that is something I feel grateful for.”

She is married to barrister to Jeremy Brier – with Rob Rinder acting as their matchmaker by way of Benedict Cumberbatch. She was about to start working on Judge John Deed when Benedict, who she was working with, said she should meet his barrister friend Rob, who ended up becoming a close friend. Jeremy is Rob’s best friend and the TV star was best man at their wedding.

The pair have three children – two girls aged nine and eight and a five-year-old boy – and live in North London. “It was hard to be away from the family for that long but it made me realise that family really is everything,” says Louisa. “But it was a wonderfully liberating experience. I am not ashamed of being Jewish and I loved telling the others about what an extraordinary, beautiful religion it is.”

Pilgrimage: The Road to the Scottish Isles starts on BBC2 on 8 April at 9pm.

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