Remarkably, I say, because so unfailingly is Stanley’s memory kept alive by all those who knew and loved him – with recollections, especially, of his generosity of spirit and unique sense of humour – that we can never quite believe that he has not been with us for so long. That his legacy and spirit still are, however, is, in Stanley’s case, no mere cliché.
Stanley, my mother’s younger brother, was that rarity amongst older relatives in that, far from unavoidable obligation, time spent in his company was hugely and genuinely enjoyed. I would love to join him on his evening walks, with family dog Cookie, around Hendon Park – to discuss his, often radical, views on British politics and current affairs (about which he was extremely well-read) and sport (much of which, with his uncanny ability to see the true nature of things, he was persuaded was “fixed”) – and recall jumping at the opportunity to accompany him on the trek to a family bar mitzvah in some distant community (which no one else particularly fancied) because it meant a valuable hour and a half in his presence.
Stanley’s repartee and one-liners, delivered with wonderful comic timing, were invariably followed by his trademark boyish guffaw and – for good measure, as if to guarantee a winner – a hearty slap on the back of the nearest listener.
And Stanley had his regular comic routines. Some of these, such as mock chases and fights with his four sons, involved traditional slapstick, while others bordered on pure pantomime: While one of said sons would be on the upstairs phone, in the middle of a sensitive teenage talk, Stanley would carefully – but always with an eye on his eager morning room audience – pick up the downstairs receiver. Covering the mouthpiece with his hand, he would await the perfect moment in the conversation (i.e., the most delicate) before interjecting: “Oh, come on . . . this is boring!”
In the family tradition (of which I am most proud), Stanley had no time for humbug or status. On one occasion, as the two of us attempted to beat the crowds to the buffet at a wedding (on my, Isaacson, side of the family) in the Royal Albert Hall, Stanley barged past Sir Keith Joseph – the brains behind Thatcherism – as if he wasn’t there. Sir Keith’s face, unsmiling at the best of times, was an absolute picture, and – even if he might not have – I enjoyed the moment immensely.
Such irreverence may have stemmed, to some extent, from Stanley’s knowledge (shared by all) that, without his admirable, unstinting observance of the Fifth Commandment, he would have achieved far more, both creatively and professionally. His father (my grandfather) Sam, however, wanted his only son in “the shop” and, so, Stanley’s most original artistic talent (he produced the work below aged just fifteen) was left to hobby . . . with guests returning from weddings and bar mitzvahs with his hilarious caricatures – often of them – sketched on the rear of their Grace After Meals booklets.
One decision, fortunately, that Stanley did not leave to his parents was his choice of life partner. And in his Egyptian wife, Gigi, Stanley found a soul mate with shared values of empathy, kindness, openness and frankness.
Stanley was a genuinely religious (in the real sense of the word) man, perhaps even – while not bearing all of the meaningless trimmings – in the true, chassidic Galicianer tradition: He loved nothing more than hearing his sons sing zemiros; while his and Gigi’s home operated a strict open door policy (a rarity in England), with the Reiss Shabbos table usually seating an assortment of characters who considered 5 Queens Road their second – and, in some cases, even primary – home.
The centrepiece of our family Seder was usually a Galicianer-Litvak dialogue between Stanley and my father regarding the role of God during the Holocaust. Where Stanley saw Him, especially in the subsequent creation of the State of Israel, my sceptic father did not. And when I eventually started to question, too, Stanley was quick to give me – and to make sure that I read – a copy of This Is My God, Herman Wouk’s classic introduction to Orthodox Judaism.
Stanley was a staunch supporter of Israel, which he backed up by encouraging – and, for once, standing up to his father’s objections to – the decisions of his sons to make aliyah. This love of Israel extended to Israelis, too, who, on chancing upon “the shop” on Sunday mornings (usually following a visit to nearby Petticoat Lane), walked out with clothing at near cost price and often a Shabbos invitation to 5 Queens Road!
As a consequence, in all probability, of a difficult (even somewhat neglected) wartime childhood – spent in a Welsh boarding school, far from his parents’ Letchworth sojourn – Stanley was, by all accounts, a rather mischievous boy. On one occasion, a municipal meeting was interrupted by the announcement, “Mr. Reiss, please go home: Your chickens have escaped.” Stanley had thought that he would let them stretch their wings!
Such humanity earned Stanley the sobriquet, “Shirt”: he would give the shirt off his back to someone in need. And it was a quality that he never lost: in later years, Stanley would leave cash for a down-and-out old school friend – they were the first pupils at Hasmonean Grammar – with doormen of Tel Aviv beachfront hotels, requesting that they hand him a little each time he pass by.
A wonderful son, husband and father, Stanley was also so many people’s best friend. And his sudden passing, at the tragically premature age of 62, was a deep and terrible shock to all of them. My father, not always the most sentimental of men, was quite broken about it for the rest of his days.
Stanley always saw the light side of life, and – while little comfort to those he left behind – there was something in his unfussy departure from this world (though he would dearly have loved a lot longer in it) about which he would have approved. Indeed, there was much about Stanley’s simplicity and lack of ego to which we can all aspire.
Heading straight to Bushey Cemetery from my hastily arranged flight from Tel Aviv, on that dark morning in October 1996, the first words that Gigi said to me were “You had such a lovely uncle.”
That said it all. Here was a man who had made a real difference. And life since, for lots of us, has never been quite the same.