Office girl by day, dancer by night

Sylvia Dombey took up performing to overcome shyness. She then waltzed right into her husband’s heart and business.

Sylvia Dombey performing in a show about Hollywood icon Judy Garland for AACI seniors. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sylvia Dombey performing in a show about Hollywood icon Judy Garland for AACI seniors.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If anyone thinks it’s impossible to pick up and move to Israel after the age of 85, Sylvia Dombey says it is not only possible but rewarding. Indeed, she arrived in November 2012 at age 86.
Dombey has always supported Israel, but she was not a person who dreamed of aliya all her life. She was perfectly comfortable in the Jewish community in Hendon and had a very active social life.
She had never been tempted to follow her son, Ronald, who had made aliya in 1978 after studying to be a property auctioneer and surveyor in London. “A friend of his was starting a garin [seed community] in the Negev and he wanted to be a pioneer, so he gave up on that career,” says his mother.
However, after his military service, Ronald found that the garin had dispersed. Eventually, he became a master cabinetmaker. His mum proudly reports that he married a woman from South Africa and they have two daughters, and recently became grandparents.
“My dear late husband and I would come once a year to visit him,” says Dombey.
Her daughter, Estelle Scott, lives in Chigwell, Essex, northeast of London. Estelle’s elder children made aliya, and that provides the key to the mystery of why Dombey, a.k.a. Nanny, is in Israel today.
“My grandchildren nagged me and nagged me.
They told me that if I came, they would keep an eye on me,” she says. “It took me two years to decide to come. At that point the house needed redecorating, and I thought I would move instead. And if I was already moving, then why not to Israel?” She entrusted the flat-hunting task to her daughter- in-law, Brenda. “I asked her to find me a place to live with a nice view,” says Dombey, and sure enough Brenda found the perfect apartment in the Arnona neighborhood.
“From my balcony I can see the tayelet [promenade] and from another room the golden dome [on the Temple Mount]. Every morning when I wake up, I am so thankful I can see the Old City.”
It took Dombey eight months to sort through 58 years’ worth of possessions. The Hendon house was filled not only with personal items but also with the many remnants of the dance costume business she and her husband, Cyril, operated together – he as the designer-tailor, she as the office manager-buyer.
“We specialized in making tail suits for competitive ballroom dancers, and stretch trousers and fancy tops for competitive Latin dancers. We exported all over the world.”
This profession fit Dombey to a T. Trained as a bookkeeper, she began working in the accounting department of underwear and hosiery company Kayser when she was just 17, and living temporarily in Hertfordshire with her parents and brother, Walter, during World War II. Not long after taking the job, she was asked by her supervisor to come and observe what she did. One day the chief accountant came in and said, “Miss Colletts, you’ve been seeing our supervisor work for the past week and she is joining the army, and we want you to be the supervisor.”
When Dombey protested that she was young and inexperienced, he retorted, “Miss Colletts, you are a Jewish girl and you can do it.”
“I decided then and there that if he had such faith in me, I had to do it,” Dombey recalls.
The costume-making business was also perfect because Dombey has been a lifelong entertainer. “I was a shy little girl, so my mother sent me to singing and dancing classes, and it turned out I had a singing voice,” she says.
Right after the war, she was at a Jewish dance when Cyril, who had just gotten out of the army, stopped by and asked her to dance the last waltz with him. “The tune was ‘Sorrento,’” Dombey remembers clearly.
They did not marry until six years later, in 1954, having dated others in the intervening years. The final push toward the huppa was when they sang in a show together in 1953; by 1957, they had two children. Sylvia did not begin working with her husband until their son and daughter were grown, yet she never stopped performing.
“Cyril and I entertained groups, mainly retired people’s groups and younger people as well. Once someone at a show was collecting for wounded Israeli soldiers, and we also started asking for donations to charity. In the few years we did that, we raised nearly £10,000 for charity.”
After Cyril retired, he took a London tour-guiding course, but instead of hiring himself out to groups, made a slide show of all the significant places in the city and developed an hour-long presentation with Sylvia at the projector. They coordinated their slide talks through the Jewish Association of Cultural Societies.
“There were more than 30 branches of JACS, and over the years we went to every branch in southeast England. Later Cyril made slide shows about legal London, the Amish, Edward VIII and the [1936] Battle of Cable Street. He also did a musical program on the Three Tenors. He used to say about me, ‘This is my partner, and incidentally we’re married.’” Cyril died in June 2005. Dombey shouldered the blow with her indomitable spirit. “I always trained myself to be positive-minded,” she says. “I wake up every morning and say to myself, ‘I can do it.’” Dombey and son Ronald have carried on the showbiz tradition all these years later. Last February, they put on a show about Judy Garland for the AACI seniors group that Dombey attends on Wednesday mornings.
“I tell about her background, play nine of her songs and on some of them perform mime, dressed in black velvet trousers and a candy-striped shirt,” she says.
“My son joined me in singing ‘For Me and My Gal.’ I also do Sophie Tucker and works of Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart.”
Dombey has made good friends in Jerusalem through her neighborhood, AACI and Hadassah, joining the Mizmor LeDavid synagogue, which offers musical Carlebach-style services. However, she is seldom home on Shabbat because she is usually visiting her grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Modi’in, Yad Binyamin, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
And she has no particular desire to go back to London.
She was willing to make the trip when her remaining granddaughter got married in June, but the bride preferred to have the wedding in Israel so that Nanny and the rest of the extended family could easily attend.
Despite a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew, Dombey is quite happy with her transplanted life.
“We’re in a Jewish country, which is great. I have to count my blessings every day.”