Young, Jewish & Irish

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Ireland’s Jewish community faces a crisis of numbers, and many young people who want to marry within the faith must now look abroad for spouses. Yet the Jewish community in Dublin remains vibrant and determined to halt this ‘terminal decline’, as CIAN TRAYNOR discovered during this week’s Hanukkah festivalIT’S EASY TO feel out of place: a gentile in Terenure’s Synagogue Hall, without a kippa to wear, without knowing a soul, without a clue of the words to the hymns.

But there is no dividing line: only warmth, openness and plenty of self-deprecating wit. The rabbi mills through the room as animatedly as the children, waving an iPod Touch in the air to remind people of the raffle, delaying calls to judge the dreidel competition as he’s pulled aside to hold counsel at nearly every table.

“It can be a bit misleading,” says Dena Caplin, nodding at the bustle of kids playing around her. “A lot of them belong to people who have come to Ireland to work for Google or PayPal and may only be here a few years. So it’s not entirely representative of the Jewish community.” Caplin is a bright 20-year-old brimming with enthusiasm for her faith, pointing out that she’s one of only a few to have studied Hebrew for the Leaving Cert in the past 40 years. But, as one of the youngest Irish-born Orthodox Jews, she could also be the last, she says.

Many Irish Jews were among the waves of emigrants who sought work in Britain and the US during the 1980s, and many more saw the Celtic Tiger as an opportunity to sell their property and move abroad to bigger Jewish communities. The dwindling effect that has had on the population of Irish Jews means those wanting to marry within the faith are increasingly likely to leave the country to find partners.

Once Caplin finishes her degree in midwifery at Trinity College she will “make aliyah” and leave for Israel, a trip she has been planning for some time. Two of her grandparents died within the past 17 months, and when her father, Adrian, retires she expects her parents to move away too.

“It is sad. I love Ireland,” she says. “I’d love to raise my kids down the country one day, but it would be too hard, practically speaking. I couldn’t put them through that. In Dublin it’s a challenge, not a problem.” Then she laughs, saying: “Although going to friends’ 21st birthdays is an issue if they’re on a Friday night [due to observing Shabbat]. I ask them to change it and they say, ‘Sure you can ask the rabbi for permission.’

“Most Irish people don’t really understand Judaism. They only know what they see on TV, like breaking the glass at a wedding. But my friends in college are fascinated; I’m always explaining things. There’ll be a course in Judaism by the time I leave!”

Her older brother, Lee, who also plans to leave when he finishes studying biochemistry at Trinity, says the expectation to marry into the faith is more of a problem for men because of the traditional belief that a person is Jewish through the maternal line.

“Young guys tend to have their fun, and then, once they hit their 20s, they start to realise the implications of being with someone who isn’t Jewish, even without being reminded. It’s like, ‘Oh…’ When it’s so closely tied to your identity, those questions are going to come up as you get older, whether you want them to or not.”

It’s a pressure felt by Maurice Woolfson, a 33-year-old studying for a diploma in international financial reporting through the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, who says it’s more complicated than just being religious. “It’s difficult to describe, because it’s not a nationality, it’s not purely a religion and it’s not purely a race. It’s a combination of all three, so it’s very much an identity and a history which I connect with.”

The desire to sustain that lineage means he will be leaving Ireland for London in the next year. “That’s purely to meet someone Jewish,” he says. “The vast majority of my friends have married an English girl and are living in England.” When he went to Stratford College, a secondary school founded by members of Dublin’s Jewish community, he had 10 Jewish classmates, all of whom have since left.

“Even 25 years ago, I was raised with the belief that I probably wouldn’t have a future in Ireland, because the community was so small even then. I never saw myself having a future here. I still feel that, even though I’m the last of my contemporaries yet to leave. So, in terms of keeping the continuity, there is a certain amount of pressure there. But I don’t feel it’s an external one that’s been put on me.”

Eva Handelman has not, as yet, considered her Jewish heritage in the same terms. As a cultural identity it was firmly imprinted on her growing up: there was the bat mitzvah, the religious classes and the lessons in Hebrew; her great grandparents were rabbis; and her grandfather helped found the Jewish golf club in Edmondstown, Rathfarnham.

But just as many of her peers had drifted from Catholicism and Protestantism by the time they reached adulthood, in the late 1990s, Handelman felt a similar disconnection. “I believe in science. I don’t believe in religion,” says the 29-year-old trainee solicitor. “You do feel that because the community is getting smaller you should put more of an effort in, but I’m not going to change my life for it.”

The cross section of secular or unaffiliated Jews in Dublin is a demographic Carl Nelkin, a spokesman for the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland – who also records Irish Jewish music – has trouble identifying. In the 2006 census “Jewish” was no longer listed in the religious categories, instead giving people the option to specify “other”. It registered 1,216 Jews in Dublin (of an estimated 13 million worldwide), yet Nelkin believes the number of Jews in the area turning out for social or religious events is closer to 300. “If you can’t see them, it’s almost like they’re not there,” he says.

That community made its presence felt by braving the ice to see the lighting of the menorah, an eight-pronged candelabrum, last Sunday night in Terenure and again on Tuesday at Dublin Castle, to mark Hanukkah. The eight-day festival of lights commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where a day’s worth of oil miraculously lit the temple for eight days. It’s one of the more social events on the Hebrew calendar. Toasted with oily foods such as doughnuts and potato cakes, the occasion’s note of optimism engenders a familial atmosphere.

“The community is in terminal decline, but we’re overachieving by making the best of what we have,” says Nelkin. “Other communities would love to have this kind of vibrancy. Yes, people are coming and going, but it’s about sustaining the interaction and bringing in new blood.”

WHEN THE RABBI Zalman Lent came here from England via New York 10 years ago, he and his wife, Rifky, were tasked with invigorating Ireland’s young Jewish population. His role has since grown as rabbi of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation and head of the Orthodox community (there is also a synagogue in Rathmines for the Progressive strand of Judaism).

His real success is the expansion of the community by welcoming any Jew who comes to Dublin, regardless of their level of practice.

When it became clear that the Jewish home for the elderly would have to be relocated, as it lacked sufficient bathrooms, he turned it into a hostel that subsidises accommodation for international Jewish students. The 20 currently living there turn every Friday’s Shabbat meal into a social occasion shared with young Jewish immigrants they’ve met through Zalman Lent.

“It’s difficult,” he says. “Often the younger people will go off after university, and you see the old members leaving now because their children or grandchildren may be living in other places.” For a community this size, he says, you would expect there to be nothing happening, yet there are three services a day with a minyan (the minimum of 10 men required for public prayer).

“If this was a city in England the community would slowly shrink and disappear, but because Dublin is a capital there’s a lot of vibrancy here,” he says. “What used to be is no longer. It’s a whole different blend of cultures wanting to experience something Jewish together.” His charismatic openness and lack of “thou shalt”, as one Israeli Jew living here put it, has drawn in Jews who have been living in Ireland for years yet hadn’t considered either practising or participating in the community. Some from France, Israel and Ukraine say the rabbi’s determination to see the community flourish in the face of diminishing numbers personifies what the Jewish character means to them.

It was two and a half years before Lya, a 31-year-old non-practising Jew from Israel, took part in any of Lent’s social events. “He knew about me, made it known I was welcome, but never asked any questions,” she says. “I had enough of that way of life at home. In Israel an Orthodox Jew wouldn’t even look at me, so I had bad associations. But when I finally came I realised what I’d been missing. Even though I’m not religious, there’s a connection between one Jew and another. I think I appreciate that more now.”

Chronicling the intertwining family trees of immigrant and Irish-born Jews has been a passion for genealogist Stuart Rosenblatt. His 16-volume archive, the Rosenblatt Series, goes back hundreds of years and covers 42,500 records, making it the most comprehensive genealogical study of a Jewish population in any country.

As an expert in Ireland’s Jewish lineage he receives up to 20 e-mails per day from people seeking out their Jewish roots. “There’ll always be a presence in Dublin,” he says. “It’ll change: it’ll be a much smaller community with fewer services available, but it will always be there. Always.”

By Tuesday, among those shivering on the snow-covered lawn of Dublin Castle, the lighting of the menorah takes on another, more obvious significance: that of simply keeping the flame alive.

Famous Irish Jews

Though the earliest reference of a Jewish presence in Ireland was in the Annals of Inisfallen of 1079, the first Jewish figure of prominence was William Annyas, who was elected Mayor of Youghal, Co Cork, in 1555 — 99 years before the earliest recorded synagogue was established in Dublin’s Crane Lane.

Ireland has since produced several Jewish mayors, but it’s the life of Robert Briscoe that stands out. When he enlisted in Fianna Éireann in 1917, it began a career that involved being sent by Michael Collins to Germany to procure arms for the IRA, supporting de Valera and the anti-treaty side in the Irish civil war, founding the Fianna Fail party and becoming lord mayor of Dublin on two occasions.

“Dad had an amazing career,” says Joe Briscoe, now 82. “Here was a Jew who was elected to the Dail in 1927 and remained there for 38 years.

It was fantastic to see someone become a legend in their own lifetime.

He was very proud of the fact that he was Irish and Jewish. It’s a compliment to the people of Dublin who embraced him, especially since my brother was elected to succeed him the year he retired.” Ben Briscoe, who later became lord mayor of Dublin himself, was one of three Jewish TDs serving the Dáil during the 1990s (along with Fine Gael’s Alan Shatter and Labour’s Mervyn Taylor) — a time when there were also three Jewish men serving the Dublin judiciary system, including Supreme Court judge Henry Barron.

Given the size of Ireland’s Jewish population, which was 3,907 in 1946, it’s a remarkable quota for such a small number.

That’s equally true for Dr Bethal Solomons, who won 10 caps at international level for the Irish rugby team and was later made Master of the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin from 1926 to 1933, and Louis Bookman, who played for Shelbourne and the Irish international football team.

That Daniel Day-Lewis is the son of an Irish-born father and Jewish mother, and has spoken of being teased at school for being from both backgrounds, might qualify him as the country’s most well-known Jewish export.

But arguably the most significant Irish Jew of all was Chaim Herzog.

Born in Belfast as the son of a Chief Rabbi of Ireland, he spent his first 16 years growing up in Dublin’s Portobello area, nicknamed ‘Little Jerusalem’. He attended Wesley College and later served the British army during World War II before being appointed as an ambassador to the United Nations and serving two terms as the President of Israel.

Herzog is arguably only trumped by that most famous of Irish fictional characters, Leopold Bloom — the Jewish Dubliner at the heart of James Joyce’s Ulysses, who has earned his own plaque commemorating his imputed birth place on Upper Clanbrassil Street.

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Noticias, Reportajes, Cobertura de Eventos por nuestro staff editorial, así como artículos recibidos por la redacción para ser republicados en este medio.

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