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Irish Jewish Author and Former Winnipegger Max Roytenberg: Jews in the Land of the Blarny

Max Roytenberg, November 12, 2012

How did the Jews come to live among the Irish?
The record is murky but some people believe that Jews came to Ireland in biblical times. Archeological work on the Aran (were they named after Aaron of priestly fame) islands, found the skulls of people buried there very different from those on the main Island and similar to those of skulls unearthed in Israel and surrounding areas. And some of the customs in Western Ireland, adjoining the Islands, bear a similarity to Jewish customs, men and women sitting separately in church, mirrors covered during times of mourning. There is a mountain named Mount Kipr, and a legend of a princess who used to go up on the mountain once every year to fast. But who knows, it could all be blarney.
There are records of Jewish traders who came to trade from France in 1069. We do know that Jews came to Ireland in the fifteen hundreds after the expulsion from Portugal and settled around Cork. One of them became the Lord Mayor of a nearby town.
Early Jewish residents, often coming from England, had no rights and became legal persons only when this status was granted by the English to the Catholics in Ireland. William Cromwell permitted the return of Jews to England after their expulsion and settlement in Ireland as well.
As in many of the lands of their dispersion, Jews have made an important contribution to Ireland far beyond the importance of their numbers. In recent memory Jewish population in Ireland reached a peak of between five and six thousand after the pogroms occurring in Eastern Europe in the late eighteen hundreds. From five hundred in 1880, population climbed to these figures by the time of the 1911 census and maintained these levels until 1955 when new-found openness after the War led to rapid emigration to England, America, Canada, Australia and Israel. The current population is approximately twelve hundred. Indeed there are a reported three thousand Irish Jews in Israel who annually celebrate St, Parrick’s Day. There are a good number of Israelis working in Ireland’s High Tech industry who are often unaffiliated.
During the period of peak population there were vibrant Jewish communities in Ireland, particularly in Dublin. With a large influx of Lithuanian Jews, there were up to nine synagogues in operation in one particular area (Portobello) that acquired the name “Little Jerusalem”. Beginning initially as door to door vendors, often selling on credit, they evolved into shopkeepers of every description. Although the attitude of the Catholic Church at the time encouraged negative attitudes toward Jews, they encountered little in the way of barriers to building their lives in Ireland. All the usual institutions of a Jewish community were put in place including a Jewish High School, Old Age Home, Maccabi sports club, Golf Club, and a Burial Society to manage the cemeteries.
And one could smell herring and pickles on the streets of “Little Jerusalem” where the grocery shops and kosher butcher shops were located. There were prominent and successful politicians, lawyer, jurists, artists and professionals of every kind, as well as successful business people. There was a Lord Mayor in Cork, and a father and son Lord Mayor of Dublin. The Briscoes. Chaim Herzog, a former President of Israel was born in Ireland. He moved to Israel in 1937 when his father went from being the Chief Rabbi of Ireland to being the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Currently, Alan Shatter is the Justice Minister of the current government.
There are other ties between Ireland and Israel. Robert Briscoe, before he was Lord Mayor, was an elected member of the parliament in the government of Eamon DeValera. He was given a leave of absence so that he could work with other activists to try to smuggle Jews into Palestine in the years before the War. And it is reported that Isaac Shamir, a former Prime Minister of Israel came to Ireland when he was a member of an underground Jewish group combating the British in their blockade of Jewish immigration, to study the methods the IRA had used in their successful struggle for Irish independence.
Nevertheless, before and during the war, and even afterwards, anti-Jewish sentiments prevailed, and like in many other countries, no immigration was permitted for Jews desperately seeking an escape from what awaited them at the hands of the Nazi’s. Only a dozen or so children were rescued as part of the kindertransport program. Irish Jews are very sensitive regarding their country’s record, and always to accentuate the positive. They emphasize that Ireland is the only European country where there has never been a state-sponsored pogrom. But the massive emigration at the War’s end speaks for itself.
Ireland is considered by many to be the most anti-Israel member of the European Community. There are currently forty thousand Muslims, four mosques financed by foreign monies and applications for others. One of them, it is reported is under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.The press and other media are often full of distorted and biased, not to say untruthful, reporting on Israel and Palestinians. The Minister of Foreign affairs is seeking to have the EU cut off trade ties with Israel.
Currently the Jewish community is struggling to survive and maintain its institutions. There is a small community that continues to exist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. There is a a synagogue still in Cork which rarely functions. In Dublin the community continues to carry on. The High School is now supported by government and most of the students are not Jewish. The Jewish students follow their own particular curriculum which includes Jewish subjects. Similarly for the Old Age home, most of the residents are not Jewish, but it continues to be supported by Jewish volunteers although it is state-managed. The Golf Club has mainly non-Jewish members, the Sports Club is defunct. There is a Holocaust Education Trust that is financed by government, There is an Irish Jewish Museum that is operated on a volunteer basis. It is receiving planning support from Government it its efforts to revitalize the institution and is seeking funds internationally to construct a new building. Thousands of Irish students come to the Museum each year to learn something about Judaism and the Jewish community in Ireland. Kosher food is available primarily in one supermarket in Dublin. Kosher meat in frozen form is brought in from England There is a kosher restaurant venue that operates one evening a week.
There are three synagogues in Dublin, one Liberal Progressive and

two Orthodox. Ties are close with UK Jewish communities. There is a minyan every day in the main Orthodox synago

 
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