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Max Roytenberg

Max Roytenberg: Dabbling in Jewish Dublin

by Max Roytenberg , Jan 7, 2012

So, here we are, seven years on from our arrival, looking at our life here in Ireland. Our eyes, somewhat dimmed by age, still view the differences from our North American birthplace in sharp relief. Will they ever vanish into the humdrum? Never I hope.
Dabbling? I know that’s unfair. It is only there because I like the alliteration of D’s and so risk the insulting reference.
How to encompass all the sweet joys of living here? I know there would have been like positives in other places closer to our former home, embellished with the delicious proximity of loved ones. Yet here we have had the luxury, the terrible risk of newly-weds being together twenty-four-seven after being apart for more than fifty years. We never really knew each other, did we? And haven’t we found Paradise?
So much of this has been the result of the welcoming nature of the Jewish community in Dublin. Yes, we are few in number here. That just means there are wonderful people here who rise to the challenge of doing so much for the others who have flagged in their efforts, weary of the burden of those few the community always finds to do the necessary. What a joy it is to see the young step forward to take their place among the thinning ranks.
Spending some time in the Irish Jewish Museum, viewing the glass-protected displays of the desiccated remains of a once thriving Jewish community fifty years in the past, it is easy to be sad. Then there was still an obvious Jewish presence on Dublin streets, bakeries, kosher butchers, grocery stores with credit, herring and pickle barrels and a chair to sit down, pedlars with their wares. And many synagogues, large and small.
Like Jewish communities around the world, Jews here in Ireland always punched above their weight. They filled the front ranks of most professions, including being elected by the Irish to positions of the highest responsibility. The Jewish Lord Mayors of Dublin, the Briscoes, father and son, are famous. And how many Chief Rabbis in Ireland went on to greater responsibility elsewhere? Like the Irish, the story for Jews here often meant going on to other things in other places. It is a curious fact that there are many more Irish Jews in Israel than there are in Ireland.
When we first arrived we went to the main shul in Terenure. Obviously, as strangers, there was an absence of greeting. But how different was the reception at the liberal-progressive shul! And I could sit beside my bride during the service. It took me back to the feeling of belonging in the womb of the Jewish community in Winnipeg, Canada, where I was born. How much better would it be if we always welcomed a stranger’s face with a greeting? Is that the English reserve to which people here may be addicted?
I did not find this in the third shul, down the street. This one, actually the doyen, tracing its roots back over 130 years, is being fiercely shepherded by the self-chosen few. Here I was taken back to the shul of my childhood. Unruly, even noisy, the embrace is like a crushing hug. What a joy to shout out the words and melody of prayers with abandon, a unique Jewish cacophony that warms my heart. The warmth, enthusiasm and devotion of the small number of Jews who keep this synagogue functioning are amazing. And how about the Kiddush? Delicious Jewish food and spicy drink. Many a time I have exited the shul in a less than sober state. And forgiving- how many times did my cellular ring when I had an Aliyah on the bimah? Horrors!
Seven years on, I feel welcome everywhere. I am often at Terenure for a community event, a parsha review, a Talmud study. We were even remarried here in an orthodox ceremony. Shall I tell you about going to the Mikvah? Here is the official residence of the Jewish community in Ireland. Here are visiting dignitaries welcomed, and community holiday observances hosted. This was the only place for such events until the recent re-vitalization of the Irish Jewish Museum as a site for community events.
Here in Dublin we have a giant chanukiah for Chanukah every year at the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House. Here we have an official observance of Holocaust Memorial Day with the Lord Mayor and Irish dignitaries. Here we have anti-semitic attacks on the Jewish Minister of Justice in the Irish parliament. Here we have official organs of the Catholic Church and government ministers calling for boycotts of Israeli products. Here the media distort almost every event related to Israel in the worst possible light. Here we have resolute Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants of many stripes engaged in a constant effort to refute all the misinformation launched against Israel and Jews. Here we have the official representatives of Israel, embraced by the Jewish community, with a constant effort to defend Jewish and Israel interests in this country with courage and grace. These are not civil servants. These are heroes in Israel.
There is no commercial Kosher restaurant in Dublin. There is one store in which displays kosher products year round for the community in Dublin. Go there at holiday time and you are bound to meet many of the people you know. No doubt may people order goods from England, but this is the place for your everyday needs. Until recently there was one official Kosher bakery. The Jewish day school, the Jewish Old Age Home are now government institutions with Jews in the minority. The Jewish Golf club has a minority of Jews. The Maccabi sports club is no more. There are Jewish lawyers, doctors, dentists, artists, but one has to be in the know to connect with them.
Our community, as always, carries on most of its Jewish community activity in Jewish homes, within that complex network of personal relationships. If one is not plugged in, one is truly isolated. There are hundreds of Israelis out there who, being mainly secular, are only tangentially connected with the community. The few contact points for newcomers are the synagogues and the community rabbi.
Being Jewish in Ireland seems much different to me than being so i n North America. As we are so few, I feel a more personal responsibility to show up. If I don’t do it, who will? In Canada I allowed myself the luxury of leaving the ordinary to others, in the same way that being a Jew in Israel seemed to me to be so liberating. There, even though I know I will have some negotiating to do with my Maker, I permit myself liberties. Here in Ireland I am one with those faithful who will rise early on a cold rainy morning, or, rush from a comfortable afternoon seat in our cosy Irish hideaway, to join those hardy few at the synagogue ensuring we have ten at a minyan. I make myself permanently available for any assembly of Irish youth at the Irish Jewish Museum to tell the story of the Jewish people in Ireland and from antiquity. If not myself, then who?
We do have weddings and bnai/bat mitzvah. We do have new Jewish babies born. But the funerals far outnumber these joyous occasions. We need courage and renewed resolve as we look forward into the future.
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