St. Patrick's Day

Irish Jews face uncertain future (as usual)

A community that produced a beloved Israeli president confronts dwindling numbers, but also a rich and largely peaceful history

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Ireland's Jewish community is confronting troubling demographic trends, but its demise has been predicted before. (Vimeo screenshot)
Ireland's Jewish community is confronting troubling demographic trends, but its demise has been predicted before. (Vimeo screenshot)

There’s likely not a single Jew ever to live in Ireland, however briefly, who’s unknown to Stuart Rosenblatt. The 69-year-old genealogist, a lifelong Dubliner, has toiled for the past decade and a half to single-handedly document Jewish family histories in the Emerald Isle dating as far back as 1748.

It’s a Herculean effort to preserve the genealogy of the country’s small but unique Jewish community — one that has succumbed in recent decades, perhaps fatally, to the tradition of Irish emigration, as well as to assimilation. Today, the Irish Jewish Diaspora is far larger than the remaining Jewish community, which numbers between 500 and 2,000, depending on who’s being counted and who’s doing the counting. Almost all live in Dublin.

The Annals of Innisfallen, a chronicle of Ireland’s medieval history written by monks, reveals the island had Jewish residents as far back as 1079. An on-and-off presence in the 1,000 years since, they formed a sizable community only in the late 19th century, drawing on newcomers escaping the Pale of Settlement — mostly from Lithuania — and settling primarily in the capital, but also in Belfast, Cork and Limerick. The Limerick community dissipated after the so-called Limerick Pogrom in 1904, essentially an anti-Jewish economic boycott rather than a physical attack. It was the only blatant, organized anti-Semitic incident in modern Irish history.

“I have records relating to 49,000 different individuals,” Rosenblatt told The Times of Israel from his home in Dublin. “But I’m still missing 1,500 pieces of information that I need to complete the Irish Jewish Family History Database.”

Stuart Rosenblatt continues to add to his comprehensive genealogy of Ireland's 1,000-year-old Jewish community. (Courtesy of Stuart Rosenblatt)
Stuart Rosenblatt continues to add to his comprehensive genealogy of Ireland’s 1,000-year-old Jewish community. (Courtesy of Stuart Rosenblatt)

While still incomplete, the database — a record of life-cycle events and other information — already has enough data to fill 17 large volumes, much of it discovered in hidden or unlikely places. Only six copies of the bound set exist, most deposited with the Geneological Society of Ireland, the National Library and the National Archives.

In his foreword wrote to “The YIDiot’s Guide to Irish Jewish Ancestry,” a paperback companion guidebook, Michael Merrigan, general secretary of the Genealogical Society, called Rosenblatt’s opus a “monumental contribution to both Irish and Jewish heritage studies.”

“He has amassed such records of his community that place his work, in international terms, as almost unique,” Merrigan noted.

Rosenblatt, who operates a check-cashing business when he isn’t combing through family trees, receives inquiries and offers of information daily from people around the world who visit Curiously, he reports he has found far less enthusiasm from local Jews.

“I’ve received no support and no financial help,” he said.

The founder and sole member of the Irish Jewish Genealogical Society, Rosenblatt jokes that “no one other than me is meshuga [crazy] enough to spend this kind of time. I do this eight days a week.”

The massive amount of data he’s collected reflects both the unique lives of individuals and commonalities among members of the tight-knit community, which reached its apex in the 1950s, when it numbered approximately 5,500.

After that, young Jews started emigrating for economic, educational and social reasons. “[Dublin] was a good place to be,” said Allan Freedman, who in 1953 moved to California to pursue a master’s degree in engineering, and has lived in Toronto for decades.

Davida Noyek Handler, who left in 1959 to marry an American from Iowa, measures the community’s decline by a telling gauge: the availability of kosher meat.

“There used to be 11 kosher butcher shops in Dublin,” noted Handler, who now lives in Las Vegas. “Now they ship kosher meat in from England.”

Among Jewish immigrants to the Emerald Isle, not all settled there on purpose: Some disembarked from ships prematurely, believing they had reached America, while others were tricked by unscrupulous captains. Virtually all arrived poor, and some remained relatively so. But for the most part, Irish Jews, like their brethren in other countries, ascended to the middle class over a couple of generations of hard work and education.

Some families, like the Briscoes and Herzogs, rose to great prominence. Robert Briscoe, who was active in the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin during the long war with Britain, served for 38 years in the Dáil (the Irish Parliament), and also became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin.  His son, Ben Briscoe, has also been a politician and Lord Mayor.

Dublin's Greenville Hall Synagogue, shown in 1959, was sold in the '70s and no longer serves the Jewish community. (Courtesy of Davida Handler)
Dublin’s Greenville Hall Synagogue, shown in 1959, was sold in the ’70s and no longer serves the Jewish community. (Courtesy of Davida Handler)

Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president, was born in Belfast in 1918. His father, Isaac Herzog, served as Dublin’s chief rabbi, and later became the first chief rabbi of the entire country. Known as the “Sinn Féin Rabbi,” he counseled leaders of the newly formed Irish Free State in the 1920s and 1930s. From 1937 until his death in 1959, was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine and Israel.

While many Irish Jews immigrated to Israel, others headed elsewhere, mainly to English-speaking countries. In 1961, Anne Lapedus Brest, a relative of the Briscoes, moved to South Africa with her family. She was only 15, and now, 52 years later, still speaks with an Irish accent.

“You can take me out of the auld sod, but you can’t take the auld sod out of me,” she told The Times of Israel from Johannesburg.

More than most, Brest keeps track of her counterparts across the globe, having in 1999 started the Jewish Irish Group, or JIG, on Yahoo. Before long, the organization had 100 members, and today the group, now called Shalom Ireland, is 500 strong.

“We’re all mainly in our 50s to 70s, and we are forever going down memory lane, talking about the South Circular Road,” she said, referring to the old Jewish neighborhood in Dublin known as “Little Jerusalem.”

At the moment, there’s a lot of chatter about the Gathering, an Irish-Jewish reunion planned for July as part of a larger effort to bring friends and family back to Ireland in 2013. (There are also updates on births, marriages and deaths — or the “hatched, matched and dispatched,” in Brest’s words.)

Brest borrowed her Yahoo group’s new name from a 2003 documentary by Valerie Lapin Ganley, a Jewish woman from Pacifica, Calif., who discovered after marrying a non-Jewish Irish-American that she herself had Irish roots. The film, which still plays at festivals, “tells the untold story of how Irish Jews participated in the creation of both Israel and Ireland.”

The documentary includes amazing archival footage, especially from the Irish War of Independence between 1919 and 1922.

Yvonne Boxerman of Palo Alto, Calif., who left Ireland for Canada at 11, recalled for The Times of Israel a family story about her great-uncle Jacob Morris’ effort to get home from his Belfast cabinetry shop in time for Shabbat. Protestant and Catholic snipers were shooting at one another from either side of the street. When Morris dared to step outside his shop, someone yelled, “Hold your fire! Jew approaches!”

In Ireland, Boxerman explained, you were either a “Catholic Jew” or a “Protestant Jew.” Her Belfastian grandmother, a true Anglophile, looked like and emulated the Queen Mother, while her mother’s Zionist family in Dublin was sympathetic to the Irish Republican cause. “But there was no tension in the Jewish community over this split. The community was very tight,” she said.

Boxerman’s younger cousin, Michal Morris Kamil, recalled her late father, Ya’akov Morris (born Jack Morley Morris), as saying that his Irish peers didn’t understand his Zionist identity. Her father channeled his Irish nationalism and experiences with anti-Semitism into fervent Zionism. “He became a young boxer in order to defend himself. He was caught between Catholics and Protestants,” she said.

Morris, who arrived in pre-state Israel in 1947 after helping to smuggle Holocaust refugees there, joined Israel’s Foreign Ministry in the 1950s. He would go on to represent the country in the US, New Zealand, England, Sweden and India.

“There were three or four other Irish Jews in his cohort at the Foreign Ministry,” his daughter recalled. “Having been brought up with a love for Irish literature, they were good writers and speakers. They definitely had the gift of the gab.”

Chaim Herzog, Israel's sixth president, was born and raised in Dublin. (Photo credit:  Ilan Arbel via Wikipedia)
Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president, was born and raised in Dublin. (Photo credit: Ilan Arbel via Wikipedia)

Even as an Israeli diplomat, Morris held firmly to his Irish identity, and during three postings in New York, was always invited to march as a dignitary in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “There’s a real Irish-Jewish affinity in terms of socialist ideals and a desire to fight for the underdog,” Morris Kamil reflected.

Ganley, the filmmaker, reached a similar conclusion. “Jews really identified with the Irish struggle, the similar persecution based on religious and ethnic background,” she said.

Ganley ends her film with the de-consecration, a decade ago, of the Dublin Hebrew Congregation’s historic Adelaide Road Synagogue. The community had shrunk so much it could no longer maintain two traditional congregations.

No one knows whether it will continue to exist more than another generation.

“During the boom years 2005 to 2009, we actively sought Jews for immigration to Ireland, especially from South Africa,” said Carl Nelkin, a member of the Jewish Representative Counsel of Ireland. “During those times, while jobs were plentiful, a real estate boom made the cost of housing prohibitive.”

The crash of 2009 brought down the cost of living, making the country more affordable for Jewish employees of the multinational companies that arrived in the preceding years.

“This has resulted, among other things, in a substantial increase in the number of Jewish pupils in our Jewish school,” Nelkin said. “The problem is that these families will not stay in the longer term.”

Natalie Wynn, a lifelong Jewish Dubliner writing a doctoral dissertation on Irish Jewry, has no plans to leave.

“While things look pretty depressing at the moment due to emigration and assimilation, I would hope that the Irish community will find a way to consolidate and build some kind of a future for itself,” she said.  “The Jewish Chronicle archives show that, in the 1870s, observers considered the community to be on its last legs, little realizing that a large-scale immigration from Eastern Europe was just around the corner.  So you never know what may happen in the future.”

That future may look uncertain, but thanks to Rosenblatt, at least, the community’s past will never be forgotten.


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