St. Patrick’s Purim Shpiel
My introduction to Jewish Dublin could not have gone better had I scripted it myself. An impish man, waves of red-orange hair bedding a black skullcap, greeted me at the door with a hearty, “A good shabbos to ya!” This Hebrew leprechaun, Seamus FitzCohen (not his real name, but it should have been) was the first to welcome me into the twilight world of the Celtic Jew.
Inside the Adelaide Road synagogue, a handful of old men prayed among a multitude of ghosts. The living would soon become my good friends, and over the coming months pointed out to me, with words and fingers, the tracks of memory and departing spirits. There, that’s where the sweet-singing cantor once stood. Diabetes was his ruin, brought on by the quarts of honey he used to pour down his throat, to maintain his mellifluous voice. And over there, on that podium, there was a boy, now a middle-aged man who plays Leopold Bloom every June 16th, who stood there one Purim and took the piss out of the “synagogue fathers” in their tall, black top-hats. Plaques of fading gold adorned the seatbacks, memorials to former occupants. Empty chairs far outnumbered warm ones. The murmur of the living was an undertone, barely disturbing the silence of the dead.
For a livelier synagogue you had to drive out to the suburbs. The Adelaide Road shul was the last remaining Jewish house of worship in the vicinity of Dublin’s South Circular Road. The Irish answer to the Lower East Side, the South Circular, especially the Clanbrasil Street section, was once called “Little Jerusalem,” home to the few thousand Jewish immigrants who arrived in Dublin at the turn of the last century. But sure as sun follows rain, in Dublin as in every corner of he world they found themselves in, poor Jewish immigrants of the 20th century made money and moved out of the inner city, in this case to Terenure.
In contrast to the vaulted ceiling and Columbia pine of the elegant 19th century building on Adelaide Road, the Terenure synagogue was modern and angular, though the “synagogue fathers” still sat beside the bimah in their top hats, and the women, in their peacock hats, still clucked and gossiped in the gallery. Though in Terenure too the mark of attrition was evident — Dublin’s Jewish population has shrunk from 5,000 to 1,000 over the past few decades, and is still declining — the service was boisterous and familiar. After a shabbos morning there, I could forget that I was not among my own American Jews, and, reeling from a trenchant belt of good whiskey taken at kiddish, I was often shocked to emerge onto the gray streets of the city, see the diesel-belching double-decker buses and the Irish faces, and remember that I was a stranger in a strange land.
I spent a year in Ireland, studying for a Masters in Anglo-Irish literature, at Trinity College Dublin. The only Irish Jew I knew before my arrival was the aforementioned Bloom from the pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In fact, I named my first Irish bicycle “Leopold” in his honor. Leopold was stolen in front of the Adelaide Road shul, a pair of pliers having sliced, like the proverbial warm knife through butter, through the three quid’s worth of chain with which I had bound him to a telephone pole. My next bike, I named “Menachem-Mendel” after another profligate wanderer, the title character of the Yiddish writer Sholom-Aleichem’s epistolary novel, a Jewish luftmensch (a man of the air) traveling through Europe as much for adventure as for the more expected reason, survival. That bike was stolen in a higher-class location: right off the bike-rack in front of the Shelbourne hotel, on the northeast corner of St. Stephen’s Green. Menachem’s replacement was a one-speed clunker, bought for a song from a used-bike man on Lower George’s Street, who assured me “They won’t be lining up to steal this one.” I dubbed it, “Shvarts-Tunkel,” Yiddish for “Black Darkness, ” which was an apt description of both its color and of my mood at having to buy and name three bicycles in a year.
With each theft the city imposed on me, the name of my bicycle gained a degree of ethnic specificity, from Joyce’s Bloom, the Jew of a non-Jew’s pen, to Menachem-Mendel, a Jew penned by a Jew, to, finally, an obscure and inscrutable Yiddish phrase suggesting, to me at least, the dark recesses of an uncharted racial consciousness. Likewise, the jarring vision of myself as a study in blue and white, like the Star of David on the Israeli flag, thrust against the emerald background of the island, led me to a deeper identification with the remnant of my people living upon it.
I had several chances to witness, and even play, the role of “the Jew” in Irish Catholic consciousness. My fists still ring with the impulse of an unthrown punch when I recall the smug Jesuit, in a pub off Grafton Street, who, when he heard I was a Jew, asked if that meant I “liked to smash the heads of Palestinian babies.” I didn’t swing, not with my right, my left, nor with the fact that the image of Jew as villainous baby-killer predates the current political climate by about twenty centuries, and has its roots, not in reality, but in triumphalist Christian mythology. The other side of this coin was the earnest schoolteacher from Wexford, who one morning led his charges through the Irish-Jewish Museum, where I volunteered as a docent. The museum’s exhibits evoked the bustle of a world that was passing. Photographs, documents, tools of various trades — plenty of lessons here, but all the well-meaning teacher could find to say to his students was “Say a prayer before you go, boys. These are Jesus’ people.”
When not playing the role of “the Jew,” however, Jews have done alright in Ireland, and met with a tolerant, if not always warm, welcome. Three times a Jew has been elected Lord Mayor of Dublin, and twice it was Robert Briscoe. The third was his son Ben. An old IRA man, Bobby Briscoe’s smiling eyes used to look down at me from a black-and-white photograph on the wall of the Jewish Museum. In the picture, he is striding down a Dublin street, surrounded by a crush of well-wishers, the Lord Mayor’s sash draped across his upper body — the very likeness of an Irish politician. Crowds thronged to see him on his tour of American Jewish communities, remembered to this day by my grandparents in Milwaukee.
The adjacent photographs, taken at a banquet of “The Loyal Hebrew Sons of Erin,” reinforced the oddity of a thoroughly Irish Jew. A sinister looking woman, her height extended by the foot-long beehive atop her head, wheels in a tray of highballs, while two men wearing blarney-smiles shake hands above an oversized green bagel. Their motto, blunt and to the point, hangs on a banner overhead: “Erin Go Braugh — Shalom.”
Like Mr. Bloom, the modern-day Odysseus, I crisscrossed the city, the tires of my many bicycles measuring the distance between Jewish outposts. A friend who ran a glorified loanshop near the Bank of Ireland sent me north, over the Liffey, to meet a “fellow traveler,” a prominent painter and art dealer, the friend of a half-Jewish sculptor I’d met at a cocktail party, who told me about his uncle, a resident in the Jewish old age home down south in Rathmines. After that I went to the home every week, to lead a Yiddish reading group, and the administrator took me to his house for shabbos dinner, where his son, who sold books in a shop across from Trinity College, offered to get me high. Back at Trinity, I ran into the son of the South African cantor, and his German-Jewish wife, with whom I often ate shabbos lunch, and at whose house I had met a young Israeli couple, who were attached to the security detail of the Israeli embassy in Ballsbridge, which was nearby the office of the Jewish dentist, who pulled out my wisdom teeth for free. After the operation, he impounded my bike, and sent me home by bus. I bumped into the fastidious Trinity College librarian, who organized a club for Hebrew speakers at the west-suburban home of an Israeli woman, herself married to an Irishman she met when he was serving in the UN peacekeeping force on the green-line with Lebanon. The librarian told me he would see me on Sunday, when we worked together on Walworth Road, just below the South Circular, at the Jewish Museum.
There was always good craic — Gaelic for spirit, conviviality, conversation — at the Jewish Museum, even though hours could pass between visitors. One morning I sat with my friend Joe, admiring the shape of a woman’s legs, as a shaft of sunlight pouring through the half-opened door illuminated the diaphanous material of her skirt.
“Something about a see-through dress,” Joe sighed.
He was the 85 year-old son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, and he spoke a sweet Limerick brogue that could warm the heart of a born Irishman. Also there that day was Padraic, who was a born Irishman, converted to Judaism, who cherished the tradition with a gentle fervor I have rarely seen equaled in born Jews. Together with the two brothers who ran the museum, we debated the issues of the day, and the stories of the Bible as if they were the issues of the day.
Then someone mentioned that a non-Jewish professor at University College Cork had just written a landmark study called Jews in 20th Century Ireland. My friends marveled at the interest shown by a non-Jew in their little community, till one of them capped the conversation with a bemused shake of his head.
“They’re a very curious people, the goyim,” he said, and there was no word spoken about what the American was doing among them.
Benjamin Weiner is a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. He writes frequently about Jewish literature and culture for The Forward and Pakn Treger.