The ‘wee people’ wear yarmulkes

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By Judi Siegal

Top of the mornin’ to ye! Sure and ‘tis the season for the wearing o’ the green and the sportin’ of the shamrock, and I have it on good authority from the wee folk themselves, that many Irish will be enjoying a cup of brew and maybe a green bagel or two.

Green bagel? Now, that has to be an oxymoron. If there are green bagels, there must be Irish Jews – and indeed, there are.

I love the story that compares the Irish to the Jewish people. Both have been wanderers, both have assimilated and have risen into important positions from humble beginnings and both have spread throughout the world.

There is also a legend that says the Irish are one of the lost tribes of Israel and that the prophet Jeremiah deposited the Ark of the Covenant on a mound in County Meath. In addition, the word Torah (Five Books of Moses) has been corrupted into the word Tara, which is the name for the area. And the term diaspora, which means the spread and exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel, is also referred to the Irish as well.

The first record of Jewish settlement dates back to the year 1079 when five Jews arrived on the Emerald Isle with gifts for Tairdelbach (grandson of Brian Boru, famous king of Ireland) and were sent back over the sea. The earliest synagogue was established in Dublin in 1660 but eventually the doors closed because the numbers dwindled, this occurring many times throughout the centuries due to assimilation, intermarriage, emigration or conversion.

The population never amounted to more than a few hundred until the late 1880s ,when immigrants from Russia fleeing persecution came to Ireland. German Jews and those from Eastern Europe closely followed them. In all, about 2,000 arrived mostly to Dublin between 1880 and 1910.

In 1892, a synagogue with an attached school opened in Dublin. The Jewish population reached its peak in the 1940s when it was about 5,500. Today the population is only 1,800, for many of the Jews have moved to Israel or England.

As with all minorities, assimilation and intermarriage have taken its toll and the population is in danger of disappearing in a generation or two. Though Jews have been welcomed to Ireland and have flourished, the numbers have never been big enough to sustain a large community.

However, in spite of their small numbers, the Jews of Ireland have contributed to Erin and have had a great influence on the country. The former president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, was born in Ireland, Robert Briscoe was a Lord Mayor of Dublin and there are currently three Jewish members of parliament. James Joyce’s famous novel Ulysses had a protagonist named Leopold Bloom and thus one of Ireland’s most famous Jews is entirely fictitious.

During the time of the Great Famine, it was the Jewish financier Baron Lionel de Hirsh who contributed 1,000 pounds toward famine relief, bested only by Queen Victoria who gave 2,000. When the relief effort found its way to America, American Jews gave freely to help the starving Irish.

So, as the day of Irish pride approaches, let us all be Irish for a day, appreciating our own heritages and honoring a people who forever want to be free. Erin Go Braugh – and while we toast the Emerald Isle, remember the Jews of this island nation will be doing the same with their own special variety, He-brew!

Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil.