Elegy for a disappearing community

 

For the first time since the 1920s, there will be no Jewish TD present when the Dáil meets on Thursday. It's a sign of the times. But recollections of a once exuberant community in Dublin's 'Little Jerusalem' will live on in a newly published memoir, writes Katrina Goldstone.

When Nick Harris was growing up in Dublin's south inner city in the 1920s, in a district known as Little Jerusalem, if people wanted news and the latest scandal in the Jewish community, the myriad shops that lined Clanbrassil Street were the first port of call. As Harris affectionately recalls in his recently published memoir, Dublin's Little Jerusalem, every aspect of Jewish life took place within a radius of less than a mile in the warren of streets off the South Circular Road.

Jews have been in Ireland many hundreds of years; some records date back to the 11th century. The annual report of the Church of Ireland Jews' Society in 1823 recorded 13 Jewish families in Dublin and stated: "Perhaps it is little known but, even in this city, there is a synagogue of Jews, who assemble in the private house of an individual."

However, it was not until the 1880s that a real growth in numbers occurred, when persecutions in the Russian empire resulted in a mass exodus from there.

The population of Jews in Ireland increased dramatically in the early years of the 20th century, rising from a paltry few hundred to more than 1,000 in the space of 20 years. Among the newcomers were Israel Bernard and Edith Chachanoff from a small Lithuanian town called Dobny Myser Mokilve - they were the parents of Nick Harris.

In the introduction to his book, Harris (87) states clearly his motivation for setting down his story. Recalling his idyllic childhood, there was, nonetheless, one thing missing: the stories of other relatives' and his own parents' lives before they came to Ireland.

"My parents never spoke about their life in Russia when they were young," he says. "They never mentioned their own parents and I never knew any of my aunts and uncles, except for my father's brother, who went to America. I wish I had known more about them. I hope that my daughter and granddaughters will not be saying the same thing about me in years to come. This is why I set out to share some of the memories of the family into which I was born in 1915 and over 86 years of my life in the Jewish community."

While there has been a resurgence of interest in the history of Jews in Ireland in the last number of years, sparked by Prof Dermot Keogh's book, Jews in Twentieth-Century Ireland and Louis Lentin's TV documentary, No More Blooms, Harris's is an account from the frontline. He was there, both as an eye-witness and as a participant in the chequered yet exuberant history of an immigrant group striving to establish itself. And Harris is an inveterate storyteller.

Yet the book might not have materialised had it not been for the encouragement of Harris's friend and neighbour, Joe Briscoe, to whom he recounted many of the tales in the book. Briscoe, who is a son of the late TD and lord mayor, Robert Briscoe, sees Harris's memoir as an important document of social history.

"The thriving Irish Jewish Community of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s has, for the most part, disappeared," he says. "Despite a wealth of memorabilia in the Irish Jewish Museum, there is very little written material dealing with the day-to-day affairs of the Dublin community and with the many individuals who arrived here with nothing other than a yearning to leave the bitter past behind them and start a new life in a free society. How they succeeded from the most humble beginnings. The way they lived. The social scene. The many characters who abounded.

"Now that the Jewish community has shrunk to a microcosm of its former self, many people, mainly non-Jewish, want to know more about this exotic group who lived amongst them for so long.I know that, for many people, there was a feeling of sadness that no one had chronicled the lives and lifestyle of this unique group that was now disappearing. It was because of these facts that I pushed, persuaded and cajoled Nick into putting his memories on to paper."

As well as being an affectionate portrait of a vibrant and rich communal life, Harris's book is a reminder of the vastly disproportionate contribution Jews made to Irish national life. While most people have heard of the Briscoes, the Solomons family, Rabbi Herzog and Judge Herman Good, Harris reminds us that in business and other walks of life, Jewish people were active and a force for good. His account of the Elliman family's extraordinary role in promoting Irish theatre and cinema would surely have been forgotten otherwise.

What gets remembered and what gets forgotten is part of how a nation constructs itself, or chooses to view itself. On the one hand, we have a proliferation of historicism and the ennobling of one version of the past that has certainly excluded many stories. Harris's story is just as relevant for the history of Dublin as the Viking tours. He reminds us all of how an immigrant community was established, often through hardship and struggle, and that the streets of Dublin once boasted characters as rich and complex as any in Saul Bellow's fictional Chicago or Bashevis Singer's New York.

Harris's evocative memory of the formidable Beila Erlich, who ran a kosher butcher's shop for 40 years, is of a woman who could have stepped straight out of the pages of a Singer short story.

"How did they do it?" muses Harris. "Without knowing a word of English and with practically no help."

Nowadays, instead of observant Jews hurrying to Friday evening service, the South Circular Road has its mosque and its halal butchers. This very much echoes the "ethnic layering" of London's Whitechapel, which has seen successive waves of immigrants, from the 17th-century Huguenots to Jews and Bangladeshis in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The haemorrhage of Jewish people away from Clanbrassil Street began in the 1940s with increased affluence leading families to move to the Dublin suburbs of Terenure or Rathmines. Later generations went much further and emigrated from Ireland.

While the closure in May 2000 of the wonderful baroque synagogue in Adelaide Road and the loss of the last kosher butcher's shop has fostered a sense of elegy and loss, Harris's book strives not to be an obituary, though a number of friends have confessed that his reminiscences brought tears at the memory of a bygone era. According to Dr Ronit Lentin of Trinity College, Irish-Jewish emigrants talk of constructing an imaginary Ireland (rather than, say, Israel or Lithuania, whence most of their ancestors hailed) in their countries of exile.

"They exist," says Lentin, "in a double diaspora, dreaming of an Ireland away from Ireland. In New York, for instance, the 'Loyal Yiddish sons of Erin' used to celebrate St Patrick's Day with green matzo balls."

But there is the more painful side of exile too, Lentin adds. "Young Irish-Jewish emigrants, while often seeking employment, or a partner, speak of being groomed from a very young age to emigrate from Ireland and seek a more satisfactory Jewish life abroad. The emigration of these well-educated young people is the real cost of anti-Semitism in Ireland."

Nonetheless, what is happening here seems to be a starker version of a Europe-wide trend, although this is fiercely contested by some Jewish groups.

Intense debate rages in Jewish communities about continuity. According to the controversial thesis by Bernard Wasserstein, European Jewry is a remnant of a vanishing diaspora.

Yet Wasserstein's critics hit back at his gloomy forecast and cite Berlin and eastern Europe as evidence of a new flowering of Judaism.

The Irish-Jewish community website encourages new blood in the community here, and gives "a few good reasons to move to Ireland", which include "the economy, a great way of life and a brilliant Jewish support network".

In the 1860s, there were not enough adult Jewish males in Ireland to constitute a minyan (the minimum of 10 required for services). Twenty years later came the exodus from Russia and the arrival of the ancestors of many Jews living here today. It remains to be seen if such a renaissance is possible here in the 21st century.

­­° Dublin's Little Jerusalem by Nick Harris is published by A&A Farmar at €12.50. Website: www.irishjewishcommunity.com

Jewish life then and now

Then

°In the 1930s there were up to 27 Jewish grocery, bakery and general stores on Clanbrassil Street. There were eight kosher butcher shops in Dublin up to the 1950s

°In Dublin, there were more than a dozen synagogues dotted around South Circular Road and a large synagogue at Adelaide Road

°Jewish population in the Republic in the 1940s was nearly 6,000

°Jewish TDs over the years: Robert Briscoe (1927-1965), who also served as Lord Mayor of Dublin; his son, Ben (1965-2002); Mervyn Taylor (1981-1997); Alan Shatter (1981-2002).

Now

°Kosher food is available from Supervalu, Churchtown, with 48 hours notice required. Also, a small selection of goods from Big Cheese in Andrews Lane;

°There are two main synagogues in Dublin There is also one synagogue in Belfast and another in Cork;

°Jewish population in the Republic is estimated to be approximately 1,000;

After last month's election, there will be no Jewish TDs in the new Dáil.