Young Irish Blooms


`I belong here. My family has been here for over 100 years." David Woolfson (30) is speaking about his sense of Irishness. "I know I don't belong to a mainstream identity but there is another, different identity that is Irish too. Joyce wrote about it when he created Leopold Bloom, the Jewish hero of Ulysses." "We're Irish but even more so, we're Irish Jews," is how Judy Davis (28) puts it. Her husband Richard Baker (30) agrees: "We're traditional Jews, which means we celebrate the high holy days, and every Friday night we get together and acknowledge the Sabbath." Judy and Richard run their own business - Lime and Lemongrass, off Capel Street in Dublin - manufacturing dressings, sauces, herbs and spices.

David, Judy and Richard are part of the Jewish community in Dublin, now numbering about 1,000. Like many of their generation of Irish Jews, their grandparents came here from Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and they carry those exotic looks in their faces. Otherwise they chat away in tones and with gestures that are indistinguishable from countless other middle-class Dubliners of their age. "People sometimes think we're Italian, because of our looks and when they discover we're Jewish, they're intrigued. They want to find out more about Judaism," says Richard. "Irish people don't see Jews as a threat any more," adds Judy.

However the attitude of the Irish was not so positive when the first Jews came over as refugees, the Limerick pogrom of 1904 being an obvious example. David notes that members of his family who lived in Limerick moved to Waterford after the "aggravated agitation" against the Jews there which included boycotting their businesses. Only a handful of Jews lives in Limerick today. Judy thinks the xenophobia of the Irish was partly because the newly arrived immigrants tended to stick together in "ghettoes": "It's the most natural thing to do in a strange country when you first arrive," says Judy. Richard notes: "Irish people forget they did the exact same when they arrived in a new country."

The attitude of the Irish towards incoming Jewish refugees during the 1930s and 1940s was the subject of a recent TV documentary by Jewish film-maker, Louis Lentin, entitled No More Blooms, shown towards the end of last year on RTE. It showed how the number of Jews let into Ireland was not much more than a paltry four or five dozen. A proNazi government representative in Berlin - Charles Bewley - didn't help and the documentary highlighted how the government at home hid its anti-Semitism behind excuses about the country's poverty and unemployment (the double standard being particularly poignant given Ireland's willingness to take in Christian refugees, especially children, but not Jews). In fact, some of the Jews who were allowed in were responsible for creating employment.

The attitude of the Irish towards Jews was also highlighted recently during the debate about the Irish writer Francis Stuart who made pro-Nazi broadcasts from Berlin and who said recently on Channel 4 that "the Jew was always the worm that got into the rose and sickened it". The young Jews I meet prefer not to comment on Francis Stuart (except David Woolfson who wonders how a Nazi sympathiser could be awarded Aosdana's title of Saoi, which means "wise person"). They point out that the attitude of Irish people towards Jewish people during the 1930s and 1940s was not any worse than that of any other European country. However, Louis Lentin's daughter Alana (24) admits to feeling "very bitter" about that period in Irish history: "Ireland had a responsibility towards those asylum-seekers it did not fulfil and is still not fulfilling today." David Woolfson adds: "Whatever about the past, Ireland is a wealthy, maturing country now. We have no excuse not to welcome refugees. If we send them back, what will they encounter?"

A recent EU poll found that some 55 per cent of Irish people describe themselves as racist and one in two Irish people favoured automatic repatriation of illegal immigrants. "Irish people are getting het up about seeing people of colour on the street," says Alana Lentin. "It forces the Jewish community to re-examine its role. There is still this feeling that we are guests here ourselves, so we prefer to keep our heads down and say it's not our problem, even though our grandparents were once asylum-seekers in the very same situation." She was disappointed to find herself the only Jew at a recent conference on refugees entitled "Ireland of the Welcomes?" organised by MEP Bernie Malone in Dublin.

Another issue of concern is the dwindling number of Jews in Ireland. This is in spite of the networking and support which the community provides for its members. Earlier this century there were 3,000 Jews in Dublin and 500 in Cork. Now there are only 1,000 in Dublin and 30 in Cork (there are about 500 in Belfast). "All my friends have left," says Alana, who is based in Strasbourg. "The motivation to stay is just not there. The Celtic Tiger is less important to us than a thriving community." She notes that when she was growing up, there were youth groups organising activities and weekends away but not today. Recent attempts to revive a Jewish newspaper ended in failure.

"Ireland is so monocultural, it's not very exciting for us," she adds. "It's not that people are automatically malicious towards minorities, they just have a lack of understanding. The centrality of Catholicism is still very powerful even if the majority of people aren't practising." Jewish emigration from Ireland began about 20 or 30 years ago, says Alex Goldberg (23). Alex is the grandson of solicitor Gerald Goldberg, the former Lord Mayor of Cork. Alex's father, Theodore, moved to England to find work. Although Alex was born in England and now works in London for the European Council of Jewish Communities, he has a strong affinity with Cork and holds an Irish passport: "I identify more with the Irish. My family were proud Irish nationalists. My grandfather's older brothers and sisters helped out in the Irish struggle for independence and later they went to help in the Jewish struggle for independence in what was then British Palestine."

He is proud to belong "to the two largest diasporas in the world - the Irish and the Jewish. Wherever I go in the UK or the US, there is a Jewish and an Irish community. They both have suffering behind them: for the Jews it is the Shoah (Holocaust); for the Irish, the Famine. They have a sense of humour which they use to cope with minority situations in the same introspective, self-deprecatory way." Irish Jews often find themselves forced to join the diaspora because they want a Jewish partner. Alana Lentin explains: "The community is so small in Ireland, we've known each other all our lives. It would be like marrying your brother." Marriages between Irish Jews are rare but still do take place, such as the match between Judy Davis and Richard Baker last year: "Our parents were thrilled," says Richard. "It is not looked on favourably to marry out and that's the same in any ethnic minority." Judy adds: "Although I was not under as much pressure from my family to marry a Jew as Richard was, I think I'm extremely lucky to have fallen in love with Richard because I want to bring up my children and educate them Jewish."

It is not an easy prospect for David Woolfson who is about to start an MA in Jewish studies at TCD but describes himself as "secular". "Marrying in can create a conflict between the two great things in a person's life: the ideal of love versus the ideal of one's family and the tradition of Judaism," he says. "But whoever I marry, I would hope to give my children the benefit of the best and most comprehensive education, part of which would be to offer them my experience of the Jewish tradition. "I'm not saying it's going to be Fiddler On The Roof. There is a huge spectrum of Jewishness and I particularly relish the quirky, distinctive way the Irish Jewish community has evolved."

He concludes with an anecdote from his youth: "I remember a jamboree in Kilkenny when thousands of scout troops from all over the world came and presented something that reflected their sense of identity. Our troop did an open day of Jewish food. People were expecting rope bridges and commando courses but we offered them gefilte fish, chopped herring and progins. It was hilarious and wonderful."