A heart in Jerusalem, a head in Crumlin

 

CULTURE SHOCK:IT WOULD HAVE been a great comfort in the years of my youth had I known that Leopold Bloom was buried in my back garden. I grew up on Aughavannagh Road in a then Dublin Corporation housing estate of Crumlin. Our back wall was the wall of the Dolphin’s Barn Jewish cemetery. It was not until I read Dermot Keogh’s Jews in 20th-Century Irelandthat I discovered that the bones of perhaps the most famous literary character of the modernist movement lay somewhere between us and the cemetery, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

Asher Benson, one of the repositories of the memories of Dublin’s Jewish community met, in the Bleeding Horse pub on Camden Street, a man called “Sniffer Cohen”. Cohen told him that, in 1942, he had been called to Bloom’s deathbed. Bloom – the son of a Hungarian Jew who had converted to Catholicism – said “Promise me to bury me in the Jewish cemetery in Dolphin’s Barn.” He then swallowed a jug of porter, and died cursing James Joyce, with whom he swore to settle accounts in hell.

Since Bloom was not properly Jewish, however, he was refused burial in the cemetery. Sniffer and his pals took the body in a wheelbarrow to Aughavannagh Road, which was then under construction. They managed to dig enough of a hole under the cemetery wall to get Bloom’s head inside the holy ground, with the rest of his body in the undergrowth of a back garden. Given the somewhat flexible nature of the relationship between fact and fiction in this well-attested story, I have decided that this is first-hand contemporary evidence that the house where I grew up and where my parents still live does contain on its grounds the last resting place of Leopold Bloom. It will, in future years, become a Mecca for Joycean tourism.

All of this is by way of preamble to a marking of the death of the editor, writer and literary entrepreneur David Marcus. The Bloom story, with the mordant anti-heroic mockery that unites Irish and Jewish humour, is in its own way a kind of parable. It gets at the rich doubleness of the immigrant relationship to an indigenous culture. It hovers between the unreal and the real, just as immigrant cultures, with their actual and imagined homelands, tend to do. And, in the image of a Bloom buried partly on Jewish soil and partly in the mundane world of council-house Dublin (Sniffer claimed that the makeshift grave was marked with the words “His head was Jewish even if the rest of him wasn’t”), it captures the ambiguities of the immigrant identity.

David Marcus’s passing reminds us of the extraordinary and disproportionately significant contribution to 20th-century Irish culture of the small Jewish community from which he sprang. That community, largely concentrated in Dublin, Cork and Belfast, was never much more than 4,000 strong. Much of it, moreover, had its origins in a single shtetl in Lithuania. I remember, in the cemetery across the wall, tombstones with rubrics such as “a good woman of Akmijan” – the village from which the core of the Irish-Jewish settlement originated. David Marcus’s mother’s father, Louis Goldberg, was one of those who fled from the Russian pogroms in Akmijan. He was met at Cobh by Isaac Marcus.

The Marcus and Goldberg families alone gave us David, the single most important literary editor in Ireland in the second half of the 20th century; the distinguished film-maker Louis Marcus; and the intellectual and politician Gerald Goldberg. Even leaving aside the broader influence of the Jewish community in the medical and legal professions, the artistic legacy is remarkable. It includes the painters Estella Solomons, Stella Steyn and Harry Kernoff; the gallery owners Gerald Davis and Victor Waddington; the co-creator of the Pike Theatre, Carolyn Swift; Isaac Eppel, whose Irish Destinyis a pioneering work of post-Independence Irish cinema; the influential piano teacher Dina Copeman; and the critic Abraham Jacob Leventhal, whose importance to Samuel Beckett’s emergence is obvious from the recent edition of Beckett’s early letters.

This contribution to Irish intellectual life is not by any means finished, and it continues in the work of, for example, the film-maker Louis Lentin and the playwright Gavin Kostick. But the passing of David Marcus does remind us that the Jewish community in Ireland is in decline and that the riches it has created can no longer be taken for granted. And this in turn makes it appropriate to ask what the experience of this remarkable enrichment of Irish culture by a Diaspora community has to tell us for the future.

Much of what it suggests is obvious but needs to be repeated. The first point is that paranoia about an indigenous culture being somehow adulterated or weakened by immigration has no relationship to reality. Like the Irish communities around the world, the Jewish community in Ireland significantly strengthened the indigenous culture, both directly through the work of its own members and indirectly through its influence on indigenous artists (both Joyce and Beckett, for example.) The second lesson is that crude notions of “assimilation” are wrong-headed for many reasons, one of them cultural. Why do immigrant communities make a disproportionately large cultural contribution? Because they are complicated. Simple assimilation seeks to flatten out complexities, to absorb all differences into an assumed norm (which is usually itself a fiction). This is the opposite of art, which lives in ambiguities and uncertainties and enriches the world by hovering between different realities. Immigrant communities need to be integrated (and the integration of Jews into Irish artistic, political, professional and intellectual life is a fine example to follow) but they should not be expected to cease to have another life of memories and meanings. It is possible to be a good woman of Akmijan as well as a good Dubliner, or, like the folkloric Bloom, to have one’s head in Jerusalem and one’s heart in a back garden in Crumlin. It is only by allowing our immigrant communities to be complicated that we can enjoy the imaginative fruits of their ambivalence.