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Jewish Community in Ireland

Why did Lithuanian Jews come to Ireland when the Irish were going to America?

I am old enough to remember Danker’s antique shop on Clanbrassil Street as I often cycled from my home in Clontarf to my grandparent’s house in Kimmage. I had little reason to stray into the streets behind it, which along with the South Circular Road and environs formed the hub of Dublin’s Jewish community of which Danker’s was a part. As I passed through Harold’s Cross and Terenure, I was unknowingly tracing the migration of those Jews to leafier suburbs as they prospered and gentrified. I had heard of the Briscoes and of course Leopold Bloom (who ‘lived’ in Number 52 Clanbrassil Street) but knew little else of the Jews of Dublin. Where did they come from?

The number of Jews in Ireland historically was very small indeed: Some traces of Sephardic Jews after their 15th century expulsion from Spain and Portugal, Jews from Holland and of course a number of Anglo-Jews. Portuguese Jews established the first Synagogue in Dublin in 1660. Taken together, Jews in Ireland up to the mid-19th century never comprised more than a few hundred. It was only in the 1880s that the Jewish population in Ireland suddenly began to grow, hitting four digits and eventually about 5,000 by the 1930s on the island as a whole.

The following traces the background to Jewish emigration to Ireland and draws some comparisons and contrasts with Irish emigration in the same period. It is based mainly on Ó Cormac Gráda’s scholarly and charming Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce (Princeton, 2006), a typical little masterpiece of his work that combines hard data, eloquence and the human dimension. I have also drawn on Chaim Herzog’s biography Living History (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997) and Kirby Miller’s Emigrants and Exiles, Ireland and the Exodus to North America (Oxford, 1985). See also Dermot Keogh’s Jews in Twentieth Century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and Holocaust Education Trust Ireland here www.hetireland.org.

The influx of Jews – at least an ‘influx’ comparative to the earlier Jewish presence – came mainly from one area in what is today Northern Lithuania. They were therefore Litvaks as Jews from Lithuania were called. In fact the shtetls in Kovno province from which they came were all within 50km of each other. They began arriving in Ireland in the 1870S but only in numbers in the 1880s. They came mainly to Dublin (by design), Cork (reputedly by accident) and Belfast (because of its industrialization). But Dublin remained the preferred option, for the Jewish population declined in Cork subsequently and the numbers in Belfast never exceeded those in Dublin despite the disparity in economic opportunity.

Why did they leave Lithuania? With Ó Gráda’s trademark parsing of the evidence, it is clear that the stories of pogroms and oppression mythologized the decision to emigrate. The primary motivation was economic, with diminishing opportunities acting as the push and prosperity further west, particularly in America, acting as the pull.

This is not to completely discount persecution as the spark for emigration. The pogroms in Russia and the Great Famine in Ireland certainly generated an immediate wave of respectively Jewish and Irish emigration. However, the soaring levels of European migration and emigration in the following decades pointed to much more powerful economic forces at work. In Ireland’s case, the reshaping of farm ownership brought about by the Famine – single holdings only inheritable by one son – and the failure to create an urbanized industrialized economy (outside of Belfast) meant that only emigration offered prospects of economic betterment.

In the creation of this lore of persecution the Lithuanian Jews had something in common with the Irish. For the Irish emigrants too mythologized themselves as exiles from British oppression rather than being mere economic migrants. In another parallel only a fraction, less than 1%, of either group ever returned home.

In contrast, where the Jews did not lament the homeland left behind, the Irish did and created a canon of songs lamenting their plight and longing for the old country. (The often painful and lonely adjustment psychologically and culturally of the Irish to America is too often unacknowledged in Ireland; but it was in this adjustment that Irish America took shape and defined itself; see Kirby Millar’s Emigrants and Exiles.)

So the Jews like the Irish emigrated for primarily economic reasons, though Jews tended to be married on departure where the vast majority of the Irish were single. In Lithuania (at the time part of Tsarist Russia), their traditional sources of income as artisans, middlemen, traders, creditors and so on were being squeezed by the coming of the trains with their cargos of cheaper manufactured goods and supplies; by urbanization and the development of retail; and by modern retail banking, facilitated by new communications like telexes which eroded the local Litvak role as creditors. This combined with a rapidly growing population meant that local opportunities were shrinking just as industrialization and technology was spurring unprecedented prosperity in the West. For those with some capital and some skills, the chance was not one to miss.

The Jews of Eastern Europe, along with their Irish counterparts, were part of the late 19th century European migration westward, one of the greatest mass movements of people in human history. Many were drawn by the lure of America and its vast burgeoning markets, its opportunities and its freedom.

The Jews arriving in Western Europe would embrace modernity with gusto; urbanization, retail, mass communication and mass transport, commerce and banking. This would create not only dynasties like the Rothschilds in France but a whole class of successful professional bourgeoisie throughout Western Europe. Michael Marks, a Polish Jew who arrived virtually penniless in England in the early 1880s, would found Marks and Spencers. They would not only embrace European science and the arts but lead in the cascade of new thinking in literature, music, painting, physics and psychology.

Simon Schama’s sweeping yet deeply felt narrative of this ‘deal’ – integrate and become a citizen who happens to be Jewish as he summarises it – in episode three of his documentary The Story of the Jews is well worth seeking out. As he eloquently and passionately describes it, the Jewish attempt at integration into European Society would end up rejected, symbolically in the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s and catastrophically in the Holocaust. Prescient Jews like Theodore Herzl, in sensing the fell danger of this failed deal, would create Zionism as the last, the only option for the future security of the Jews.

The Litvaks who arrived in Dublin were far removed from the Rothschilds of course. As Ó Gráda points out, the sheer poverty of urban Ireland at the turn of the century meant that the Litvaks found a ready if modest use for their skills as craftsmen, traders, lenders and middlemen.

Yet economic opportunities were only part of the attraction of Dublin for the new arrivals. It was said of their like that they were particularly literate and erudite and found Dublin temperamentally appealing. Many would only transit Dublin but those who stayed were according to one of them “the type that were not very ambitious to make a lot of money, but there was an atmosphere of learning in the place that the more temperate of the emigrants preferred, so though the opportunities for financial success [were] not very great, there was a feeling of ease” (quoted p. 29, Ó Gráda). This tradition of learning of course meant that within a generation, the Litvaks began a progression to the professions and middle-class status. In the 1880s 2% were middle-class; 5% by the 1920s 17% and by the 1980s over 70% (Ó Gráda, p. 84).

The Herzog family illustrated the point. As Belfast-born and Dublin-raised Chaim Herzog recalls in his biography, the social life of the Jewish community in Dublin revolved around the synagogues: Adelaide Road for the Anglo-Jews and Greenville Hall for the Orthodox Eastern Europeans. His maternal side hailed from Kovno and his paternal from Poland; males on both sides were rabbis. His father Isaac, a renowned scholar and Chief Rabbi of Ireland, would be elected Chief Rabbi of Palestine in 1936, a mere year after the family moved there. Chaim Herzog himself, after a secondary education in Alexandra and Wesley, would go on to have an illustrious career in Israel, eventually becoming its President.

In Ó Gráda’s nice phrase, the Litvak emigration to Ireland was then a “tributary” of the great movement of Eastern European Jews westward, for some to what they called ‘England-Ireland’, for some to Palestine and for many more to Europe and America. The Jews and the Irish would arrive and settle in the larger cities of the United States, forming dense urban communities. Both the Irish and the Jews would form powerful political constituencies; the Irish would shape the Democratic Party through their ‘machine politics’ whose roots lay in the Irish slums of Boston, New York and Chicago where clientalism and collaboration were keys to survival and advance. Jewish entrepreneurial skill and general erudition would see them rapidly advance economically, academically and socially, providing the means for political influence.

The highpoint for the Irish was John F. Kennedy’s election as President but thereafter as the Irish dispersed to the suburbs the famed Irish American political machine would disintegrate and with it direct political influence, though it would be re-animated among Irish American leaders for a time by the conflict in Northern Ireland. The affinity for Ireland, if not the organization that once characterized it in the late 19th and early 20th century, however remains resilient and enduring in Irish America. Organized Jewish political influence remains famously strong in the US, animated in great part by the deep desire to support Israel.

Perhaps some of the Jews who left Lithuania sensed the darkening mood as anti-Semitism began to get a foothold in European thought at the end of the 19th century, gathering a fateful pace in the opening decades of the 20th. For most, the decision to leave was simply a search for a better life. They could not have known how fortuitous the decision to emigrate would prove to be. Nor could those who stayed behind imagine that extinction awaited them. Of some 210,000 Lithuanian Jews alive there in 1939, 93% or up to 196,000 would be murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, most of them in a concentrated period of butchery during the second half of 1941.

Thanks to Irish neutrality, the Litvaks in Ireland escaped World War II, though some German bombs fell in their neighbourhood (thanks to the heavy clay of South Dublin, the bombs did little damage). Had the Nazis made good on their plans to invade Ireland their fate would have been sealed. In fact, the only Irish born Jew to die in the Shoah was Ettie Steinberg whose mistake was to marry and move to Belgium where she and her family, including her young son, were rounded up and transported to Auschwitz, one day before visas from her family in Dublin for safe passage to Ireland were delivered.

The Rise and Decline of the Jewish Community in Ireland

There were three phases to the Litvak story in Dublin. There was firstly the arrival and establishment of the community in and around Clanbrassil Street and the South Circular Road, beginning from the 1870s and peaking with a community of some 5,000 on the eve of World War II. The second phase was its migration upward socially and economically and in parallel physically to the red-bricked and salubrious areas of Rathmines, Rathgar, and Terenure.

The sense of vibrancy of the Jewish community in Dublin as it established itself is caught wonderfully in Asher Benson’s illustrated Jewish Dublin, Portraits of Life by the Liffey (Dublin, 2007). In its vivid personalities and evocative photographs, Dublin’s leading Jews and their stories come to life:

Artists like Estella Solomon and Harry Kernoff. Dr. Isaac Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Ireland whose son would make aliya and become a President of Israel. Rugby player and Master of the Rotunda Dr Bethel Solomons.

Of the Briscoe family, Benson writes “father and son represented the Fianna Fáil party in the Dáil for a continuous period of 75 years, from 1927 to 2002; in addition they served between them three stints as Lord Mayor of Dublin, in 1956 and 1961 (Bob) and 1988 (Ben)”. 1981 was an interesting general election, with four Jewish candidates: Dr Hazel Boland, Bren Briscoe, Mervyn Taylor and Alan Shatter, now our Minister for Justice and Equality and Minister for Defence. All but Dr Boland were elected or in the case of Briscoe re-elected.

Intellectual and academic Jack Weingreen, Professor of Hebrew at Trinity College Dublin 1939-79, who wrote a classic Hebrew grammar and whose devotion to antiquities was honoured with the establishment in 1977 of the Weingreen Museum of Biblical Antiquities at Trinity College.

The Ellimans whom Benson lauds as ‘kings of Irish entertainment’ for the fun and glamour Louis Elliman’s cinemas, theatres and associated restaurants brought to Dublin in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Thanks to Louis, who arrived penniless in Dublin in 1894, Dublin social life enjoyed De Lux cinema in Camden Street, the Metropole Grill, the Queen’s, the Savoy and the Corinthian. He bought the Gaiety in 1936 and outright ownership of the Theatre Royal. He not only nurtured Irish talent like Noel Purcell and Maureen Potter but brought international glamour to the Dublin stage with the likes of Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Nat King Cole and Jimmy Cagney.

Gerald Davis, grandson of Litvak immigrants, “painter, gallery owner, art collector, jazz enthusiast and sometime businessman” as Benson describes him.

Benson records and illustrates many more businessmen, lawyers, academics, philanthropists, musicians and writers that enriched Dublin life. And he tells too the story of the institutions whose formation traced the fortunes of Dublin’s Jewish community, from the trades unions of tailors (the “Jewish” Union), Synagogues and schools to the Edmonston Golf Club (formed because of the difficulty Jews had joining existing clubs) and the Maccabi Sports Club in Kimmage.

Ó Gráda sums up:

“The uninterrupted increase in Ireland’s Jewish community between the 1870s and the 1940s was a measure of its prosperity and integration. In those decades the community showed every sign of being viable and long lasting. The suburban descendants of the pre-1914 generation were no longer ‘sojourners’ of the middlemen minority model, always ready to pack their bags and move on. To be sure, the second and third generation clung to their religious faith and their Zionist convictions. They also remained largely self-employed and their occupational profile was distinctive…. Some became heavily involved in the city’s political and cultural life…. Some invested heavily in manufacturing; others acquired skills requiring considerable acculturation and not so readily transferable abroad. Lawyers, auctioneers, dentists and doctors mixed freely with their Gentile counterparts.”

The third part of the story is of course the decline of the Jewish community with emigration after World War II to Britain (mainly), the US and Israel. Back to O’Gráda for his take on the likely factors behind this: the underperformance of the Irish economy and its “snail-paced” growth; the avoidance of assimilation through intermarriage; the claustrophobia of Ireland of the 1950s; a sense of exile and wandering that would take many Jews to the new state of Israel.

The decline in Ireland’s Jewish community, Ó Gráda notes, fitted the broader global pattern whereby low fertility and intermarriage eliminated small Jewish communities in favour of larger ones. Thus the Jewish communities of Manchester and London have continued to prosper while small clusters throughout Britain have disappeared.

So for what was a brief historical period, Ireland’s capital city was enriched by its Jewish community. Joyce’s fictional Leopold Bloom has fixed this presence in our collective imagination: However, Bloom is not the archetype nor could he be for such a varied and successful community of individuals.

The vivacity of Dublin’s Jewish community’s social and religious life, its sparkling contribution to the city’s cultural and academic life, the dedication of its second and third generations to political life and to their chosen professions lives on in the Jewish community that remains (mainly) in Dublin and Belfast, in its dedicated architecture, in a number of history books and in the Jewish Museum in Dublin. Future blogs will focus on Jewish life and activities in Ireland today and the links between Ireland and Israel that with your help we can develop and expand.

Irish America, Tammany Hall (and the beginning of the Irish Jewish New York Relationship)

I was very lucky to have been posted twice to the United States, to the Embassy Washington in the early 1990s and to the Consulate General New York at the close of the decade. There I developed a love for Irish America, its history and its community today. The story of the Irish in America is a truly epic one, really biblical in its scope, complexity and significance.

As a young diplomatic officer, I was privileged to be part of the Embassy’s involvement in the high point of the St Patrick’s Day celebration of Irish America, namely the Taoiseach’s presentation of shamrock to the President in the White House, followed by the President’s attendance at the Speaker of the House’s St. Patrick’s Day luncheon. (The only other time of the year that the President goes to Congress is for the State of the Union Address.) But it is the St Patrick’s Day parades, large and small, across all fifty States that reveal the true reach of the Irish in America.

If the Great Famine of 1845-1851 shaped Ireland today, those who fled it to the US profoundly altered the course of America politically, socially and culturally. Tremendous work has been done to tell that story but I am not convinced it has been fully told yet.

That is partly to do with the sheer scale of the impact of the Irish in America. It begins in earnest with the Protestant ‘Scots-Irish”, the unsettled settlers from Ireland, (and prior to that Scotland), who began to arrive in the American colonies the mid-1700s, restlessly moved westward, helped form the ideology of the American revolution and stirred the early agitation against British suzerainty. The bifurcation between them and the masses of starving Catholic native Irish fleeing the Great Famine a century later disrupts the historical narrative of the Irish in America.

The full story also suffers, I suspect, partially from the fact that the Irish arriving en masse in the 19th century were a “disruptive” energy that challenged the Anglo-American establishment, an establishment that still retains much influence through its formative shaping of the American historical narrative of itself.

The situation has not been helped by the characterization of the Irish in America; consider how quickly certain cultural tropes spring to mind when mention is made of ‘Irish America’; the fighting Irish, the roguish gangster, the tough cop, the ambitious white-laced mother, the morose blue collar father, the alcoholic writer and the stern priest presiding if not ruling over his unruly flock. It is probably the fate of all newly arrived immigrant groups to quickly garner stereotypes that are hard to shake off and which occlude a proper assessment of their contribution and role in society.

Tammany Hall looms large in the formation of the notions about the Irish as purveyors of a unique style of political manipulation and graft. It is great, therefore, to see its history subject to historical revision in Terry Golway’s Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Making of Modern American Politics. Let the debate begin.

In the interests in full disclosure, I am happy to say that in my time in New York I came to know Terry and to enjoy his company, which is witty, erudite and passionate about Irish America. His has written extensively on Irish America: Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America’s Fight for Ireland’s Freedom (St Martin’s Griffin, 1999); a history of the New York Fire Department in which the Irish contribution looms so large, So Other Might Live, A History of New York’s Bravest, the FDNY from 1700 to the Present (Basic Books, 2003); and For the Cause of Liberty, a Thousand Years of Ireland’s Heroes, (Simon and Schuster 2012). 

In his latest work, Terry tells me that “the book really is the first attempt to look at Tammany as a profoundly Irish institution, with roots in the Emancipation movement and the elections of 1826 and 1828. I was in Dublin several years ago researching those elections in the papers of Thomas Wyse and Daniel O’Connell. But I also show how the trans-Atlantic Anglo-American community used Tammany as an argument against Irish home rule, and used Irish politics as an argument against Tammany. The overall point: The Irish could not rule themselves.”

His analysis of Tammany Hall is really an exploration of the Irish approach to politics which was grounded in the imperatives of the society that they had come from; colonial and oppressed, the native Irish operated beneath the radar of British rule and put a high emphasis on personal reciprocity as means of support and survival. Concealment and gaming the rules of the British system were necessities for survival and therefore considered virtues.

If this was true of life in Ireland it was all the more so true for emigrants arriving in the alien environment of urban America; here they needed support to get started, particularly when faced with the hostility of Anglo-Protestant establishment and the ‘Know-Nothings’.
The idea of politics as a reciprocal arrangement between the voters and those whom they elect was the founding notion of Tammany Hall and the ‘machine’ politics that would do so much to influence and ultimately forge the Democratic Party. It injected into public discourse the idea that Government was meant to be about the care of the citizen and not simply the regulation of the markets and the preservation of stability in the name of the elites.

I asked Terry about the Irish Jewish relationship in New York and he wrote “I have quite a lot on Tammany’s relationship with the city’s Jewish community, another forgotten part of the story. It really begins with the imminent election of the city’s first Irish-Catholic mayor, W.R. Grace, in 1880. When he was attacked because of his religion….Jews on the Lower East Side held a rally for Grace, during which a lawyer named Albert Cardozo, father of a future US Supreme Court justice, said that if Catholics were attacked like this, Jews would be next, so they should stand together. In the early 20th Century, Tammany’s Irish leaders developed close relations with the city’s Jewish population.”

I sincerely hope that someday Terry puts pen to paper on the Irish Jewish relationship in New York!