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Jüdische Weisheit

Ireland’s other diaspora:
Jewish-Irish within / Irish-Jewish without

Ronit Lentin

[English] [French] [German]

Introduction: A Brief Moment in a Collective Past

It is circa 1884. A 14 year old boy called Kalman arrives in Cobh on a ship from Hamburg, alone. Escaping forced conscription to the Czar’s army, he is with a group of Lithuanian Jews from a Shtetl called Akhmian on their way to America. They are instructed to disembark in the South of Ireland, told that this is America. They were both asylum seekers and economic refugees, yet no official checked their passports, no asylum process regulated their integration. Most stayed in Ireland a short time only, continuing on to the United States or to South Africa. A couple of thousands remained.

Little is known about Kalman’s Irish beginnings. Most probably he began his working life as a travelling peddler, selling anything from kitchen utensils to holy pictures to Irish housewives. He was one of the Jews whom Fr. John Creagh’s sermons called ‘blood suckers’ and ‘vipers in our midst’, when he incited his Redemptorist flock to boycott Limerick’s Jews in what became known as the ‘Limerick pogrom’.

A brother persuaded him to emigrate to Texas – but the brother lived, as family lore has it, in ‘the sticks’ (later transpiring to have been Phoenix, Arizona), and when Kalman arrived, he gave him a pistol to put under his pillow. Kalman did not like to sleep with a pistol under his pillow, nor did he like the fact that there was no schul within walking distance, so he returned to Limerick, where he eventually became a well-off scarf merchant, trading, among others, with Travellers.

The Lentins are a typical Jewish, and Irish, emigrant family – only one of Kalman’s grandchildren remains in Ireland. Other grandchildren and great grandchildren have lived in the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, Israel – some of their voices speak in this paper.

The story of Ireland’s Jewish diaspora is a crossroads where diaspora narratives intersect. Not only are Irish Jews part of the Jewish diaspora, maintaining emotional ties to a series of mythical homelands. They are also part of the Irish diaspora, maintaining links with a mythical Ireland where they sojourned for a brief moment in their collective wondering past.

Michael Waltzer posits the galut-exile as central to Jewish thought for the past 2,500 years. During this long period of exile – when a Jew describes something really long, she says ‘it’s as long as exile’ – Jews left the business of governance to others, while they dealt with the ‘housekeeping matters’ of intra-community concerns, hence the ‘dual loyalty’ diasporic Jews are charged with. Gilman differentiates between the voluntary dispersion of Jews (‘Galut’ or ‘Golah’) and involuntary exile (‘Diaspora’): ‘The two models exist simultaneously in Jewish history in the image of rooted and empowered Jews on the one hand, and uprooted and powerless Jews on the other… the same person can find his or her existence bounded conceptually by these two models at different times and in different contexts’. Exile epitomises the Jewish condition despite the existence of a Jewish state for the past 52 years; diaspora theorisations, including this Irish one, are based on the Jewish experience. More specifically, when talking about Ireland’s Jewish diaspora, we must think of it as both a Jewish diaspora in Ireland and an Irish Jewish diaspora outside of Ireland.

My own (typically Jewish) life has been mediated by terms of diasporicity – my family hails from Northern Romania. I was born in Palestine under the British Mandate and brought up in Israel; after marrying Kalman’s grandson, I migrated voluntarily to Ireland, where I am now spending much of my time working on racism and migration issues.

This paper begins with a brief description of the Jewish-Irish diaspora within and goes on to draw upon ongoing research of the Irish-Jewish diaspora without. Contemporary Jews in Europe fall between theorisations of the ‘vanishing diaspora’ and a new Jewish space in a changing Europe. Jewish-Irish cultural migration patterns characterise the continuing centrality of exile to the contemporary Jewish existence, a centrality exemplified by a new electronic Irish-Jewish site, constructing a virtual ‘home from home’ where the blurring boundaries between ‘diaspora’ and ‘homeland’ are continually re-negotiated.

Jewish-Irish within

Although racism in Ireland in the 21st century is primarily anti-Traveller, anti-black and anti-refugee, I would argue that Jews are the archetypal ‘others’ of Ireland’s national Catholicism, and their otherness must be theorised as part of the specificities of Irish racism.

However, the most serious consequence of Irish antisemitism is the continuing decline in the numbers of Ireland’s Jews. Between 1881 and 1911, the high period of Jewish immigration to Ireland, the average annual rise in the number of Jews was 8 per cent. The community continued to grow until 1946, although only 60 Jewish asylum seekers were allowed entry to Ireland between 1933 and 1946. Since then, there has been a steady decline - since 1946 the Irish Jewish community declined by more than 70 per cent, from 3,900 in 1946 to some 1,200 now. While Ireland is currently experiencing a net incoming migration, the emigration of young Irish Jews continues even in the current economic boom. 1999 was a historic crossroad for Ireland’s Jews: the 107 year old Orthodox synagogue in Adelaide Road Dublin was closed due to declining attendance and is currently being demolished by its present owners. The ‘Symphony House’, a smart apartment house, is being built on the site, with the synagogue façade preserved under municipal planning regulations.

Irish-Jewish without: between geography and genealogy

Paul Gilroy argues that diaspora is a relational network usually produced by forced dispersal and reluctant scattering. To what extent do Irish-Jewish exiles relate to the originary tale of their Irish location, brought about by pogroms and flight from forced conscription? In an email survey I conducted among members of IrishJIG, the Irish Jewish Internet Group, I asked people to describe their perceptions of ‘diaspora’ and ‘homeland’ in relation to Lithuania (where most of their ancestors were born), Ireland (where these ancestors put down roots for a brief moment in history), Israel (arguably the Jews’ notional/national homeland), and their current places of residence.

Following Gilroy’s theorisation of the ‘Black Atlantic’ as a hybrid, indebted to its ‘parent’ culture but assertively a bastard, I would argue that despite the ‘naturalness’ of exile to the Jewish condition, diasporic Jewish communities are a transcultural mixture, forged in ‘the contrast between settled nations, rooted in one spot… and the very different patterns of itinerancy’ located in the ‘different ecologies of belonging found in the oppositions between geography and genealogy, between land and sea… a counter-power of territorial sovereignty’. This multi-layered location might explain my respondents’ somewhat confused diaspora narratives as expressed by Irene Kyffin: ‘to what country do I belong? Do I belong anywhere? Am I a wandering Jew? Where do my loyalties lie?’

The first location respondents relate to is the distant memory of Lithuania; yet only few spoke of the Irish Jews’ traumatic Lithuanian past:
‘All my father knows is that his grandfather was the mayor of this dingy little Lithuanian town Pluge. He grew up in South Africa, considered it his home and nobody in the family ever gave Lithuania a second thought’ (Ron Robin, Israel).

‘The circumstances in which my grandparents left Lithuania meant that the connection was totally severed in a dramatic and painful way. In my imagination, Lithuania is a place of shtetls and pogroms, in no sense a homeland’ (Barbara Lantin, London).

Secondly, most respondents relate – albeit problematically – to their current places of residence as ‘home’, if not ‘homeland’:
‘I have lived in South Africa for all my 63 years, so there can be no doubt in my mind that my homeland is here.… The thoughts of South Africans are somewhat distorted by the current situation in this country. We are living in times which have parallels in Irish history. The Jewish youth are leaving. There is hardly a family that does not have a child or children who have left’ (Robert Lentin, South Africa).

‘We have grown up in South Africa. Yes, the tastes, vitality and the earth, the sands and the sea are part of my soul. Homeland? I can’t feel that that label sticks‘ (Sandy Hotz, South Africa).

‘The diaspora for my family was, I think, everywhere. They had no real homeland. Today, for me, the diaspora is everywhere outside Israel. I may love Ireland, and England where I spent quite a few years, but I am aware that the Irish and the English consider me a foreigners and always did. This comes frequently in conversations of the "you and us" type’ (Vivienne Rifkin, Israel).

Whether or not that place of residence is Israel, some respondents see Israel as the Jews’ true homeland, as Devorah Fine expresses it: ‘It would seem to me that Jews living anywhere in the world are considered living in the "diaspora". It is part of our exile, whether we are from Lithuania, Australia, America, Ireland, any country, you name it’. Fay Meltzer does not agree: ‘I can’t imagine feeling that kind of passion that some Jews feel for the land of Israel. It’s the land, the history, that causes people to fight and kill for it. Ridiculous, I say.’

Several respondents belong to Irish-Jewish associations, such as the Israel-Ireland Friendship League and the New York based Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin. Interestingly, contrary to Jewish landsmanschaft tendency to celebrate a Jewish past elsewhere, notably in Eastern Europe, Irish Jews abroad, like their non-Jewish counterparts, tend to celebrate things Irish, such as drinking and green bagels on St Patrick’s Day, in their Irish Jewish associations:
‘The Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin was founded by Michael Mann, an old time Dubliner who was a well known Labour leader in New York. Once a year we would have a big party and eat green bagels and green Matzoh balls in chicken soup and then crown a Queen Esther. We marched a few times in the St Patrick Day Parade‘ (Theo Garb, New York).

‘There are approximately 300 Jewish Irish born living in Israel. The idea of the Israel-Ireland Friendship League is to promote Irish culture in Israel. This year we are having Des Keogh and previously we had Niall Toibin, David Norris and Ronnie Drew visit’ (Richard Stein, Israel).

For most respondents, Ireland is a brief but impressionable moment in their collective history: ‘I feel a strong connection with Ireland, not as a country or nation, but as the birthplace of much of my father’s family. For me, this is about belonging, and understanding "where one has come from" in a genetic rather than a geographical sense’ (Barbara Lantin, UK). Several respondents, however, are very clear about their reasons for leaving Ireland, a mix of specifically Irish and specifically Jewish factors:

‘When I look back on my life and the things I have achieved I know that the way of life that was destined for me in Ireland, wife, mother, etc, would not have suited me…’ (Nella Pearse, UK).

‘When I return to Ireland, I greedily take in all that is Irish – but I am a stranger…. Why did I leave Ireland? In simple terms: I felt there was nothing there. I was avid for experience. People were leaving Dublin, going to London. I felt it had much more to offer…I partly remained within the Jewish enclave, one foot in and one foot out in a gentile, fascinating world. It was very difficult to reconcile the two. Now I sometimes wonder if I should go back to Dublin… ‘ (Irene Kyffin, London).

‘For me leaving Ireland was an escape from the narrowness of my own family’s way of life as well as my strong aversion to the pervasiveness of Catholicism in Ireland. I never felt Ireland was my "homeland". I believe it was never my family’s intention to settle in Ireland, but was in fact an accidental landing point when they left Russia. So, in a way, Ireland became a way station for some of the family, as most have made homes in other countries’ (Fay Meltzer, US).

‘The vanishing diaspora’ versus ‘new Jewish spaces’ in a changing Europe

Gilroy’s argument that diaspora identity focuses on ‘the social dynamics of remembrance and commemoration defined by a strong sense of the dangers involved in forgetting the location of origin and the process of dispersal’ may be relevant to my older respondents, but not to the reasons given by young Irish Jews for emigration. The narratives of second generation Irish-Jewish emigrants, all between 20 and 30, born to Irish-born parents, educated in Irish Jewish schools and members of Jewish youth movements, and all educated at university level, indicate a different dynamism than that of the older sample, denoting the tension between Wasserstein’s ‘vanishing diaspora’ and Pinto’s analysis of a ‘new Jewish space’.

Despite Irish Jewish community optimism about ‘numerous young people coming into the community, some with young children who are to attend our Jewish school’ (Gross), my young informants say that diasporicity was and is programmed into young Irish Jews since childhood, criticising the failure of the Jewish community to respond creatively to its numerical decline and to the needs of its young:
I have always accepted this as part of being an Irish Jew: eventually, you leave. It’s got to be a function of the community being so small. And people are inherently pragmatic, in that they made it acceptable that you will emigrate (Barry).

But being Jewish may be an excuse to leave, as Yael says: ‘I wanted to leave… and it was clear it would be an easy thing to do because there were so few possibilities of having any sort of a Jewish social life in Dublin and of finding a Jewish partner’.

Beside being ‘programmed’ to leave the diminishing community in favour of more thriving ‘Jewish’ milieus, and personal reasons for leaving, such as the wish to find a Jewish partner, a major reason for leaving is the contradiction between ‘Jewishness’ and ‘Irishness’. Participants in my survey signify their otherness in not being in tune with Irish Republican songs when growing up, or being humiliated at having to leave assembly every morning at school:
‘There was a sense of them seeing you as the other, people would ask you about your passport, say, do you have an Israeli passport. There was always the sense that being Jewish you kind of had to prove your Irishness’ (Barry).

While the ‘vanishing diaspora’ darkens these young people’s narratives, they also suggest new contemporary European Jewish possibilities. On the one hand, young Irish Jewish emigrants, deterred by a rigid community leadership hierarchy and a lack of investment in their Jewish future, can be seen as part of a brain drain and a loss to the Irish-Jewish community. They can also be seen as a symptom of an Irish-Jewish future, where, despite Ireland’s nascent multi-ethnicity, there will very soon be no significant Jewish-Irish presence.

The Jewish diaspora in Ireland mirrors the Irish-Jewish diaspora in Israel -- people who, together with the 1.5 million Jews who emigrated from Europe to Israel since 1945, have abandoned responsibility for building a Jewish life in the European diaspora. This preference for Israel over the ‘everywhere else’ diaspora is echoed by my email sample, even among those who have not chosen Israel. However, young emigrants often see themselves as dually exiled, being Irish emigrants in Israel and Israeli emigrants in Ireland. Consider Lisa, fourth generation Irish, immigrated to Israel and returned to Ireland, falling into the category of yordim, Israeli emigrants. Most of her friends in Dublin are Israeli IT workers who, in leaving Israel, subverted the radical Zionist assumption that only life in Israel can be ‘normally’ and authentically Jewish.

Young Irish-Jewish emigrants may fall into Wickham’s category of professional Irish emigrants, contextualised within identity fragmentation of national states and society by globalisation and information technology. Wickham proposes abandoning the traditional conception of Irish emigration in favour of a sociology of contemporary Irish graduate in- and out-migration patterns. However, Marian, who emigrated to the US in search of an IT job, is keeping her options open about seeking greater involvement with the US Jewish community.

We can also speak of a ‘postmodern’ diaspora of individual ‘Jewish spaces’ in a new Europe. According to Pinto, beyond assimilation and ghettoisation there exist new communal, voluntary Jewish spaces in a changing Europe: ‘Jews, even in tiny homeopathic doses, can create a strong Jewish presence in any society... The ‘electronic fax Jew’ need no longer feel isolated and lost’. Yael, who has been working for European institutions in several European capitals, sees herself as ‘displaced by choice’. Her Jewish and Irish identities, both voluntary, exist separately in a European context. She is part of a global, postmodern, hybrid diasporic European Jewry whose cultural identities are emerging ‘in transition’, drawing on different traditions and harmonising old and new without assimilation or total loss of the past.

Conclusion: virtually deconstructing Irish-Jewish homeland-diaspora binaries

Beyond Pinto’s ‘electronic-fax Jew’, there is another diasporic Irish-Jewish possibility. Discussing ‘Croatia online’ as a ‘virtual diaspora’, Stubbs argues that ‘the existence of computer-mediated diasporic public spheres deepens the understanding of what have been termed transnational and postnational imaginings, since, as complex discursive and historic fields, they represent particular constructions of the national space from diverse global sites, which become, effectively, a unified imagined place or homeland’. Linking theorisations of diaspora and caricatures of the ‘long distance nationalist’ with what he terms a ‘netnography’, Stubbs cites Rheingold, arguing that ‘virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace’.

Lisa proposed setting up an Irish-Jewish community website as a way of attracting young professional Jewish families to Ireland, thus extending the Irish-Jewish community, albeit with the ‘right sort of people’ who will be able to contribute not only numerically, but also culturally and economically. Until such an official website is constructed, Irish-Jewish cyberspace is alive and well with IrishJIG, an email list ‘with a worldwide membership for all those concerned with any aspect of Irish Jewish Matters - History, Genealogy and Family and Friends’.

Contrary to the argument that virtual communities are by nature trans- or post-nationalist, Stubbs argues that while it is analytically flawed to speak of ‘the Croatian diaspora’, a website for emigrant Croations contributes to ‘prioritising the homeland-diaspora relations’ and thus reifying the Croatian nation in cyberspace. While a netnography of IrishJIG cannot be given here, it seems, however, that until there are ‘enough’ people to carry on public discussion ‘long enough’, IrishJIG offers an online diasporic sphere where exchanges of family news, holiday greetings and general information combine to construct an Irish-Jewish homeland away from home, even if respondents are not at all sure about the relevance of Ireland as homeland.

Ronit Lentin was born in Haifa, Palestine and grew up in Israel. In 1969 she moved to Ireland. She is a writer and sociologist and is currently the director of Ethnic and Racial Studies in Trinity College Dublin.



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