Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The Jews of Ireland

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

The Jews of Ireland

Article excerpt

WHEN WE SPENT A YEAR IN DUBLIN IN THE 1980s, A neighbor worried that we were so far from home, friends, and relations. She was glad to hear that American friends were to pay us a brief visit and asked their name. "Bloom," I told her. "Bloom," she repeated, "Bloom. Would that be an Irish name, now?" "None more so," I assured her. "The most Irish name there is."

Leopold Bloom of James Joyce's Ulysses answers the same question in Barney Kiernan's pub, when the rabidly nationalistic Citizen asks him, "What is your nation?" and Bloom replies, "Ireland... I was born here. Ireland." The answer, and indeed Bloom's very presence, enrages the Citizen; Bloom is hurried away by friends, as the Citizen threatens to "brain that jewman."

Bloom's exclusion from the Citizen's notion of Ireland and Irishness is one of the many exclusions he suffers as he wanders through Dublin on l6 June 1904, at once wandering Ulysses and Wandering Jew. Bloom is excluded by one group after another because he is perceived as different, other. Asked why Bloom is Jewish, Joyce said, ".... because only a foreigner would do. The Jews were foreigners at that time in Dublin. There was no hostility towards them, but contempt, yes the contempt people always show for the unknown." In Ulysses Joyce parallels Bloom with Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's own self-portrait, excluded because he is an artist, until the two briefly come together in a meeting of outcasts.

Dermot Keogh's welcome and carefully researched account of Ireland's Jews, Jews in Twentieth-Century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, is in one sense an extended commentary on Leopold Bloom and his uneasy position in Dublin life, placing him in context as an Irishman who is also a Jew-though strictly speaking, as the son of a non-Jewish mother, Bloom's Jewish identity is arguable. Keogh's book supersedes earlier works by Bernard Shillman(1945) and Louis Hyman (1972). His subtitle reminds us that, while Ireland's Jews were not direct victims of the Holocaust, they did experience antisemitism. They also prospered and contributed to Ireland in significant ways, especially in medicine, law, and politics. Keogh reminds us that they would not have long survived a Nazi invasion or a Nazi victory in World War II-their number and names had been tabulated at the Wannsee Conference.

By focusing on the small Jewish community of a small country--Ireland is about the size of West Virginia--Keogh offers us a case study of both Jewish exclusion and Jewish assimilation. His work will be the definitive account of Ireland's Jewish community for the foreseeable future, and is also, alas, a kind of elegy for that rapidly disappearing community. Indeed, since Professor Keogh's book went to press, Cork's last synagogue has closed, unable to achieve a minyan. The new Herzog Center for Jewish Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, is admirable, but no substitute for a living Jewish community.

By making Bloom one of his two protagonists, Joyce affirmed Jewish membership in the Irish polity, and at the same time recognized the prevalence and nature of anti-Jewish prejudice in Ireland. He slyly made Bloom a friend of Arthur Griffith, at once a notorious antisemite and the editor of The United Irishman, then the most radical of nationalist newspapers. Deploring the inequities of British rule over Ireland, Griffith was simultaneously hostile to Ireland's smallest and most vulnerable minority.

The choleric Citizen carries copies of The United Irishman, which, as Joyce well knew, contained Griffith's approving reports of Ireland's only pogrom, which took place in and around the small city of Limerick. The pogrom was instigated by a Redemptorist priest, Father John Creagh, in January 1904. A strident and dramatic orator, Creagh attacked Limerick's tiny Jewish community with the cliches of antisemitism: the Jews rejected Christ, they were usurers sucking the blood of the poor, they were in league with the Freemasons then persecuting the Church in France, they were taking over the local economy, they sold shoddy goods at inflated prices, to be paid for in installments. …

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