Tuesday 16 July 2019

'I never realised there were other Jews in Ireland'

Lisa Jewell

When Valerie Lapin Ganley first came to Ireland from her native America, she was bemused to find the Irish Jewish Museum listed in her travel guide. "Neither my husband or I knew there was a Jewish community in Ireland," she says. "So off we went for a visit."

When Valerie Lapin Ganley first came to Ireland from her native America, she was bemused to find the Irish Jewish Museum listed in her travel guide.

"Neither my husband or I knew there was a Jewish community in Ireland," she says. "So off we went for a visit. I was fascinated by the history of Irish Jewry and how Irish Jews participated in the founding and development of both Ireland and Israel."

Valerie, who grew up in a Jewish family in Los Angeles, was hooked on the idea of Irish Jews and set about making a documentary - Shalom Ireland. It has its Irish premiere on Network 2 this Sunday and coincides with upcoming Jewish celebrations, Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur.

The film, which successfully toured the American film-festival circuit, profiles the Irish Jewish community, which numbers 1,790 at the latest count.

Though it has a relatively small population, its members have played a large part in the history and culture of the nation.

Perhaps most famous of all is Robert Briscoe, who was a gunrunner for the IRA during the War of Independence and later became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin. He also served as a TD for almost 40 years and made concerted efforts to help Jewish people come to Ireland during World War Two. His son, Ben Briscoe, was also Lord Mayor of Dublin and was a TD for almost 35 years.

However, as the film reveals, relations between Jews and the Irish have not always been so friendly. In 1904, a Redemptorist priest, Fr Creagh, roused anti-Semitic feeling among his Limerick congregation. Several Jewish families decided to leave the area following attacks and a boycott against their businesses, in what became known as the Limerick Pogrom. During the Second World War, fewer than 100 Jewish people were granted asylum as the Nazis carried out their 'Final Solution'.

Despite this, good relations exist between the two communities and both have much in common. The biggest influx of Jews to this country occurred in the late 19th century when east Europeans, particularly Lithuanians, fled their homelands because of persecution. In 1881 there were 394 Jews in Ireland but by 1901 there were 3,006 living here.

Valerie Lapin Ganley says there are obvious similarities between Irish and Jewish people.

"They have much more in common than most of us realise. Both the Irish and the Jews have experienced religious persecution and have been victimised by historical events, including the Irish Famine and the Holocaust. As a result, there is a strong bond that exists between these two groups of people."

Carl Nelkin, a Jewish participant in the documentary, agrees with that sentiment. However, he says the film fails to bring the audience up to date with the current rejuvenation in the Irish-Jewish community.

"The documentary is very strong on the historical side of things but where I would fault it is the fact that it doesn't give a picture of the current Jewish community," the Dubliner says.

"I don't blame its maker because she filmed it a few years ago when the community was probably at its lowest point. We were haemorrhaging people all the time and, around then, the Adelaide Road synagogue closed. That was a difficult time."

Carl says things have significantly changed since then.

"The last census showed that the number of Jews in Ireland has increased by over 200 to 1,790 and we are seeing more Jewish people settling here."

In the film, Carl and his wife Judy are shown debating whether they will stay in Ireland in the future. Now, a few years on, they are firmly settled here.

"At that time, a lot of my contemporaries were moving to London," says Carl, a lawyer. "I even went over and checked out jobs and the crucial point came when our daughter Jessica started at the Jewish school. She was the only pupil in her class."

However, there are now 10 children in her class and a Rabbi has been appointed to work as a youth minister in the community.

"I am convinced that numbers will increase in the same way as the Irish population has just grown to four million people," says Carl.

"It's funny, if you ask most Irish people about the size of the Jewish community, they usually think it's about 5,000 or 10,000 strong. It's a reflection of the disproportionate contribution that Jews have made to this country. I've always found people very respectful and have never encountered any kind of anti-Semitism."

'Shalom Ireland' is on Network 2 at 8pm on Sunday

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