How the Jews Made America Irish

Sons of Erin and Abraham Have a Long History Together

Blarney’s Version: A leprechaun does his best Michael Flatley impersonation on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago.
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Blarney’s Version: A leprechaun does his best Michael Flatley impersonation on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago.

By Robert F. Moss

Published March 16, 2014, issue of March 21, 2014.
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Even with St. Patrick’s Day upon us, it’s hard to say just when and where the first major alliance between the Jews and the Irish was forged in this country, but the Chicago office of Dankmar Adler, architect and engineer, back in 1879, might be a good place to start.

There, Adler decided to hire young, visionary Louis Henry Sullivan, and over the next decade and a half the two men basically rewrote the vocabulary of American architecture. Sullivan, the son of a dancing master from Cork, Ireland was the grand artificer, and Adler, whose father was a German rabbi, was the pragmatic technician who made girdered reality of his partner’s elegant dreams.

The result was nothing less than the modern glass-and-steel skyscraper. Eschewing the ornate, detail-heavy Victorian masonry of the period, they substituted a Promethean steel structure — featuring massive windows and semicircular archways — that was, in Sullivan’s words, “a proud and soaring thing.” The Sullivan-Adler aesthetic, with its emphasis on simplicity and organic form, foreshadowed the “international style” by 30 years.

Sadly, this brilliant duo quarreled and split up in 1895, never to achieve individually what they had accomplished together.

Not all pairings of Irish and Jewish talent were as momentous as Sullivan and Adler’s, but many had their own historic resonance. For a number of years after the resurrection of the Olympics in 1896, New York-area athletes could only gain access to the games through amateur athletic organizations such as the Irish American Athletic Club.

Thanks to Hibernian tolerance, a fleet-footed son of Polish-Jewish immigrants named Abel Kiviat was allowed to compete in the 1912 Olympics, where he captured the silver medal in the 1500 meters and shared in the team gold in the 3000 meter relay.

But of course, mergers of Jewish and Irish talent were much more common in show business than in sports. Dublin-born operetta king Victor Herbert interfaced frequently with Jewish colleagues, especially later in his career when he contributed songs to Irving Berlin’s “Music Box Review” and to the “Ziegfeld Follies.”

In the same epoch, George M. Cohan and Sam Harris presented over 50 Broadway shows, including “Little Johnny Jones” in 1904 and most of Cohan’s other best-known works. “Proud of all the Irish blood that’s in me,” crowed Jimmy Cagney as Cohan, bouncing off the walls in the beloved 1942 biopic “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” while the film barely hinted at Harris’s Jewish identity.

Appropriately, Cohan’s last hour of theatrical glory came in 1937 in “I’d Rather Be Right,” a musical by the Jewish team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

The chemistry between the Irish and the Jews cannot be replicated in a lab, but it can nonetheless be reasonably explained on the basis of similarities in cultural DNA and parallels in historical experience. Both peoples suffered oppression in the Old World and the New, with a resulting sense of “outsider” status (see the fiction of John O’Hara and Saul Bellow) and an inevitable embrace of reform-minded, even radical, political ideals. “Red Emma” Goldman, the first lady of anarchism, mentored Margaret Sanger (née Higgins), the pioneer of the American birth control movement, and inspired Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the “Rebel Girl,” union agitator, and, eventually, the president of the American Communist Party. Sanger, a nurse, also apprenticed with Lillian Wald, a major force in the establishment of Settlement Houses. Each had her own political habitat, but they were strong allies in the crusade for social justice and women’s rights.

Nor were ethnic alignments very different in the headquarters of organized labor, though queen bees like Goldman, Sanger, and Mother Jones (Cork-born Mary Harris Jones) were not so common. Samuel Gompers, a Jew from England, has long been consecrated as the founder of the American Federation of Labor, but he acknowledges in his autobiography that the Irish played an inceptive role too, specifically P.J. McGuire, founder of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters, and John McBride, head of the United Mine Workers of America. Another Irish American labor leader, William Z. Foster, fused the professional with the personal, marrying fellow union activist Esther Abramowitz.

In his rise to power in the 1920s, New York Governor Al Smith, by far the most prominent Irish Catholic politician of his day, quickly recognized the talents of a shrewd social reformer, Belle Moskowitz, and made her his chief aide, installing her in a corner of his office. She, in turn, recruited another politically gifted Jew, Robert Moses, who became the single most important — though polarizing — urban planner in the history of the state. On a few occasions, though, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick have been less than friendly toward Jews. During World War II, Irish hooligans assaulted numerous Jewish youths on the streets of Boston, perhaps due to the influence of Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio priest of the 1930s and ’40s. Many decades later, the Coughlinite Pat Buchanan accused American Jewry of fomenting the first Gulf War, acting as surrogates for Israel.

In each instance, however, the more enlightened elements in the Irish community prevailed. The Catholic hierarchy, which had never approved of Father Coughlin’s broadcasts, finally ordered him off the air in 1942. Two years later, James Michael Curley, then a congressman from Boston, spent 20 minutes reading a list of Jewish war heroes — from the Revolutionary War to the Battle of Anzio — into the Congressional Record. House Majority Leader John McCormack rose to commend his colleague’s speech, hailing Curley as “a man who has always condemned intolerance and bigotry in any form.”

As for Buchanan, his canard was vigorously rebutted by William F. Buckley in his book “In Search of Anti-Semitism.” The work received a highly nuanced review in The New York Times from Nathan Glazer and his friend Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

That Glazer-Moynihan pairing is illustrative of the keen interest these ethnic secret sharers have taken in each other’s culture. “Trinity,” by Jewish American Leon Uris, is one of the most popular novels ever written about Ireland (it was a great favorite of Bobby Sands), while Joyce’s “Ulysses” might be the most famous novel about a Jew. Both Bellow and Norman Mailer admired the work of William Kennedy, the author of the “Albany Trilogy,” while Kennedy has expressed gratitude for the support he got from Bellow during his long struggle to get published. Thomas Cahill, yet another philo-Semitic Irish American, schepped nakhes aplenty for his own people in “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” and, in his next book, “The Gifts of the Jews,” performed the same service for world Jewry. But perhaps the most poignant nexus of Irish-Jewish literary history was the fate of director Alan Schneider, the leading American interpreter of Samuel Beckett’s work. In 1984, he was killed by a motorcyclist in London while crossing the street to mail a letter to Samuel Beckett.

Boston, the scene of so much intolerance in the 1940s, was the setting for a very different sort of interaction in 1957. In that year, Dublin’s first Jewish Lord Mayor Robert Briscoe planned a visit, but was not going to be able to arrive in time for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.”No problem, said Beantown’s mayor, John B. Hynes, who postponed the parade for two days just to accommodate Briscoe. The Lord Mayor felt even more welcome when he saw the headline in one of the local newspapers: AARON GO BRAGH, printed in English and Yiddish.

Robert F. Moss has written for the New York Times and The New Republic.


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