Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History
By Cormac Ó. Gráda
Princeton University Press, 320 pages, $35.
My Irish Catholic grandmother fulfilled a life-long goal in her 80s when she traveled to the Holy Land; however, the story she told on her return was not of the sights she’d seen. Wandering around the Old City of Jerusalem, she walked into a shop and was amazed when the Orthodox Jew at the counter began speaking to her in Gaelic. Before going to Israel she had never met a Jew, and she did not know that there was a small but vibrant community in her own backyard.
Cormac Ó. Gráda’s new economic chronicle, “Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce,” traces the history of the Jews in Ireland from 1079, when they first arrived, up until the present day. The book’s main focus is the Jewish community from the 1870s through the 1940s, roughly during the “Ulysses” author’s lifetime. While much has been written about the Jewishness of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, one of the most famous characters in all of literature, few know anything about the remarkable community in Ireland that inspired Joyce to create him.
According to the author, Jews from Kovno, Lithuania, began arriving in Ireland in the early 1870s, quickly dwarfing any previous Jewish population. At this time, only .22% of Ireland’s population was foreign born; more people were emigrating from Ireland than from any other country in Europe. Nevertheless, its Jewish population climbed to 5,148 in 1911 from 285 in 1871. The Jews were the biggest group of nonimmigrants from the United Kingdom in Ireland.
The first generation of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants were peddlers and moneylenders. The peddlers sold holy pictures of Jesus and Mary, as well as sewing supplies and tea. Known as shilling-a-week men, they sold on credit, visiting households weekly to collect payment. “It was the very poverty of the so many Irish families that created a market for the trades in which the immigrant Litvaks specialized,” Gráda writes. The Hebrew Philanthropic Loan Society provided startup capital to the Jewish emigrants who arrived in Ireland penniless, something no Irish bank would do for its Irish counterparts. Although there were Jewish communities in Cork, Limerick and Belfast, more than half of Ireland’s Jews lived in Dublin.
An upwardly mobile community, its members moved within a decade to middle-class housing from tenements. The children of peddlers, moneylenders and tailors became dentists, doctors and lawyers. The Irish moneylender Avrom Behr Appel had two sons and 11 grandsons, all doctors. By 1901, one in two Jewish households employed a domestic servant. The community supported dozens of different groups, ranging from the Montefiore Musical and Dramatic Club to the Dublin Jewish Athletic Association.
The Irish Jews were prominent both in cultural and political life. Novelist David Marcus was an editor and advocate for fiction written in Irish Gaelic. Such patriots as Jacob Elyan, Michael Noyk and Estelle Soloman fought for Ireland’s freedom from British rule. Dublin had two Jewish mayors — Robert Briscoe and his son Benjamin. In the 1980s there was a Jewish minister of parliament in every one of Ireland’s three major political parties. Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel, was born in Belfast; his father, Yitzhak Halevy Herzog, was Ireland’s chief rabbi and later Israel’s. Furthermore, according to the 1911 census, Dublin’s Jews were more prosperous than their London counterparts.
This history discusses characteristics common to all Diaspora Jews, such as lower infant mortality rate, higher literacy among their male population and superior cleanliness as a result of the kashrut laws. Education was highly prized, and many Jewish students distinguished themselves in the Irish school system. Similar to the relations between the German- and Yiddish-speaking Jews in New York, there was tension between the English Jews and the new arrivals from Eastern Europe, who were looked down upon. Additionally, Ireland’s Jews were extremely Orthodox and avoided intermarriage to a greater extent than other Diaspora populations.
By and large, the Jews were welcomed in Ireland. Gráda points to several reasons for this — among them, the relatively small size of the community, and the people’s willingness to adapt to Irish society and to take on jobs that no one else wanted. He quotes Irish Jewish memoirist Jessie Bloom, who writes of the “acceptance of our Irish playmates, no wonder many of them could speak Yiddish as good as we did, and knew as much of the important religious observances as we did.…”
This work is extremely detailed, describing the Jewish communities down to the streets they lived on and what they ate (more chicken and three times as much fish as their Catholic neighbors, less beef and vegetables). Graphs and tables illustrate everything from occupational profiles to the size of loans. Gráda notes that the Irish Yiddish word for Irishman was baitz, from the Hebrew word for egg, beitzah, because Ireland sounds like ayer, the Yiddish word for eggs.
The hidden treasures of this economic history lay in the appendixes. The extensive 25-page bibliography is an exhaustive listing of resources relating to Irish Jewry. Additionally, the collection of letters to an unnamed Jewish peddler illuminates the severe economic circumstances of the Irish people and shed light on a profession that would try the patience of a saint (or, I should say, a tzadik). The letters include excuses for non payments, such as “Please don’t call on Friday as He has lost his job (with drink???) and I’ve no money even to support the children,” as well as threats: “If you don’t bring me good value I will put you out.”
Is Leopold Bloom, then, the typical Irish Jew? Not really, according to Gráda. He married outside the faith; his father was an apostate. But he was born in Little Jerusalem, the Jewish area of Dublin, and peddled advertising. He suggests that Bloom had more in common with the Jews of Trieste, where 20% of the Jewish population had given up their faith and where Joyce lived from 1904 to 1915.
Since the late 1980s, Ireland has had one of the most dynamic economies in Europe and one in 10 Irish people is an immigrant today. Consequently, Africans, Asians and Eastern Europeans outnumber the 1,700 Jews in Ireland by tens of thousands. Gráda’s “Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce” is a scholarly comprehensive tome full of hard facts and anecdotal tidbits on this little-known chapter in the story of the Ashkenazic Diaspora that will appeal to history buffs and literary fanatics alike.
Caraid O’Brien is a performer, playwright and producer, and a three-time recipient of a new play commission from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture for her contemporary adaptation of Yiddish plays.