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Music

Why Do Jews Love Irish Music?

Why do Jews love Irish music? Actually, I didn’t know they did, until Gwen Orel told me so.

Writing in The Village Voice, Orel presents some anecdotal evidence that Jews are particularly well-represented in New York’s Irish music scene — which, of course, begs the question: “What makes so many Jewish-Americans with no Celtic heritage pour sweat equity into presenting, producing, writing about, and traversing long distances to enjoy Celtic music?”

But, as Orel learns, it’s a question easier asked than answered.

Rabbinical student Tom Gardner says that Celtic music “felt familiar. I’m not sure what it is, but it speaks somehow to our souls.”

“There’s a sorrow that unites both of those peoples,” Irish singer Susan McKeown says. “The Irish have been put down and moved on for hundreds of years, and the Jews have been moved on since time began. And nobody could put it into words in a miserable song that could touch your heart and be more beautiful than the Jews or the Irish … there’s a lot of hope.”

“I think part of it is longing,” says Riverdance composer Bill Whelan. “There’s a longing in the slow airs that’s expressed in the music. The first time I came to New York to work in 1992, I was brought out here by Leon Uris. He thought the Irish and the Jews had a load of shared cultural and emotional connection.”

But, Orel finds, not everyone buys the notion of some sort of deep spiritual affinity:

“There is no overlap between the styles—no emotional overlap,” contends klezmer pioneer Andy Statman. “It’s really just great music. Music can transcend culture.” Piper Bill Ochs, who teaches at the Irish Arts Center, agrees: He’s Jewish, and finds the idea of a mystical connection “kind of a romantic blarney.” His students come from Japan, China, Singapore, Russia, Latvia, Germany, and France. “It’s just great music,” he insists.

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