Continuing Obsessions: The Irish-Jewish Connection

Wall_plaques_Irish_Jewish_museumWeekend Edition Sunday had a nice piece this morning about the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin — an affinity group of Jews from Ireland that met regularly in New York and which over time has disintegrated as their offspring have melted into the rest of America. It is one of those quirks of history that repeats itself every so often, that Jews trying to get the hell out of wherever they’re fleeing, end up in some unlikely places: Uzbekistan, Shanghai, the Dominican Republic and in this case, Ireland.

There have been entire PhD dissertations written about the most famous Irish Jew, James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom from Ulysses (a book I’ve begun many times and never finished). Robert Briscoe and his son Ben Briscoe get trotted out from time to time as past Jewish Lords Mayor of Dublin (I actually got to work with Ben Briscoe’s granddaughter Carla when she was acting in the DC-area about ten years ago). Former Israeli President Chaim Herzog‘s father was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland. But I’ve always felt this hall-of-fame of Jews-in-Strange-places approach to Irish Jewish history missed some deeper themes which I’ve never truly seen explored.

I had proposed to study them at the end of college when I applied for a Watson Fellowship — my idea was to study the development of National Theater in Ireland and Israel. Why Ireland and Israel? Well, to be honest, they were both countries I loved visiting and have been to multiple times. But that’s not what I put in the Fellowship application. I pointed out that the countries share some very compelling similarities in their modern development as nation-states.

1) Both countries grow out of ancient cultures that were highly influential in the development of Western Civilization but only achieved independent Nation-State status in the 20th Century.

2) Both countries have a history of genocide and diaspora — the Jews, many times over the millenia and the Irish with the Great Potato Famine which reached its peak in 1847.

3) Both countries have a history of linguistic revival, although with varying degrees of success.

4) Both countries have unresolved issues of national territory that play-out very differently, but at their essence speak to a psycho-geography that extends beyond the physical boundaries of the state, and entangle them with competing claims to the land with another ethno-religious group.

5) Both countries struggle with the line between church (or synagogue) and state.

5) Both countries see themselves as victims of European history. The British in-particular play a strong adversarial role in the struggle for political independence in both national narratives.

6) Most significantly to the fellowship I was applying for at the time, both had National Theaters before they had actual Nations. The Habima Theatre began in Europe, but eventually established itself in pre-State Israel and began performing in Tel Aviv in 1929 (it wasn’t the official national theater until 1958). The Abbey Theater was established in 1904, well before independence as part of an Irish Literary revival lead by Yeats and Synge. The Irish national theater is much better known, but both played important roles in the self-definition of a modern national identity in the run-up to and following independence. As a result, the theatrical traditions in both countries are today still vitally connected to national issues and the continuing evolution of that identity. That was my thesis anyway.

I didn’t get it. Partly because the past fellowship recipient who interviewed me didn’t really “get” theater. When I tried to explain to him how theater could reflect and shape a national narrative I held up as an example Angels in America, which had recently won the Pulitzer. He hadn’t seen it, but his friend had and told him he hated it.

It also may have had something to do with the fact that after the interview I realized the fly on my pants had been down during the entire conversation. Certainly, that was a foible that Leopold Bloom would have appreciated.

Image: By RustyTheDog, via Wikimedia Commons

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