Monday, 12 December 2011

Visiting the Jewish Museum again

The Torah Scrolls in the Ark in the synagogue in the Irish Jewish Museum this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I visited the Irish Jewish Museum once again this afternoon with Year II students from the Liturgy and Spirituality module of the MTh course.

In the days leading up to Chanukah and Christmas this was an opportunity to appreciate the Jewish community’s understanding of sacred space, worship and inculturation, and the story of an important religious and cultural community in Ireland.

This small museum on Walworth Road in Portobello is in the area that once located in a part of Portobello that once had such a prominent Jewish community that it was known among Dubliners as “Little Jerusalem.”

The museum was opened in June 1985 by Chaim Herzog, who was then President of Israel. He was born in Belfast and grew up in Dublin, the son of a Chief Rabbi of Ireland.

The museum is housed in a former synagogue that was built in 1917 when two adjoining terraced houses off the South Circular Road were knocked together.

The Jewish population later migrate from this area to the southern suburbs, and the main synagogue in Dublin is now on Rathfarnham Road in Terenure.

Debbie Briscoe and Howard Freeman showed us around the traditional synagogue upstairs and the artefacts and exhibits on display on the ground floor, and told us the colourful and culturally rich stories of Jews in Ireland over the centuries, including the communities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast, and the contribution over the centuries of Irish Jews to Irish political, social and cultural life.

The traditional kitchen, with a typical Sabbath meal setting, in the Irish Jewish Museum this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

A unique feature in the museum on the ground floor is a traditional kitchen, with double kitchen sinks and a typical Sabbath meal setting from a Jewish home of the late 19th and early 20th century in this neighbourhood.

There was more than food for thought here this afternoon, as there should be at all times in interfaith dialogue.

Visiting the Irish Jewish Museum and synagogue

The Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre is housed in the former synagogue on Walworth Road, which opened in 1915 and remained in use until the 1970s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

This afternoon, as a year group, we are visiting the Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre, which is housed in the former Walworth Road Synagogue in Portobello. The museum is housed in what were originally two adjoining redbrick terraced houses in Walworth Road, which had a functioning synagogue in the upstairs floor.

This area once had a proportionately large Jewish population, so that some of the streets around this end of the South Circular Road were known as “Little Jerusalem.”

Due to the drift of the Jewish population from Portobello and Little Jerusalem to the suburbs of south Dublin, the synagogue fell into disuse and stopped functioning around 1970. The premises were locked for almost 15 years, and but the building was brought back to life again with the formation of the Irish Jewish Museum Committee in 1984. The museum was opened by the Irish-born former President of Israel, Dr Chaim Herzog, during a state visit to Ireland the following year.

On the ground floor, the museum preserves an important part of Ireland’s cultural and historic heritage, with a collection of memorabilia relating to Ireland’s Jewish communities and their associations and contributions to present-day Ireland. The material relates to the last 150 years and tells the stories of Jewish communities not just in Dublin but also in Belfast, Cork, Derry, Drogheda, Limerick and Waterford.

The museum is divided into several areas. In the entrance area and corridors, there is a display of photographs, paintings, certificates and testimonials. The ground floor contains a general display relating to the commercial and social life of the Jewish community.

The first reference to the presence of Jews in Ireland is in the Annals of Innisfallen, which record the arrival of five Jews, probably from Rouen in France, in 1079. Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century, more Jews settled in Ireland, and 1555 William Annyas became the Mayor of Youghal, Co Cork, and the first Jewish mayor in Ireland.

However, the first synagogue in Ireland did not open until 1660, with the opening of a prayer room in Crane Lane, opposite Dublin Castle. The ground floor exhibits include memorabilia and photographs from Dublin’s many synagogues, including the now-closed synagogues on Adelaide Road and the South Circular Road (Greenville Hall).

The Irish Jewish Museum and Heritage Centre is housed in two terraced houses in area once known as “Little Jerusalem” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In the museum, there are photographs of famous Jewish politicians and judges, including Mr Justice Henry Barron, Otto Yaffe, who became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899, Bob Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956, and Gerald Goldberg, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Cork in 1977, and of Ben Briscoe of Fianna Fail, Alan Shatter of Fine Gael and Mervyn Taylor of Labour.

When Gerald Goldberg was Lord Mayor of Cork, he opened the Trinity pedestrian bridge, which is also close to the synagogue on South Terrace where he had been President. The bridge was named after a nearby church, but local wags nicknamed it “the Passover.”

A special feature on the ground floor of the museum is a kitchen with the kosher double sink and a table that is laid out with the traditional Sabbath or Festival meal setting of a typical Jewish home in this area of Dublin in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The displays include photographs of some of the Jewish characters mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses, as well as many religious and other Jewish objects mentioned in this book. One showcase displays a selection of items referred to in the various episodes of Ulysses that have a Jewish or Irish connection.

There has never been any concern within the Dublin Jewish about James Joyce’s portrayal of Leopold Bloom. The Jerusalem Post on Bloomsday earlier this year reported: “Nobody has ever complained about the fictitious character Leopold Bloom. In fact, everyone enjoys it. Jews everywhere have accepted it as a story.”

The synagogue was used for a wedding as recently as last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Upstairs, the original synagogue retains all its ritual fittings. The synagogue could hold about 150 men and women. It has never been formally deconsecrated, and so was used for a wedding last year. There is still a pair of mannequins beneath a canopy, dressed for a wedding.

What was the women’s gallery now houses the Harold Smerling gallery, with many religious objects, including richly decorated covers for Torah scrolls.

The Irish Jewish Museum seeks to collect, preserve and present for public display material and artefacts relating to the Irish Jewish Community and Judaism in general and to make this memorabilia available to visitors, researchers and students.

Judaism in Ireland today:

Rabbi Zalman Lent speaking to the Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference in Terenure Synagogue last year (Photograph: Orla Ryan, 2010)

There is a popular story that 55 years ago in New York, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, led the Saint Patrick’s Day parade on New York's Fifth Avenue. In 1956 Two Jews were watching the parade.

One Jew said to the other: “Did you know that Robert Briscoe is Jewish?”

“Amazing! Only in America,” replied said his friend.

Since the arrival of the first Jews here in 1079, a number of Jews have been elected to high office William Annyas was Mayor of Youghal, Co Cork in 1555; Sir Otto Yaffe was Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1899; in 1956 and 1961, Robert Briscoe of Fianna Fail was Lord Mayor of Dublin; in 1977, Gerald Goldberg was Lord Mayor of Cork; Ben Briscoe, a Fianna Fail TD, followed in father’s footsteps when he was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1988. In my own lifetime there have been Jewish TDs for all three main political parties: Ben Briscoe (Fianna Fail), Alan Shatter (Fine Gael) and Mervyn Taylor (Labour).

The present Jewish community in Ireland dates mainly from the 1880s, when immigrants from Lithuania fleeing pogroms in the Tsarist empire found refuge in Dublin and Cork. At its highest point, the Jewish population of Ireland stood between 3,500 and 4,000 from 1911 until 1948. By 1991, this number had dropped to 1,581.

According to last census (2006), the number of Jews in the Republic of Ireland today is 1,930, with probably another 150 in Northern Ireland. There are two synagogues in Dublin: one Orthodox synagogue on Rathfarnham Road in Terenure, and one Liberal- Progressive synagogue on Leicester Avenue in Rathgar; in addition, there is one small synagogue in Cork that rarely opens, and one synagogue in Belfast. Other synagogues in Dublin – including the ones on Adelaide Road, Walworth Road, and on the South Circular Road (Greenville Hall) have closed in the 1970s and 1980s.

The synagogue on Walworth Road now houses the Irish Jewish Museum, which was opened in 1985 by Chaim Herzog, President of Israel from 1983 to 1993. He was born in Belfast in 1918, and his father, Dr Isaac Herzog, was the first Chief Rabbi of the Irish Free State.

The museum was opened in 1984 by the former President of Israel, Chaim Herzog (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

There are Jewish cemeteries in Ballybough, with graves dating back to the early 18th century, in Dolphin’s Barn, which opened in 1898, and close to the Orlagh Retreat Centre in Rathfarnham, which opened in the early 1950s. Stratford College, on Zion Road, is a Jewish-run school. But Dublin’s kosher bakery, The Bretzel in Portobello, has been owned by non-Jews for two generations.

Most Irish Jews are comfortably middle-class, many are professionals or in business, and many are third- or fourth-generation Irish-born. But they are asking themselves whether Jewish life is going to continue in Ireland? And if so, for much longer?

Emigration, an aging population, intermarriage and assimilation have all taken their toll, and some estimates say that within a generation or two only a handful of Jews are likely to remain in Ireland. Raphael Siev, who founded the museum, has estimated “there are more Irish-born Jews living in Israel than in Ireland.”

During the Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute in September 2010, we visited the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, where Rabbi Zalman Lent speculated that the decline has been arrested. He pointed out there is a young Jewish population in Dublin, and some Jewish immigration.

Personal encounter

Terenure Synagogue, Rathfarnham Road ... I was born a few doors away in 1952 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Close to Harold’s Cross Bridge, there is a terrace of houses on Clanbrassil Street where James Joyce says Leopold Bloom was born. Joyce made Bloom the archetypal “Dub” of the early 20th century when he wrote Ulysses.

There, in Little Jerusalem, my grandfather had cousins who shared a house with Lithuanian Jewish immigrants and cousins who lived two doors away from the house where Joyce says Bloom was born.

I was born on Rathfarnham Road, a few doors away from the Terenure Synagogue. In my youth, I knew the streets of Little Jerusalem, off the South Circular Road and Clanbrassil Street in Dublin.

Over the years, I have visited the synagogues in Dublin at Adelaide Road and Walworth Road (both now closed), Rathfarnham Road and Leicester Avenue, Rathgar, and I have written about and I have visited synagogues and Jewish communities in Austria, Britain, China, France, Greece, Hungary, Hong Kong, Israel/Palestine, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, South Africa and Turkey.

The Jewish experience in Europe

The Jewish Holocaust Memorial on Platia Eleftherias near the port in Thessaloniki .... in July 1942, all the men in the Jewish community aged from 18 to 45 were rounded up in this square for deportation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Jewish contribution to Western culture cannot all be compartmentalised into the wanderings of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, the movies of Woody Allen, amateur dramatic stagings of Fiddler on the Roof, the novels of Chaim Potok or James Heller, the songs of Bob Dylan, the poems of Leonard Cohen, Erich Segal’s Love Story, the politics and conflicts around Israel, or Madonna’s dabbling in the Kaballah.

But over the centuries, European civilisation and our spirituality have been challenged by, have been enriched by and have engaged with innumerable Jewish thinkers and philosophers, including:

● Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who declared that religious faith “consists in honesty and sincerity of heart rather than in outward actions.”
● Karl Marx (1818-1883), who irreversibly changed political and social thinking.
● Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the father figure of post-modernism, who argued: “We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent and, what is more … capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space, of seeing into the most secret of places.” Instead, he said, we should see God as “the structure of conscience.”

Stars of David in the darkness of the night at the synagogue in Rathfarnham Road, Dublin ... the spirituality that sustained a people and a faith through the dark night of the Holocaust is rich, deep and profound (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The spirituality that sustained a people and a faith through the dark night of the Holocaust must be very rich, deep and profound, and has to have something deep and beautiful to contribute to us today, and to say to us as we experience and live our lives spiritually. Any introduction to Jewish spirituality needs to imagine the profound impact of the Holocaust on Jews collectively and on our society. And an introduction to Jewish spirituality also needs to take account of the Hasidic movement, which has influenced many writers outside its own circles.

Eight key contemporary Jewish figures:

Fragments of Jewish gravestones scattered by the Rotunda in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

There is a perception that Jewish religious activity is confined to concerns about the modern state of Israel or debates about the observation of kosher regulations. But there are other sources and strengths for the practice of Jewish spirituality today. And, for me, eight key personalities serve to illustrate the sources and strengths for the practice of Jewish spirituality today:

Martin Buber (1878-1965), was a leading Austrian-born Israeli philosopher, translator, and educator. His evocative, sometimes poetic writing style has marked the major themes in his work: the re-telling of Hasidic tales, Biblical commentary, and metaphysical dialogue.

For Martin Buber, the Hasidic ideal was a life lived in the unconditional presence of God, where there was no distinct separation between daily habits and religious experience. This was a major influence on his philosophy of anthropology, which considered the basis of human existence as dialogical.

In 1923, he wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later published in English as I and Thou), in which he argues there that a person is at all times engaged with the world in one of two modes of being: one of dialogue (Ich-Du) or one of monologue (Ich-Es). Ich-Du (“I-Thou”) is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is an encounter in which infinity and universality are made actual, rather than being merely concepts.

Buber describes God as the eternal “Du,” and so one key Ich-Du relationship he identifies is that between a human being and God. He argues that this is the only way it is possible to interact with God, and that an Ich-Du relationship with anything or anyone connects in some way with the eternal relation to God.

On the other hand, in an Ich-Es relationship there is no actual meeting. He argues that human life consists of an oscillation between Ich-Du and Ich-Es, and that Ich-Du experiences are few and far between. He argues that Ich-Es relations – even between human beings – devalue not only those who exist, but the meaning of all existence.

Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French philosopher, Christian mystic and social activist, who was born in Paris into an agnostic Jewish family. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about the political movements she was a part of and later about spiritual mysticism. Her biographer Gabriella Fiori says she was “a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range.”

From 1938 on, her writings became more mystical and spiritual. She declined to be baptised until the very end of her life – a decision she explained in her book Waiting for God.

She does not regard the world as a debased creation, but as a direct expression of God’s love – although she also recognises it as a place of evil, affliction, and sees the brutal mixture of chance and necessity. This juxtaposition leads her to produce an unusual form of Christian theodicy. She also writes on why she believes spirituality is necessary for dealing with social and political problems, and says the soul needs food just as the body needs food.

Elie Weisel (born 1928) is a Romanian-born modern Jewish novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor. He is the author of over 40 books. His best-known book, Night (1958), describes his Holocaust experiences in several concentration camps: “I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone – terribly alone in a world without God and without man.”

In one searing passage in Night, he recalls “the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky,” and says: “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever … Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

He has written over 40 books and was instrumental in the building of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In 1986, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out against violence, repression, and racism. His writing is considered among the most important in Holocaust literature, and he is credited by some with giving the term “Holocaust” its present meaning.

His statement, “... to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all ...”, stands as a succinct summary of his views on life and serves as the driving force of his work.

J├╝rgen Moltmann, in The Crucified God, was the first theologian to adapt Wiesel’s graphic and horrific story of a Jewish boy hung by the Nazis along with two men in a camp. It took half an hour for the youth to die and, as the men of the camp watched his torment, one asked: “Where is God now?” Wiesel heard a voice within him answer: “Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows.”

But, while Wiesel interpreted his inner voice as expressing what has now become disbelief in a loving and just God, Moltmann used the story to argue for a God who suffers in union with those who suffer.

Dr Jonathan Henry Sacks is the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi in Britain, and is a well-known spokesman for the Jewish community, as a frequent guest on television and radio shows, and for his regular newspaper columns.

In the 1990 BBC Reith lectures (published in 1991 as The Persistence of Faith), he argued that faiths must remain open to criticism, and while keeping alive their separate communities must contribute to national debates and moral issues.

Rabbi Lionel Blue is an English Reform rabbi from the East End of London, a journalist and broadcaster, and the first openly gay British rabbi. He is well known for his wry, gentle sense of humour on A Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4.

Through those contributions to A Thought for the Day over the past 25 years, he has given hundreds of thousands of listeners their daily ration of spirituality and religion, and has bridged the gap between not only Judaism but all religion and the demands of the secular world. “Well good morning Sue and good morning John and good morning everybody” is a typical opening for A Thought for the Day.

He has said: “I don’t believe death is the end. This world is like a corridor, like a departure lounge in an airport. You make yourself comfortable and get to know people – then your number comes up and you’re called.”

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is a Reform rabbi and Professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Wales in Lampeter. He argues that today Judaism is pluriform in nature, that it no longer has an over-arching authority that can determine correct belief and practice.

In The Crucified Jew (1992), he challenges Christians to face up to 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. In Glimpses of God (1994), he invites a variety of writers, Jewish and Christian, to say whether we can find a glimpse of God in the everyday life.

Michele Guinness bridges Judaism and Anglicanism in her own life story. A vicar’s wife and a broadcaster for many years, she has written eight books and is a regular contributor to television, newspapers and magazines.

In her best-selling book, Child of the Covenant (1985), she talks about making sense of being both Jewish and Christian. She has argued that as a member of the Church of England she never lost her sense of being Jewish, and she continues to practice many aspects of her Jewish faith. She talks of a Jewish girl rediscovering her roots by finding Christ.

Leonard Cohen is a Canadian born poet and song-writer and I have been a fan of his since the late 1960s. There is more to his spirituality than Hallelujah. Like most Jews, he has been irrevocably changed by entering into the shared, post-Holocaust experience. Like many Jews, he has tried to balance between a critical and an ambivalent attitude to the religious teachings of Judaism, but he has never abandoned it.

His poetry and his lyrics are deeply influenced by Hasidic ideas too, and even when he is apparently at his most bawdy he remains deeply mystical and spiritually challenging.

He sings his poem, If it be your will, as a deeply moving prayer:

Leonard Cohen, ‘If it be your will’

If it be your will
that I speak no more
and my voice be still
as it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
if it be your will

If it be your will
that a voice be true
from this broken hill
I will sing to you
from this broken hill
all your praises they shall ring
if it be your will
to let me sing
from this broken hill
all your praises they shall ring
if it be your will
to let me sing

If it be your will
if there is a choice
let the rivers fill
let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
on all these burning hearts in hell
if it be your will
to make us well

And draw us near
and bind us tight
all your children here
in their rags of light
In our rags of light
all dressed to kill
and end this night
if it be your will

If it be your will.

The Irish Jewish Museum, 3 Walworth Road, off the South Circular Road, Dublin 8, is open 1 May to 30 September: Monday to Thursday, 11 am to 3.30 pm; 1 October to 30 April: Sunday only, 10.30 am to 2.30 pm. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted. Arrangements can be made outside opening times for adult and school groups. Contact: museum_at_jewishireland.org

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These briefing notes were prepared for Year II M.Th. students in advance of a visit to the Irish Jewish Museum, Dublin, on 12 December 2011, as part of the Module EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality.