08 December 2014

Liturgy 10:1 and 10:2 (2014-2015): Sacred space
in Judaism, visiting the Irish Jewish Museum

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

Patrick Comerford

TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Year II, 14:00 to 16:30, Mondays, Hartin Room:

8 December 2014

This afternoon:

10.1 and 10.2:
Sacred space in Judaism: visiting the Irish Jewish Museum, Dublin.

We are visiting the Irish Jewish Museum this afternoon as part of the Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality module of the MTh course.

In the week immediately before Chanukah, which begins on Tuesday 16 December 2014 (and ends on Christmas Eve), and in these weeks in Advent leading up to Christmas, this visit provides 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 to generations of 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 former 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 migrated from this area to the southern suburbs, and the main synagogue in Dublin is now on Rathfarnham Road in Terenure.

We shall have opportunities to see the traditional synagogue upstairs and the artefacts and exhibits on display on the ground floor, and to hear 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 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

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 and its opening the following year.

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)

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)

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 a recent Bloomsday, 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 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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 in 2010 (Photograph: Orla Ryan)

Almost 60 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. There is a popular story that two Jews were watching that parade There is a popular story that.

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

“Amazing! Only in America,” replied said her 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 the 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.

Although the last census (2011) did not include a tick box for Judaism, many Jews filled in their Jewish affiliation, so the number of Jews in the Republic of Ireland was recorded at 1,984 in 2011, up from 1,930 in 2006. In Northern Ireland, 335 people chose to identify themselves as Jewish, up from a previous estimate of 150. A further 1,069 Jews of Irish birth are living in England and Wales.

The Dublin Jewish Progressive Congregation (Knesset Orech Chayim) on Leicester Avenue in Rathgar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are two main synagogues in Dublin: one Orthodox synagogue on Rathfarnham Road in Terenure, and one Liberal-Progressive synagogue on Leicester Avenue in Rathgar (Knesset Orach Chayim). There is one small synagogue in Cork that rarely opens, and one synagogue in Belfast.

In addition, there are two smaller synagogues in Dublin. One is the Machzikei haDas Congregation in Rathmore Villas, behind Terenure Road North; this is the successor to the synagogue founded in 1883 in St Kevin’s Parade in Little Jerusalem, and the congregation moved to Terenure in 1968. The other is the synagogue in the Dublin Jewish Home at the Quaker-run Bloomfield Care Centre in Rathfarnham, where there is a full Kosher kitchen is provided and services are held each Shabbat and Yom Tov.

Other synagogues in Dublin – including the ones on Adelaide Road, Walworth Road, and on the South Circular Road (Greenville Hall) closed in the 1970s and 1980s. The synagogue on Walworth Road now houses the Irish Jewish Museum, which we are visiting this afternoon.

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

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 four years ago, 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 encounters

Terenure Synagogue, Rathfarnham Road ... I was born a few doors away in 1952 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

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 brothers and cousins who lived within the Jewish community, including one family who shared a house with Lithuanian Jewish immigrants and cousins who lived two doors away from the house where James Joyce says Bloom was born.

I was born on Rathfarnham Road, a few doors away from the Terenure Synagogue. In 1948, the Congregation moved from Grosvenor Road, Rathmines, to a Nissen hut in the grounds of “Leoville,” Rathfarnham Road, which had been bought by the late Woulfe Freedman and Erwin Goldwater. I was born in January 1952, building the new synagogue began in August 1952, and it was completed and dedicated on 30 August 1953. In my youth, I knew the synagogues of Dublin and the streets of “Little Jerusalem,” off the South Circular Road and Clanbrassil Street.

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)

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)

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:

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.

During Spirituality hour in Week 4 of the second semester in last year [Monday 3 February 2014], I introduced us to key themes in Jewish Spirituality, including eight key personalities who, for me, illustrate the sources and strengths for the practice of Jewish spirituality today:

1, Martin Buber (1878-1965), 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.

2, Simone Weil (1909-1943), a French philosopher, Christian mystic and social activist.

3, Elie Weisel (born 1928), a Romanian-born modern Jewish novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor who has influenced many Christian theologians, including J├╝rgen Moltmann.

4, Lord Sacks (Dr Jonathan Henry Sacks), the former (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi in Britain, and a well-known spokesman for the Jewish community.

5, Rabbi Lionel Blue, an English Reform rabbi from the East End of London, a journalist and broadcaster, well-known for his contributions to A Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4.

6, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a Reform rabbi and Professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Wales in Lampeter, and author of The Crucified Jew (1992).

7, Michele Guinness, who bridges Judaism and Anglicanism in her own life story.

8, Leonard Cohen, the Canadian born poet and song-writer – there is more to his spirituality than Hallelujah: his poetry and his lyrics are deeply influenced by Hasidic ideas and he remains deeply mystical and spiritually challenging.

CITI students Rob Clements and Andrew Campbell visiting the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin three years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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, Liturgy and Church History, 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 8 December 2014, as part of the Module TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality.

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