Thursday, 3 September 2020

Searching for memories,
poems and explanations
in ‘Jewtown’ in Cork

In the heart of the former ‘Jewtown’ in Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

I was exploring Cork’s Jewish history and legacy earlier this week as part 2 of this year’s ‘Road Trip’ took me to Cork. Shalom Park is beside the area in Cork known as ‘Jewtown’ is Cork’s equivalent of ‘Little Jerusalem’ in Dublin, between Clanbrassil Street and Portobello.

However, as I wrote last night, it is disappointing that there are no signs in Shalom Park to indicate the significance of the park’s name, and no plaques on houses in the surrounding streets to remember the names of families who once shaped the unique identity of this corner of Cork.

At one time, this area was made up of a number of small streets around the Hibernian Buildings that became home to Lithuanian Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia in the late 19th century.

Local lore says many of these refugees were trying to reach New York, but instead ended up in Cork. This unlikely story says they thought they were in America when they landed, mistaking the call ‘Cork, Cork,’ for ‘New York.’

Many of these new arrivals first started out as unskilled peddlers. But they soon opened their own up shops and small businesses, their own synagogues, and quickly became part of political, social and business life in the Cork. Gerald Goldberg, whose father came from Russia, became the Lord Mayor of Cork in 1973.

Today, there are less than a handful of Jewish people left in Cork city and none in Jewtown itself. The park was founded just beside these houses and it is dedicated to the memory of the Jewish people that lived there.

Simon Lewis recalls many of the stories of this area in Jewtown, (Doire Press, 2016), a collection of 57 brief poems. In these poems, he draws on the experiences of those Lithuanian Jews who settled there in the 1880s and 1890s. His collection includes three Hennessy Award Winning poems, ‘The Zoo,’ ‘Creosote’ and ‘Two Sisters.’

Simon Lewis moved from Dublin a few years ago to take up a teaching post in Carlow. There he joined a writers’ group and was challenged to write about his Jewish and Irish background, leading him to examine Jewish history in Cork.

His great-grandmother was born in Cork, and he says many Irish Jews can trace their journey through this small area of Cork City.

The tenth poem in his collection, ‘Tashlich,’ is read by David Goldberg in the new ‘Virtual Walk’ through Jewish Cork launched last month by the performance artist Ruti Lachs, who is active in the Munster Jewish Community.

The virtual tour, which I used as I explored Jewish Cork earlier this week, is presented by Ruti Lachs and Marnina Winkler, includes interviews, stories, and music, and this poem by Simon Lewis.

Streets in the heart of the former ‘Jewtown’ in Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

‘Tashlich’ refers to the symbolic casting away of sins into a river or flowing water during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The anonymous narrator in ‘Tashlich’ recalls his dangerous escape from Tsarist antisemitism and recounts his present poverty in Ireland. But he also expresses relief at feeling free from physical danger in Cork:

I toss breadcrumbs in the river
and pray to God for forgiveness:
for the food I stole from the houses
in empty shtetls, the lies to the soldiers
at every checkpoint all the way
to the harbour at Riga, and the evenings
when I could barely breathe,
questioning my faith, broken from the day.
This year, I thank God for a mattress
on a dirt floor, a small knob of butter
melted in mashed potato, to be able
to walk without looking behind me.

‘Bromide,’ the poem immediately after ‘Tashlich,’ however, makes it clear that the Jewish immigrants were not entirely assured of physical safety in Cork, either. The anonymous narrator speaks to her husband, who has been beaten and harassed:

You make up a tale
of how you tripped on Albert Quay,
gave yourself a fine big shiner,
grazed your brow or chipped a tooth,
or you make a joke about staying off
that Irish whiskey or smile, tell me
I should see the other guy
before you limp off to our bed.
It’s only in the darkness I feel
every punch, slap and threat.
If you aren’t stirring
or jerking, I try to find a bruise
and press it. Sometimes a wince
is as good as sleeping pills.

There is no explanation at Shalom Park of the significance of the name of the park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The synagogue at 10 South Terrace, built in 1896, closed in February 2016. Simon Lewis’s final poem in Jewtown, ‘The Last Sabbath at South Terrace Synagogue,’ describes one of those final services. Here, Simon Lewis also recalls Freddie Rosehill, the last chair of the trustees of the Cork Hebrew Congregation:

Shipped in from Dublin, the men gathered like beetles
around the orange glow of the gas heaters, grumbling
as the Sabbath candles were lit. Above them, the women
looked down from the crumbling balcony at the ruins,
the walls twinkling with dew, the rot chewing the panels
and the blue velvet table covers airbrushed by damp.
The men shifted in the pews as their knees stiffened
and they mumbled along to the cantor’s funereal chants.
At the front of the Shul was Freddie, his silver crutch
rooted to the carpet bearing the weight of his body,
of the synagogue, of one-hundred and twenty years
of peddlers, grocers, directors. His face, red with the strain,
gave in by the first Kaddish, drooping back into the pew,
knowing he was part of the furniture, ready to be moved on.

Freddie Rosehill died within 10 months of the synagogue closing, at the age of 88.

The Cork Hebrew Congregation has also been the subject of a poem, written in 1987 by the Cappoquin-born poet, novellist and critic Thomas McCarthy, ‘The Dying Synagogue at South Terrace.’ In this poem, he moves from contemplation of the synagogue’s shabby exterior, its chocolate-coloured paint peeling off, to thoughts of the Irish government’s refusal to help Jews trying to flee the Holocaust and current animosity towards the state of Israel in Ireland:

We who did nothing for you, who
remained aloof with the Catholic world
and would have cried Jew! like the others—
David forgive us—
we who didn’t believe the newsreels,
preferring hatred of England to love of you,
we might shut our hypocrite mouths,
we want a West Bank but not a Stormont.
We have no right over your batons,
having made nothing for you but L. Bloom.

L. Bloom is, of course, Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the character most associated with Jews in Irish literature.

Simon Lewis’s poems in Jewtown received the 2015 Hennessy Poetry Prize. His second poetry collection, Ah! Men, was published last year (October 2019).

Thomas McCarthy from Cappoquin says of Jewtown: ‘It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this jewel of a poetry book. Jewish life in Cork, the life of just four hundred souls, has already had its chroniclers in David Marcus, Gerald Y Goldberg and Louis Marcus, but this suite of poems lifts the narrative of that now lost community to a new intensity of poetic thought.’

The ‘Walking Tour’ page can be found HERE

The synagogue at South Terrace closed in 2016 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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