A Four Nations Approach to Jewish History: The Case of Ireland

A Four Nations Approach to Jewish History: The Case of Ireland

MA student John Roberts (Queen’s University, Belfast) highlights the existence of ‘British Jewries’ and argues that a four nations approach allows us to encapsulate a variety of Jewish identities.

While historians are familiar with “British Jewry”, it might be more appropriate to use British Jewries given that Scotland, Ireland and Wales (and even the Isle of Man), all have well established Jewish communities that have integrated themselves into the various societies in which they reside. A four nations approach to British Jewish history allows us to encapsulate a variety of Jewish histories, and in this post I will be offering a brief introduction to the origins of Jewish communities in Ireland, looking at primarily the late 19th and early 20th centuries with settlements and rabbinical culture, culminating in the creation of the Irish Chief Rabbinate[1]. This discussion has two objectives; firstly, to offer a broader narrative of Jewish history in Britain beyond England; and secondly, to open up Irish and British history that makes more room for a Jewish experience.

A small Jewish population in Ireland emerged around 1660 with a few Jewish families (Butler 1974:120), but it was not until about 1700 that this community began worshipping in a shul (synagogue; a Jewish place of worship) in Crane Lane in Dublin, and later in the same century to Marlborough Green (Butler 1994:46). Towards the end of the 19th century Ireland saw an increase of immigrants from the Russian Empire, mainly what is now Lithuania, which would eventually make up the bulk of Irish Jewry. This community settled mainly in the Dublin area, joining worship in the Dublin Hebrew Congregation (DHC) that had had been operating in Mary’s Abbey, a converted church, since the 1820s (Ó Gráda 2006:205). These immigrants had arrived fleeing Tsarist Russia making their way somehow or other to Ireland “often with the result of mere chance” often being told that Ireland was America, or stopping off thinking it was the next step towards America (Rivlin 2003:23).

Whatever the reason, there was a significant increase in Ireland’s Jewish population from 189 persons in 1871, to c3000 persons in 1911 with “nearly all [coming] from the same northern part of the Russian Empire, from small shtetls like Akmyan, Wexna, Zhogger, and Kurshany, all less than fifty kilometres away from each other” (Miller 2011: 202). This recreated the shtetl Litvak Yiddishkeit [2] culture in 19th and early 20th century Dublin that led to tensions with the “Anglicised” members of the DHC which resulted in the move to Adelaide Road Synagogue in 1892. Adelaide Road, which was consecrated by the British Chief Rabbi Dr Hermann Adler in 1892 (1994:47), was the main Orthodox synagogue in Dublin until its closure and de-consecration in 1998.

There were in fact “numerous synagogues in Dublin” (Harris 2002: 109) and Dublin Jewry, due to varying degrees of “frum-ness” (frum meaning ‘religious’) continued to produce various small “house” synagogues known as hevrot which operated alongside other established synagogues, such as Walworth Road (which now houses the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin). In his Dublin’s Little Jerusalem, Nick Harris comments how a “number of Rabbis found themselves in Dublin for some reason, and it was felt that they deserved to be given their own place of worship” (2002:117) and despite Adelaide Road, small shuls and minyans (a minyan is a group of ten adults, usually males over the age of 13 in Orthodox Judaism, but in more liberal branches of Judaism it can be a mixed group, that is required for prayer) continued to be supported (2006:164).

Of course, Dublin was not the only city on the island to be home to centres of, albeit small, Jewish life; outside Dublin, Cork and Belfast had the largest Jewish, but there were other settlements in Limerick, Waterford, Derry and Lurgan (2006:94). These Jewish communities were also affected by cultural and social tensions between the Russian newcomers and the already present “Anglicised” congregations. Belfast’s synagogue in Great Victoria Street, established in the 1870s was replaced by a new synagogue in 1904 that was “the first semblance of unity” (2003:47).

Each of these congregations were headed up by various religious leaders demonstrating that Torah (The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or the Books of Moses) and Talmudic study[3] was by no means left behind,. Ireland produced distinguished rabbis including Rabbi Theodore “Teddy” Lewis, who, having studied at the celebrated Mir Yeshiva in Poland in the 1930s, was rabbi of the main Orthodox Adelaide Road synagogue in the 1940s before taking on the post of rabbi at Touro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest synagogue in the United States in 1949. In England there existed a Chief Rabbinate from the 17th century, the highest authority of Jewish legal and religious matters, although in the 20th century Ireland created its own Chief Rabbinate beginning with Rabbi Yitzhak Halevy Herzog (2003:49).  Rabbi Herzog, Rabbi of Belfast, and then the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland and the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel was also fluent in the Irish language, and known as the Sinn Féin RebbeWhile Ireland had always been under the religious jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbi of Britain, the English Rabbinate was blamed, in particular by Dr Wormser Harris in 1899, for “much of the dissension between Dublin’s anglicised and foreign Jews” (2003:49). The English Rabbinate, essentially, was considered “valueless” given their “poor knowledge of Irish affairs” and Dr Harris “looked forward to a time when Ireland would have enough Jews in well-to-do circumstances to have its own spiritual leader” – in 1926 Herzog’s official title was changed to Chief Rabbi of the Irish Free State (2003:49-50).

While discussion of British Jewry from a historical perspective might focus on England, this approach allows us to include Ireland as well as opening up discussion for Scotland and Wales in a wider narrative. Simultaneously, Irish Jewish history alongside the Jewish histories of Wales, Scotland and England are important components of the history of the ‘Four Nations’ in terms of culture and religion, and invites us to rethink British history and what might initially be excluded.

[1] The rabbinate is an organisation of rabbis, Jewish religious leaders.

[2] A shtetl Litvak Yiddishkeit culture is the Yiddish speaking Orthodox Eastern European Jewish culture that would have been prominent in small towns with a Jewish majority (the shtetl) in the 19th and 20th centuries up until the Holocaust. Litvak was a term given to Jews from Lithuania, although as Ó Gráda points out, the geographical associations with Litvak include what are nowadays parts of Belarus and Poland (2006:17). Yiddishkeit is Yiddish for “Jewishness” (יִדישקייט).

[3]The Talmud is the authoritative, although to varying degrees, the source from which Jewish law, or halakha is derived; while adherence to the Talmud is not essentially uniform, it still retains a revered position within most Jewish traditions.

John Roberts is about to begin an MA in History at Queen’s University, Belfast. His background is in Religious Studies and Jewish Studies, and is interested in religious diversity in Ireland and Europe at large.

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