Hail the Loyal Yiddish Sons of Erin
How Irish Jews celebrate St. Patrick
By Cindy Mindell
Published: Wednesday, March 12, 2008 10:13 PM EDT
WESTPORT -- Joan Frankel is a Jewish Dubliner, born and bred. She has become something of an informal spokesperson for the local Jewish community, fielding emails from curious American Jews interested in their co-religionists in the heavily Catholic country. When asked about Jews and Ireland’s biggest annual celebration, she chides good-naturedly: “Really, writing about the Dublin Irish-Jewish community on St. Patrick’s Day is making a very large mountain out of a very small molehill!”
The strange and wonderful intersections of immigrant cultures in America baffle the Frankels and their Jewish friends.
“We in Dublin have always laughed at a group called the Loyal Yiddish Sons of Erin,” she says, “a concept which has always struck many of us as highly ridiculous!”
Indeed, the Loyal Yiddish Sons of Erin were a group of Irish-Jewish immigrants in New York City who, at least through the 1960s, would celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with green matzo balls. The Sons were actually Irish-born descendants of Polish and Lithuanian Jews who had stopped off in Ireland for a brief period on their migratory path to the U.S.
David Briscoe experienced the day differently while growing up Jewish in Dublin as son of Lord Mayor Ben Briscoe and grandson of the city’s first Jewish Lord Mayor, Robert Briscoe.
“Irish Jews enjoy the day like everyone else and ensure it is a day to join in the celebration of Irish unity and culture,” says the associate professor of medicine at Harvard. “On a personal note, I plan to arrange a day of Irish music and dance for several of my colleagues to celebrate Irish culture.”
David Briscoe’s brother, Daniel, lives in Tel Aviv, where he looks forward to celebrating the day with fellow Irish Jews.
“There is quite a large and vibrant Irish community living all over Israel. We always have a large get together and celebrate St Patricks Day in the very best way. Every year the Irish ambassador invites the Irish community to his residence for a buffet and drinks, and there is always Irish music or even an Irish army bagpiper present as the Irish army is stationed with the UN in the region. The Irish Community throws a large party awash with plenty of Irish beer and whiskey. The Irish descend on the venue from all over Israel and crowd it out. Irish music and traditional dancing makes the place very lively and it always amazes visitors that this occasion which feels and looks as if it is in Ireland is taking place in Israel. This year it is taking place in the Herzilea Marina in Murphy's Irish Pub in a Marquee Tent specially erected for the occasion and with performances by a group from Ireland.”
Joan Frankel finds it hard to believe.
“I somehow doubt that the majority of Irish Jews who emigrated to Israel would make a pilgrimage to Irish pubs, as it is certainly not the habit of Jews in Ireland to frequent pubs,” she says. “I really wasn't too surprised to hear that some Irish Jews abroad, particularly in the States, celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Two cogent reasons immediately spring to mind: First, they are in a country which, for reasons I can never understand, makes a huge fuss of an Irish Bank Holiday and encourages everyone to join in; and second, one is never so Irish as when away from Ireland.”
At the Frankels’ golf club, originally Jewish and now multi-denominational, “the only 'celebration' on 17th March is a mixed foursome competition, because it is a national holiday with businesses closed,” she says.
“Being Ireland, there are always churches open and always some people who attend services there, but to the best of my knowledge, it is not a major religious holiday.”
While Ireland has seen its share of antisemitism since Jews settled in major cities in the late 19th century, the late Robert Briscoe noted in his 1959 autobiography that there is generally less anti-Jewish sentiment in Ireland than in the U.S. or any other European country. The last several years have seen incidents of racist graffiti spray-painted on Jewish communal property.
But David Briscoe echoes his grandfather’s opinion: “I believe the Irish Jews are as much a part of Irish culture and history as any other nationality,” he says. “One needs only to visit Ireland today to see that it is a country of many peoples and religions, all of whom welcome and enjoy its culture.”