Jewish Activity Ramps Up in Ireland
On February 19, Jewish Arts and Culture Ireland (JACI) will host an event — “From Kovno to Cobh” — which will include performances in Jewish arts, music, and poetry. It will be held at the Cork Arts Theatre, situated in the heart of the city.
JACI is a division of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland (JRCI). Saul Woolfson began the JACI last year, and it is made up of members who are based all over Ireland and abroad. The upcoming event includes performances expressing the immigrant experience of the island’s Jewish community.
Ireland’s modern Jewish community hails from all across the globe. Historically, a group of Sephardic Jews originally from Spain and Portugal settled in the area in the 1700s. They ended up assimilating mostly into the local Protestant community. To date, no remnants of an old synagogue have been found, but a Jewish cemetery once existed around Kemp Street. Later, the biggest wave of Jewish immigrants to the Emerald Isle arrived in the late 1800s, as millions of Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jews left Eastern Europe fleeing persecution. Many families from Lithuania and the rest of the Russian Empire moved in a “westward direction,” and some settled in Ireland.
These early Jewish settlers lived in what became dubbed “Jew Town.” There was vibrant Jewish life there, as they observed kosher dietary laws, celebrated Jewish religious festivals, and spoke in Hiberno-Yiddish, a dialect born in Ireland. But over time, their descendants shifted to English.
Most of the men took up work as peddlers, known as vicklemen (literally, weekly men). These door to door salesmen would leave their homes on a Monday to sell their motley of merchandise — household items, trinkets, and holy pictures — make their rounds across the island, and return on Friday, just in time for Shabbat, hence the name. This stereotypical profession only lasted for a generation. A handful of Jews took up other professions such as Hebrew teachers, carpenters, or shopkeepers.
The evening celebration in Cork will include an interview with special guest, film director Lenny Abrahamson, a Yiddish song sung by Yiddishist Vivi Lachs, and a story performance.
Musician Ruti Lachs, from the band Fresh Air Collective, co-producer of the event and JACI’s local liaison in Cork, said that, “This is a great platform for Irish-based artists to highlight Irish and global Jewish stories and culture.” Ruti has 20 years of experience in Klezmer music, a multi-sourced instrumental musical tradition that developed among Jews in Eastern Europe. Both Irish traditional music and Klezmer may sound similar to unfamiliar audiences, but Ruti suggests that they have “different scales, chord sequences and rhythms.”
Other performers include Brian Connor from Belfast and Simon Lewis from Carlow, with poetry from his collection” Jewtown,” set in Cork.
Cork is estimated to have had around 500 Jews at its peak in the 1940s but it dwindled due to emigration. In 2016, the synagogue in South Terrace, Cork, was deconsecrated. Following this turn of events, a group of women formed the Munster Jewish Community, to ensure that Jews living in and around Cork would still have a way to celebrate their identity and traditions. Many Israelis have moved to Cork in recent years to work for companies such as Apple, notably, which has kept a continual Jewish presence going in the area.
In June 2022, JACI participated in a community arts and culture event in Belfast at the Grand Culture Cafe that brought together a range of minority and ethnic groups. In October, they jointly hosted with the JRCI “Ukraine Support Group,” a welcome evening in Dublin assisting refugee families fleeing the ongoing war.
Avi Kumar is a Holocaust historian/journalist from Sri Lanka. He has lived in many countries and speaks 11 languages. He has written about a variety of topics in publications worldwide.