Remember Where's Waldo? It's a fun time looking at maps and pictures and finding funny looking Waldo. Well I do my own version whenever I travel and I call it Seeking Seymour. I can't help myself. My default is to always look out for links to Jewish history, culture and people. And now when we see or meet something Jewish Rick and I mumble or shout - Seeking Seymour! Seymour was my Dad and it seemed appropriate to bring him into one of my favorite activities.
Now traveling to Ireland is not going to give you many opportunities for connecting with anything Jewish, but you just never know!
Our very first stop in Dublin we found Jewish Stars on our hotel pillars. I was so excited. When asking the Hotel Manager about it I found that some things are just the same in Ireland as they are in the states.. some men just can't bring themselves to say "Gee, I don't know." He'd rather go on and on and give me information that has nothing to do with anything.
When we were tooling around Waterford and Rick was climbing what would turn out to be the first of many castles, I chatted with one of the tour guides. "Oh, of course there were Jews back here in the Viking era, they'd be needed for commerce, wouldn't they?"
In Kinsale I wandered into an antique store and found a copy of Chagall's Rabbi holding a Torah. The Shop owner told me she liked having it there as her first husband was Jewish and it made her kids feel good when they saw it. It made me feel good too.
In Kenmare I got into a wonderful conversation with a street vendor (check out my new red work bag when I get back) and upon seeing my Jewish star told me about his wonderful Jewish mentor who taught him everything he knows about selling. At a cafe grabbing coffee we see on the menu, "Bagel, cream cheese and Bacon." Ok, well, at least they have heard of Bagels!
When we arrived in Roscommon I flipped out when I saw the Museum building with the gorgeous Jewish Star (seen above). This one though, has me stumped. Researching on line all I could find was that the Presbyterians who built the church saw it as a sign of the Trinity (they couldn't count?).. It just didn't make sense. The docent said that it was the symbol of St David, the patron saint of the Welsh and that the Welsh builders left it as a sort of signature on the church. I don't really know what to believe on that one. If anyone knows, help me out here!
Arriving in Dublin is very exciting. It is an incredibly vibrant and International City. Trinity is an old and very respected University affiliated with Oxford. I was pleased to hear that they started the very first Hebrew Studies program back in 1592 and enjoyed wandering around the ancient library and viewing the Book of Kells.
Yesterday, we visited the Irish Jewish Museum. The building is old and damp and from my first step inside I felt as if I were being hugged by centuries of family. It was the first totally comfortable breath I had taken in three weeks. Don't get me wrong. I have loved every minute of this amazing trip, every single minute. I was simply being embraced by my own.
Yvonne Altman O'Connor, is a Jewish historian and I had arranged for her to meet with us and give us a tour. She is magnificent. A teacher and volunteer, she and a few others are struggling to keep the Museum running. It is fabulous and worth a visit if you make it to Ireland!
The first Jews came to Ireland in 1166 at which time they were told "Thank you for coming, you can go away now." The Jews persisted and the first synagogue was created in 1666. The first Jewish community lived in Cork and were Sephardic, but they died off and were replaced by Ashkenazi Jews in the late 1700's. There have never been many Jews in Ireland, 5,500 at its height. One genealogist though, has a data base of some 50,000 Jews who have lived in Ireland at some point.
The Jewish community really began to grow at the end of the 1800s in Dublin with Jews fleeing persecution. The community stuck together and created synagogues, a Jewish school and kosher shops. Two families when they began to do well purchased two homes side by side. Upstairs were the family bedrooms and downstairs they broke through the wall to create a space large enough to hold a synagogue congregation. At its height 150 congregants crowded into the very small space.
The first Chief Rabbi of Ireland was Rabbi Isaac Herzog, father of Chaim Herzog. It was Chaim Herzog during his tenure as president, who opened the doors of the Irish Jewish Museum in 1985 (the former two home synagogue) after Jews had moved away and the synagogue merged with another more modern synagogue. It is funny thinking of an Israeli President with an Irish accent.
The second Jewish Community inside Ireland was in Cork whose community had continued intermittently. Having boarded the ship to escape pogroms many Jews left the ship when they thought they heard "New York, New York," when what they had actually heard had been "Cork Cork!" The small disgruntled group ended up staying in Cork and created a their own community. That synagogue just closed last year.
At this point there are approxximately 2,500 Jews in Ireland, about 1,500 affiliated. There is a congregation in Belfast of about 80 and three synagogues in Dublin. The Kosher Butcher and stores are gone but the Jewish Bakery is still here. Not finding a table we bought a bagel, said Motzi and shared it. And a very Jewish bagel it was.
Seeking Seymour actually enriches my experience wherever I travel. It gives me a touchstone if you will. I love seeing the architectural beauty of ancient churches and the extraordinary art inspired by different religions through the centuries.
I so appreciated Rick and his family coming with me to the Jewish Museum. I'm sure they felt like they were visiting Mars.. everything is so different from what they know. I wonder if they realize that that is how I feel every time I walk into a church or religious art exhibit.
Yvonne got it in one. She asked me what my favorite part of the trip was. I told her that every day had been so special I couldn't pick one moment or experience. I had to admit though, that walking into the doors of the Museum was - and at the same time we both said "Home." We are a wandering people, connected through close to 6,000 years of history, tradition, food, music, art and religion. And yet, connecting, in one moment, even Seeking Seymour if you will, we are Home.
Tracy Salkowitz is a Consultant,activist and the former CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.