Monday, February 18, 2008

Cormac Ó Gráda's "Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce": Book Review

Critics and historians tend to peddle the same few incidents from the Limerick boycott, the election of IRA supplier Bob Briscoe as Dublin's Lord Mayor, the Irish-born president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, and of course, the fictional Leopold Bloom who's not even Jewish according to "strictly confessional criteria, of course." (205) Professor Ó Gráda, known for his "Black '47 and Beyond" Famine study that plowed through economic and demographic data meticulously, does the same excavation into the archival and testimonial undergrowth so far unearthed by previous scholars. As with his previous book, here he also challenges facile anecdotes and puts to rest weary factoids.

While much of this study fills pages with charts only statisticians will delight in, the author takes pains to explain his findings in clear prose. One shortcoming is the skimpy illustrations, in an era that must have possessed many engravings, cartoons, and photos. Only a few photos of drab house exteriors are included. Also, the refugee crisis later in the 20th c. may be outside the immediate vantage point assumed here, but whether the far too few who escaped the Nazis for shelter in the North or the Free State settled in with previous Jews or whether they found refuge elsewhere in Ireland is not addressed here at all. While the bibliography is excellent, these are two areas that could have been granted brief attention, for the panorama extends beyond Bloomsday across the rest of the past century, thanks to oral history and interviews.

Admittedly, particular chapters did cause me to skim rather than slow down due to their rather thickly clotted amassing of records. But, many others who read this valuable study may find these the most engaging sections. For me, interested in Irish Jewry from a literary and social context (my humble chapter on "The Jews in Ireland" in editor Seán Duffy's "Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia" escaped mention in an otherwise extensive list of works on the subject, and I admit my little entry may have been beyond the scope of this focused and thoughtful analysis on late 19th and early 20th c. Ireland), the comparisons escape the dutiful catalogue that Joyceans recite endlessly of references to Bloom's purported progenitors.

Instead, and refreshingly so, Ó Gráda carefully sifts through the facts from Ireland and places them alongside diaspora studies of Jewish immigration, to show where the Irish encounter differed and where it matched that of American, British, Commonwealth, and even an occasional Latin American emigré's tale from a century ago. He finds that hygiene, education, literacy, occupations, and communal standards differed often between the native Irish and the newcomers-- usually Litvaks less likely fleeing pogroms or conscription and much more probably (despite family lore?) coming as economic migrants to a more welcoming Western Europe. Why a few, perhaps less than one in every hundred winding up in New York or London, came to Ireland raises intriguing questions.

Generally, the Jews came because others had preceded them, and inevitably a few disembarked in Cork, Belfast, or Dublin as British ports that remained relatively affordable. They often benefited despite the discrimination in their Russian homeland by considerable advantages. Ó Gráda notes that although in the Pale the Litvaks numbered 18.7% of the workforce, they comprised over half of civil servants and 91.5% of those in trades and finance. So, those who chose to leave greater Lithuania already likely possessed much higher rates of literacy, health, and stability than their Gentile counterparts. They missed the old country little if at all, he finds, but did in letters express a yearning for the people left behind in their ancestral shetl or village. Nostalgia, unlike for the Irish emigrant, expressed itself not in a longing for the beauty of a landscape, but for the ties that bound them to a culture and a religious tradition that they sought to duplicate in portable fashion elsewhere. This proved the key to late 19th and early 20th c. success for many Jews.

The chain of "landsmen" led other friends and neighbors to leave for the same places as those who preceded them. While the numbers to an overwhelmingly Catholic interior kept miniscule, the opportunities in Irish cities for sellers of holy pictures, for moneylenders, for peddlers, for commercial sales and shopkeeping, and then for professionals and civil servants among their children and grandchildren enticed a few Litvaks to settle. They rarely competed in the jobs they found with the natives, and tended to keep to themselves for religious observances, kosher meals, and social interaction, so friction, Ó Gráda cautiously suggests, was kept for the most part far more minimal than others have suggested. For example, he criticizes Ronit Lentin's claim that the Irish Jews constituted "the archetypal 'others' of Ireland's national Catholicism" (qtd. 210) and Ó Gráda finds that the suffering of Irish Jews "was relatively mild."

The 20th century provided the community with its success and its decline, as many Irish Jews emigrated to marry within the community. Their triumphs in schooling, property, and business marked the few thousand as having made it in Ireland, but the stagnation that the nation endured for much of the past century meant that the future often beckoned elsewhere in the diaspora or in Israel more brightly. The outlying, provincial nature of Irish Jews also followed global trends towards assimilation; the vulnerability of marginal minorities continues in Jewry today outside a few urban centers, and only a tenth of the those in Dublin today, Ó Gráda estimates, attend services. Their counterparts in Cork have all but vanished, and those in Belfast continue to dwindle. While numbers in Dublin recently may have stabilized, there are no neighborhoods as Jewish as was once Lower Clanbrassil St, and the incomers from Israel, the EU, or the United States may be a temporary sign of the fluctuating boom of the past few years in Ireland rather than a long-term indicator of recovery.

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