Esther Hesselberg, 100 years old, remembers when 5,000 Jews lived in Dublin. Speaking in a soft brogue, her eyes lighting up at the recollection, she spoke of how the the part of the city where Jews had their homes, shops and synagogues was called "little Jerusalem."
"But now," she said, "we're a dying community. In another ten years, there won't be but a handful of us left."
She and 40 other elderly Jews live in the Jewish Home, a converted block of mansions run by the Jewish Board of Guardians. Esther's a bit hard of hearing, and her eyesight is dimmed by cataracts, but her memory is still sharp.
Esther is a "blow-in" - the Irish word for newcomer - from Cork, where she was born in 1896. When she and her husband moved to Dublin in the 1930s, there were enough Jews to support eight kosher butcher shops and a dozen shuls that ranged from one-room shteibles (prayer halls) to the elegant Greek-columned Greenville Hall Synagogue.
Raphael Siev, the Curator of the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin, spoke of "three haemorrhages" that reduced the Jewish population of Ireland from its peak of nearly 6,000 in the 1940s to 1,200 today. "Starting in the late 1940s, young Jews became assimilated, and there was a great deal of intermarriage. In those days, the Church insisted that the non-Catholic had to convert." "That", said Siev, who is also a member of the Irish diplomatic corps, "was the first major haemorrhage."
The founding of the State of Israel in 1948 prompted an exodus from Ireland. "Irish Jews have always been very Zionistic," explained Siev. "In fact, today there are more Irish-born Jews living in Israel than in Ireland." The third haemorrhage, ongoing from the 1960s, is emigration for better economic and social opportunities. "The young leave because there's no Jewish life for them here, and because the good jobs are overseas," said Siev. His statistics on the Jewish population outside of Dublin aren't very heartening: one Jew each in Limerick and Waterford, a single family in Galway, two-dozen in Cork, and two hundred in British-controlled Northern Ireland.
Beila Ehrlich runs Dublin's last kosher butcher shop, B. Ehrlich's. Her only competitor closed last year and went to Israel. "Times are different," said the 70-ish Beila. "The community is going fast. A lot of them are old and dying off. And people only have one or two children now, not like the old days when they had large families." Her father opened the butcher shop in 1926, and Beila has been running it since 1964. Most of the meat she sells is from Ireland. A sign behind her counter boasts that her shop sells only "100% Pure Irish Beef", a reference to the Mad Cow Disease scare that has affected beef from the U.K. Five shochets from Israel make the rounds of farms in Ireland, ritually slaughtering poultry and cattle for Ireland and England.
There are other signs of the dwindling of the Jewish community. The formerly all-Jewish Edmondston Golf Club on the outskirts of Dublin has had to accept Gentile members to stay afloat. The Greenville Hall Synagogue was closed in the mid-1980s, and is now the headquarters of a high technology company. Stars of David are still visible on its windows.
Then there is The Bretzel, billed as a "Kosher Continental Bakery and Confectioner." It has been owned by a non-Jewish family for two generations.
Liz Williams, who sells sour rye bread, pumpernickel and rugelah from behind The Bretzel's counter to a mostly non-Jewish clientele, said that the bakery was once Jewish-owned. "But when the owner retired, no one in the Jewish community wanted to take it over," she said. So he sold the bakery to his non-Jewish employee, whose son now runs it. They have kept to the old recipes, and a mashgiach comes in every morning to see that kashruth is maintained.
"If you want more information, I'm afraid you'll have to ask a rabbi," said Ms. Williams, returning to boxing up almond horns.
Unfortunately, there wasn't a rabbi to ask. At the time, Dublin had been without a rabbi for over two years. Since then, Rabbi Gavin Broder has come from England to fill the Chief Rabbi's post.
The Judaism of Dublin is nominally Orthodox, but is a more liberally interpreted version than in the U.S. The two remaining Orthodox synagogues are merging, and there is a Progressive temple that is comparable to Reform.
Jewish parents practically push their children out of Ireland, mainly to England or Israel. "We know it's a self-destructive thing to do," said Hillary Gross, the wife of a Dublin dentist, "but it's the only way to make sure that they remain Jewish. There are too few other Jews for them here."
Two of the Grosses' four children live abroad; the two remaining in Ireland are still high school age.
"If I had to depend on Jewish patients," said the kippah-wearing Dr. Gross, "I'd starve. In fact, many of my patients are Catholic priests because my surgery is near a seminary."
The Irish Jews say that they have experienced little or no anti-Semitism, probably because they have always been such a small minority. When two Lubavitcher rabbis visited Dublin recently, people respectfully said "Hello, Father" to them. Most of the Irish Jews are comfortable economically; many are professionals or in business. Many are third- or fourth-generation Irish-born.
Despite their small numbers, the Jews have had a significant influence on Ireland. There are currently three Jewish members of the Irish Parliament, and both Dublin and Cork have had Jewish mayors. Chaim Herzog, the former President of Israel, grew up in Dublin, and Herzog House is one of the city's Jewish monuments. Of course, the most famous Irish Jew of all is fictional: Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of James Joyce's novel "Ulysses." A plaque marks "his" house at 52 Clanbrassil Street in Dublin.
The present Jewish community of Ireland dates from the 1880s, when immigrants from Lithuania fleeing pogroms and Russian oppression landed in Dublin and Cork. Before that, there had sporadically been tiny Jewish communities from the mid-17th century on. Jews have never been persecuted in Ireland, and those who settled there made comfortable lives for themselves.
Dublin's original Jewish cemetery has graves dating back to the early 18th century, and a second burial ground was opened in the early 1950s. The dead in Ireland far outnumber living Jews.
It's almost impossible not to be taken by the physical beauty of Ireland and the friendliness of the people. The cities are small, old and charming, with streets that are safe at all hours. There's little evidence of "progress" in the form of high-rises or modern architecture. Dublin is still very much an 18th and 19th century city, where the pace of life is unhurried and people will strike up conversations with you on the street and in stores.
Cork, a seaport city some 150 miles southwest of Dublin, has a synagogue and a handful of Jews who actively participate in its upkeep. The Jewish population is estimated at 20 to 30 in this city of 135,000.
Eric Sayers, 37, is one of the few observant young Jews in Cork. Like most other Irish Jews, he went to England when he finished school. However, unlike the majority of them, he returned with his English-born wife, and they are now expecting their first baby. Sayers runs a carpet cleaning business, and he took a break from work to show visitors around the 100 year old synagogue.
Sayers spoke of attending services in the Cork synagogue. "When I was a child, we always had a minyan; 10 or 12 Jews would show up." "As time went on," he said, "the older ones began to die, and the younger ones left. Then one day, we didn't have a minyan."
In recent years, the congregation has had to "import" Jews from Dublin for the High Holidays, but that's only a stopgap measure. "I don't know what we'll do in the future," Sayers said.
Sheila Cohen and her son Samuel live a few miles outside of Cork. "We don't have any community left," said Sheila, who was born in the part of the city called "Jewtown" in the 1920s. Her father came from Russia, and her mother was born in Dublin. Her brother was one of the first to "marry out" to a Catholic woman. "In those days," said Sheila, "we tore our clothes and sat shiva if somebody did that. The rabbi came down from Dublin to try and talk him out of it."
"You know," said Sheila, "there's a joke about how the Jews got to Cork. They didn't have any English, so when they heard 'Cork', they thought it was 'New York', and they got off the boat." That joke seemed to be the standard one that Irish Jews tell visitors, and it was often repeated.
Cork's Jewish cemetery is on a windswept hillside above the city. Only about a fifth of the space has been used: it was originally intended for a much larger community, one that isn't likely to ever exist again in Cork.
Ireland is a country with a future, but not for the Jews. It is one of the unspoiled countries of Europe, and the economy has improved dramatically with Ireland's entry into the European Union.Possibly Jews from other European countries will be attracted to Ireland because of the favourable economic climate, or expatriate Irish Jews will return home for the same reason. But it seems unlikely that enough Jews will settle in Ireland to prevent the virtual disappearance of the community within a generation or two.
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