Irish Jews Face Uncertain Future (As Usual)

This article was first published in The Times of Israel.

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There’s likely not a single Jew ever to live in Ireland, however briefly, who’s unknown to Stuart Rosenblatt. The 69-year-old genealogist, a lifelong Dubliner, has toiled for the past decade and a half to single-handedly document Jewish family histories in the Emerald Isle dating as far back as 1748.

It’s a Herculean effort to preserve the genealogy of the country’s small but unique Jewish community — one that has succumbed in recent decades, perhaps fatally, to the tradition of Irish emigration, as well as to assimilation. Today, the Irish Jewish Diaspora is far larger than the remaining Jewish community, which numbers between 500 and 2,000, depending on who’s being counted and who’s doing the counting. Almost all live in Dublin.

The Annals of Innisfallen, a chronicle of Ireland’s medieval history written by monks, reveals the island had Jewish residents as far back as 1079. An on-and-off presence in the 1,000 years since, they formed a sizable community only in the late 19th century, drawing on newcomers escaping the Pale of Settlement — mostly from Lithuania — and settling primarily in the capital, but also in Belfast, Cork and Limerick. The Limerick community dissipated after the so-called Limerick Pogrom in 1904, essentially an anti-Jewish economic boycott rather than a physical attack. It was the only blatant, organized anti-Semitic incident in modern Irish history.

“I have records relating to 49,000 different individuals,” Rosenblatt told The Times of Israel from his home in Dublin. “But I’m still missing 1,500 pieces of information that I need to complete the Irish Jewish Family History Database.”

Stuart Rosenblatt and his genealogy volumes

Stuart Rosenblatt and his genealogy volumes

While still incomplete, the database — a record of life-cycle events and other information — already has enough data to fill 17 large volumes, much of it discovered in hidden or unlikely places. Only six copies of the bound set exist, most deposited with the Geneological Society of Ireland, the National Library and the National Archives.

In his foreword  to “The YIDiot’s Guide to Irish Jewish Ancestry,” a paperback companion guidebook, Michael Merrigan, general secretary of the Genealogical Society, called Rosenblatt’s opus a “monumental contribution to both Irish and Jewish heritage studies.”

“He has amassed such records of his community that place his work, in international terms, as almost unique,” Merrigan noted.

Rosenblatt, who operates a check-cashing business when he isn’t combing through family trees, receives inquiries and offers of information daily from people around the world who visit www.irishjewishroots.com. Curiously, he reports he has found far less enthusiasm from local Jews.

“I’ve received no support and no financial help,” he said.

The founder and sole member of the Irish Jewish Genealogical Society, Rosenblatt jokes that “no one other than me is meshuga [crazy] enough to spend this kind of time. I do this eight days a week.”

The massive amount of data he’s collected reflects both the unique lives of individuals and commonalities among members of the tight-knit community, which reached its apex in the 1950s, when it numbered approximately 5,500.

After that, young Jews started emigrating for economic, educational and social reasons. “[Dublin] was a good place to be,” said Allan Freedman, who in 1953 moved to California to pursue a master’s degree in engineering, and has lived in Toronto for decades.

Davida Noyek Handler, who left in 1959 to marry an American from Iowa, measures the community’s decline by a telling gauge: the availability of kosher meat.

“There used to be 11 kosher butcher shops in Dublin,” noted Handler, who now lives in Las Vegas. “Now they ship kosher meat in from England.”

Among Jewish immigrants to the Emerald Isle, not all settled there on purpose: Some disembarked from ships prematurely, believing they had reached America, while others were tricked by unscrupulous captains. Virtually all arrived poor, and some remained relatively so. But for the most part, Irish Jews, like their brethren in other countries, ascended to the middle class over a couple of generations of hard work and education.

Some families, like the Briscoes and Herzogs, rose to great prominence. Robert Briscoe, who was active in the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin during the long war with Britain, served for 38 years in the Dáil (the Irish Parliament), and also became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin.  His son, Ben Briscoe, has also been a politician and Lord Mayor.

Click here to read more and watch a video.

© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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