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.” My default is to always look out for links to Jewish history, culture and people. When we see or meet something Jewish, my husband, 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.
I thought traveling to Ireland would not provide 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. Unfortunately, the hotel manager couldn’t tell us anything about them.
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 with Torah Scroll.” 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.
Arriving in Dublin was very exciting. It is an incredibly vibrant and international city. Trinity is an old and respected university, affiliated with Oxford. I was pleased to hear that they started the Hebrew studies program back when the university was founded, in 1592.
On July 23, 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.
Yvonne Altman O’Connor is a Jewish historian, and I had arranged for her to meet with us and give us a tour.
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 was Sephardic, but they died off and were replaced by Ashkenazi Jews in the late 1700s. There have never been many Jews in Ireland, not exceeding 5,500 since at least 1891. One genealogist, though, has a data base of some 50,000 Jews who have lived in Ireland at some point.
The Jewish community in Dublin really began to grow at the end of the 1800s with Jews fleeing persecution elsewhere. The community stuck together and created synagogues, a Jewish school, and kosher shops. Two families that had begun 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 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 museum is housed in the former two-home synagogue, which had later merged with another, more modern synagogue. It is funny thinking of an Israeli president with an Irish accent.
The Jewish community in Cork continued intermittently. Some say that Jews fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe left the ship when they thought they heard “New York, New York,” but what they had actually heard had been “Cork Cork!” Whatever the reason, they stayed in Cork and created a community. The Cork synagogue just closed last year.
Today, there are approximately 2,500 Jews in Ireland, about 1,500 of them 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, as everything is so different from what they know. I wonder if they realize that is how I feel every time I walk into a church or religious art exhibit.
Yvonne, the historian, 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 through 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 the executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. This article is excerpted from her blog, tracystreks.com.