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  • “Are You Protestant Jews or Roman Catholic Jews?”Literary Representations of Being Jewish in Ireland
  • Catherine Hezser (bio)

While Ireland has the reputation of being a country of writers, producing world-famous authors such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Irish Jewish writing forms but a small footnote or addendum to the history of Irish literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The few Jewish authors who wrote or are still writing in Ireland, whether natives, or immigrants, or temporary sojourners, stand at the margins of a literary tradition that focuses on the indigenous Irish experience, an experience that is inextricably mixed up with Roman Catholicism, even in its criticism and rejection of the dominant tradition. The very phenomenon that James Joyce chose to make the "Jewish" character of Leopold Bloom the main protagonist of his work Ulysses is a testimony to Joyce's own outsider status within Irish society at the time when he wrote the book.1 The much later rehabilitation, popularization, and commercialization of Ulysses by the Irish literary establishment, politicians, and businesspeople do not signify an integration of Irish Jews into the mainstream and a sudden interest in questions of Jewish identity.2 This must rather be seen as an eventual acknowledgment of Joyce's literary genius and its exploitation for national reasons, despite the fact that his work is very difficult to access.

The few works written by Irish Jewish authors are difficult to find on the shelves of local bookstores, since they are out of print. This phenomenon already indicates a lack of interest in these writings by the "mainstream" Irish readership and the marginality of Jewish writers and the Jewish community within modern Irish society, notwithstanding certain well-meant attempts to argue for the contrary.3 The Irish Jewish community has always been small, never constituting more than a tiny percentage of the Irish population, but it experienced a sudden upsurge after 1881 as a consequence of anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia after the death of Czar Alexander II.4 Jews came to Ireland mainly from Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, escaping persecution, economic [End Page 159] hardship, and conscription into the Russian army.5 Like the Jewish immigrants who settled in New York's Lower East Side, the Eastern European Jews who came to Ireland were generally orthodox and Yiddish speaking, ready to make a living in any profession available to them. They settled in particular urban quarters that had the reputation of being little shtetlach and were called "Jewtowns" by non-Jewish Irish(wo)men. Unlike America, however, turn-of-the-century Ireland was not a religiously tolerant melting pot that drew the newcomers into the maelstrom of assimilation. The immigrants were rather faced with a staunchly Catholic culture and society of which they necessarily remained outsiders. As a consequence of this situation they formed a tight-knit community that turned inward for its physical and spiritual survival.

Hannah Berman and Leslie Daiken were Irish Jewish writers who experienced the early phases of community building in the first half of the twentieth century. Berman came to Ireland as a child at the end of the nineteenth century and left Ireland for London after the publication of her first novel. Her novels Melutovna (London, 1914) and Ant Hills (London, 1926) describe Jewish life in Lithuania where her family originated. Under the title Zlotover Story: A Dublin Story with a Difference (Dublin, 1967), she wrote the family history of the Zlotover family from Lithuania, covering the first six decades of the twentieth century.6 In a dry style sprinkled with anecdotes, the text documents the family's struggle from humble beginnings to bourgeois establishment within Irish society. Daiken, whose original name was Yodaiken, was born in Dublin in 1912. After graduating from Trinity College he moved to London where he wrote poems and plays.7 Recently, Stanley Price's new book Somewhere to Hang My Hat: An Irish-Jewish Journey (Dublin, 2002) was published, documenting growing up in Dublin as the grandson of a Lithuanian immigrant.

More interesting with regard to the literary depiction of Irish Jewish identity are Jewish and non-Jewish...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3273
Print ISSN
0276-1114
Pages
pp. 159-188
Launched on MUSE
2005-05-18
Open Access
No
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