by yanky fachler
With both the South African and Irish Jewish communities being predominantly Litvak in origin, Yanky Fachler explores the commonalities between these two communities.
If my Litvak great-grandfather Jacob Becker, after whom I am named, had not spent a year in Pretoria in the late 19th century and not brought back to Lithuania a pocketful of South African passports, my grandfather, Sam Becker, would have been unable to use his South African passport to escape from Nazi Germany for Britain prior to World War II. As a result, I lived in England for the first 25 years of my life. I then lived in Israel for the next 25 years. Moving to Ireland a quarter of a century ago suddenly made me mindful of my own – and Ireland’s – Litvak heritage. When I was researching my book, Kaleidoscope: Key characters who helped shape the Irish-Jewish community , something that Dublin-born Max Nurock, a former Israeli ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, once said resonated. Nurock had stated that “Ireland’s Jews are a community founded largely by an incomparable generation of Litvak pioneers.”
"No other Jewish community in the world mirrors the South African community more than Ireland’s Jewish community. The size of the two communities as they evolved might be very different, but the essential Litvak nature of both communities has led to striking parallels".
The similarities between the South African and Irish Jewish communities are striking. This, I would suggest, has resulted in some interesting historical parallels. Around 90% of South African Jews are of Lithuanian descent. Although a significantly smaller Jewish community, the equivalent figure for Ireland is about 80%. In both Ireland and South Africa, the Litvak newcomers – who mainly came after 1881 – essentially swamped the existing Jewish communities, giving them a distinctly Litvak feel.
Like their South African counterparts, Irish Litvaks brought with them strong Zionist leanings and produced communities that were staunchly Zionist. According to Dublin-born Dr Rory Miller, because they were nearly all Litvaks, Irish Jews were among the most active Zionists in Europe. In 1890, seven years before Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Joseph Solomon Rubinstein, and an enthusiastic group of other Dublin Litvaks, decided to fulfil the Zionist dream by emigrating to Palestine. They formed the Dublin tent (branch) of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), which soon became one of the strongest and most enthusiastic tents in the British Isles. At its peak, 450 out of 1,200 adult women in the Dublin Jewish community were members of the Dublin Daughters of Zion, a founding member in 1920 of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation (WIZO).
Just as the Litvak newcomers to South Africa sent letters home encouraging family members and friends to follow suit, a similar pattern emerged in Ireland – but naturally on a much smaller scale. At its height, the Irish Jewish community never exceeded 5,000. Myer Wigoder, whose family took their name from their Lithuanian hometown of Wegoda, near Kovno, wrote: “There was little to lose by making a fresh start in a country which I knew had attracted some of my friends.” Many of those who arrived in Ireland after the the passing of the notorious May Laws of 1882 came from the Lithuanian town of Akemene. Cork Jews in particular referred to themselves as Akmianers.
Lithuanian immigrants who arrived in both Ireland and South Africa conversed in Yiddish and could read Hebrew for purposes of worship. Most of the first generation of Litvak newcomers had little interest in Irish culture. Like their South African émigré counterparts, the first generation were penniless, and many of them, like the smouse in South Africa, became itinerant pedlars. Further, similar to their South African Litvak counterparts, within a single generation, Irish Litvaks were solidly represented in the professions – doctors, dentists, lawyers and accountants – and in business. By the third generation, among their descendants were members of parliament, judges, lord mayors and literary figures.
"Like South African Jewry, Irish Jewry soon learnt to straddle both their Jewish and Irish identities and, despite their modest numbers and ‘outsider’ status, came to occupy prominent positions in Irish society".
In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Deasy boasts that Ireland "has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews, because she never let them in." Factually, of course, this is false. Having escaped the anti-Jewish violence he encountered in the Czarist lands, Reverend Elias Bere Levin, a native of Tels in Lithuania, reached Limerick where he was appointed reader and shochet (ritual slaughterer). In January 1904, Redemptorist priest John Creagh delivered his first venomous antisemitic sermon, replete with all the classic ingredients of paranoid accusations against the Jews. Levin’s home was besieged by a mob, and the Jews of Limerick were “insulted, assaulted and threatened with the most menacing language.” Most of the city’s 120 Jews fled to Cork, where another Litvak, Reverend Meyer Elyan, was the shochet, Torah reader and mohel (circumciser) of the Cork Hebrew Congregation.
Like South African Jewry, Irish Jewry soon learnt to straddle both their Jewish and Irish identities and, despite their modest numbers and ‘outsider’ status, came to occupy prominent positions in Irish society.
Novelist, playwright and screenwriter, Stanley Price had four Lithuanian grandparents who fled Czarist oppression and poverty in the late 1880s. When Price was young, the family moved to London, where the circle they moved in consisted almost exclusively of other Irish Litvaks who had settled in England – a tiny diaspora within a diaspora. Every Jew (and many a non-Jew) in Ireland has heard some version of the “Are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?” story. Usually, the story takes place at a Belfast barricade. But in his 2004 autobiography, Somewhere to Hang my Hat: An Irish-Jewish Journey, Price claims that his grandfather was genuinely asked this question by a Dublin policeman.
The Jewish sportsman who had the longest and most distinguished Irish and international sports career, and who most frequently featured in the popular press, was Litvak Louis Bookman, the son of a rabbi. Louis played soccer for the Dublin Jewish team, Adelaide, which won the 1908 All Ireland Under-18 Football Cup. Louis became a professional footballer with British clubs, and in 1914 he won his first Irish cap playing against Wales, becoming the first Litvak football international in history. Louis also excelled in cricket, and became the first-ever player of Eastern European birth to play cricket for Ireland.
Before Louis Goldberg arrived in Ireland from Lithuania, his family had hung patriotic photographs of the Russian royal family on the walls of their home. In Cork, Louis copied this idea, and put photographs of the wedding of Prince Edward and Princess Alexandra in prominent places of his house. Louis’ son Gerald went on to become the Lord Mayor of Cork.
There is an apocryphal story about Dublin’s lord mayor Robert Briscoe, son of Litvak-immigrants, who led the 1957 Saint Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue. Two elderly Jews are watching the parade. One turns to the other and says, “Did you know that Robert Briscoe is a Jew?” His friend answers: “A Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin? Only in America!”
An interesting link between the Litvak communities in South Africa and Ireland is provided by Johannesburg-born Bertha Weingreen. Having been a Girl Guide in Johannesburg, Bertha was among the founders of the Irish Jewish Girl Guides in the 1930s. She became Guide Commissioner of the Jewish Rangers in 1940 before rising to become a District Commissioner for all Girl Guides. In South Africa, Bertha had been a member of the Young Israel Society. Her arrival in Ireland coincided with a spurt of renewed Zionist activity. She established Belfast and Dublin branches of Ziona, a Zionist women’s organisation.
"Today, the Jewish community of Ireland has shrunk considerably, with less than a thousand affiliated members".
Ephraim Mirvis, now the Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, was born in Cape Town, where his father and grandfather were communal rabbis. Rabbi Mirvis spent a decade in Ireland, first as rabbi of Adelaide Road Synagogue in Dublin, and later as chief rabbi. He always claimed that as a South African, he benefitted from sharing Litvak ancestry and values with many of his Irish congregants.
Today, the Jewish community of Ireland has shrunk considerably, with less than a thousand affiliated members. There are still several proudly Litvak families, but the community is more diverse than in its prime seventy years ago.
No other Jewish community in the world mirrors the South African community more than Ireland’s Jewish community. The size of the two communities as they evolved might be very different, but the essential Litvak nature of both communities has led to striking parallels. In both communities, the Litvak newcomers swamped the existing Anglo-Jewish communities. Because of the Litvak influence, both communities were regarded as the most Zionist in the world. And in both communities, the second and third generation Litvaks made rapid strides towards integration within the host societies.
 Self-published by the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, 2013
Yanky Fachler, MA, is chair of the Jewish Historical Society of Ireland. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Yanky delivered over 200 Jewish history talks via Zoom to an international audience.