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Around the Jewish World Amid Flurry of Anti-semitic Incidents, Irish Jewish Museum Marks 20 Years

July 8, 2005
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The more than 100 people who gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin this week were making a show of community solidarity as much as celebrating the longevity of a beloved Jewish cultural institution. From November, the museum has been a regular target in a campaign of anti-Semitic vandalism against Jewish property. The most recent attack had forced the postponement of the anniversary from its original June 20 date to allow the caretakers time to sandblast graffiti and replace broken windows.

Only a week before the rescheduled event took place Sunday, the vandal went on another spree — only this time the police were waiting to arrest him. He is expected to be charged with racial incitement and damage to property.

“Most of you present have written letters or made phone calls in sympathy and support in these recent trying times,” said the museum’s curator, Raphael Siev, in his address to the guests. “It is in your honor that we dedicate this evening.”

These supporters ranged from elderly third-generation Irish Jews, whose families came to Dublin mostly from Lithuania in the 1880s, to new arrivals from places like Canada, Switzerland and Arkansas. Three members of the Irish police force were also present, as was Paul Gillespie, a senior editor of the Irish Times and the owner of former chief rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog’s old house, which also has been painted with swastikas several times this year.

The museum is housed in the former Walworth Road Synagogue — which was fashioned out of two red-brick row houses — on a tiny street in Portobello, home to 5,000 Jews half a century ago but now populated by a mix of urban professionals and new immigrants. By the time Irish-born Israeli President Chaim Herzog opened the building in 1985 while on a state visit, most of the Jews had emigrated — to England, America and Israel — or moved out to the suburbs, leaving only a popular kosher bakery, a few commemorative plaques and the abandoned synagogue as a trace of their presence.

In its very substance, then, the museum both preserves and chronicles the history of the community. Upstairs, in the part of the exhibit devoted to religious life, the pews, pulpit, bimah and mechitzah, or sanctuary divider, are all intact; downstairs, in the exhibit on the social, cultural and historical development of Irish Jews, there is a reconstruction of an early 20th-century kosher kitchen, as well as a century’s worth of memorabilia from daily life.

The collection ranges from menorahs and paintings to joyous wedding invitations and tormented correspondence from Holocaust victims.

“It’s fascinating to the older generation to see things you saw only as a child and to show these things to the younger generations,” said Justice Henry Barron, the president of the museum.

Reflecting on the significance of the museum as a touchstone for Irish Jews, Yaakov Pearlman, the country’s chief rabbi, said: “It’s important to keep alive the memory of over 100 years of rich Jewish life here and to mark our contribution to Irish life in general. The museum gives an appreciation of religious observance, and advertises in its collection activities that are ongoing, such as trips to Israel and Jewish-Christian solidarity events.”

Siev emphasized the museum’s role in Irish community at large: “Nearly every day school groups come here and learn something about Jewish people and the Jewish religion.”

No anniversary celebration would be complete without looking to the future — and subtly making a pitch for funding. The museum is planning to triple its exhibition space and extend into three more houses — at an estimated cost of nearly $2 million. With Ireland’s Jewish population growing for the first time since the 1940s as a result of new prosperity and multicultural self-confidence, this seems like a good time to consolidate the standing of the country’s only minority-focused museum, observers said.

There are signs of regeneration in a community many had written off as dead or, at best, inert. Performing klezmer songs alongside Irish traditional favorites at the anniversary celebration was Melanie Brown, a young composer of national stature, and the Dublin Jewish Musical Society, which was revived last year.

Klezmer has even been making inroads in the Irish jazz scene as well, while Jewish engineers, software developers and other professionals have begun arriving from South Africa, Australia and now Eastern Europe.

“We are in a time of transition,” said Pearlman. “We do have a vibrant, active community to which Jewish people should flock — the basic needs for living a Jewish life are here. Now is the time to go on, break out and expand the museum.”

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