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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 23 November, 2014

Column: What’s it like to be Jewish at Christmas time in Ireland?

This week, as shopping centres heave with last minute shoppers, frenziedly hoovering up iPads and Playstations, clothing and jewellery, to the incessant strains of Jingle Bell Rock, what do the Jews do?

Rabbi Zalman Lent

THERE WAS AN anecdote in an Australian paper last week, about a couple who never received the festive ham they ordered because the driver spotted a mezuzah on their front door. (A mezuzah is a small Hebrew scroll, attached to the right doorpost of a Jewish home, usually in a decorative case.)

Certain that this was a Jewish family, the postman assumed the address was wrong and returned the ham to the depot. Turns out the mezuzah had been forgotten there a decade before by previous Jewish owners, and once the mistake was realised, the ham was safely returned to the happy customers!

This week, as shopping centres heave with last minute shoppers, frenziedly hoovering up iPads and Playstations, clothing and jewellery, to the incessant strains of Jingle Bell Rock, what do the Jews do?

Very little, is usually the answer for traditional Jews. There is no visit to Santa’s grotto, no choosing of a tree to wrestle home and decorate. There is no big festive dinner, no roast turkey (with or without chestnut stuffing), no hanging of stockings or removing spiky objects from the hearth to protect late night visitors. For Jews in the diaspora, Christmas is a little like a spectator sport, happily observing our neighbours and friends carve out a small niche in time to celebrate with family and friends; to laugh and smile together, to pray and eat together, to give and share together.

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We may not have Santa – but we do have Chanukah

But all is not lost for those of the Mosaic persuasion. We may not have Santa, or even Santy, but we do have Chanukah (often pronounced Hanukah), which usually falls around the same time of the year. Chanukah commemorates the ancient Jewish survival from Syrian-Greek oppression and forced Hellenisation (165 BCE). It also marks the “miracle of the oil,” where a small jar of olive oil burned in the Temple candelabrum for eight full days.

These miracles, of survival against the odds, and of “Duracell” oil are celebrated by lighting a menorah or chanukiya (an eight branched candelabrum, lit with candles or olive oil) every evening after dark for eight days. The family gathers around for the lighting, and then spends time together relaxing, playing dreidel (a kind of spinning top game) and eating unhealthy fried foods to symbolise the oil, such as latkes (similar to hash browns) or doughnuts. In a hectic world, where the quality time meant for our spouse and kids is often robbed by work deadlines, emails and text messages, simply sitting together with those we love, without distraction, is something to treasure. This is something hopefully all faiths share equally.

The power of faith

Chanukah is only one of the festivals in the Jewish calendar, and is actually one of the minor ones, but its messages are universal. The messages of Chanukah are freedom of religion and freedom from oppression; the power of hope and the power of faith. Ireland today has a growing number of different faith communities, and a completely different social makeup than it did just a decade ago.

The Jewish community, despite its early roots back in the 13th century, has always been very small here, yet has always been free to practice its faith freely. In the latest census, the number of those professing to be of Jewish faith in Ireland was just under 2,000, so few in fact that there is no longer a “Jewish” box on the form to tick… just an “other” box which you can fill in yourself, along with practitioners of the Jedi faith. The highest count for the Jewish population here was never more than 5,000 (in the ‘50s), but Jews in Ireland have always felt welcome and integrated well into society, some even becoming quite public figures.

There is no escaping the fact that Ireland closed its borders to Jewish refugees during the war, but the Jews who did arrive in Ireland were afforded a secure and friendly environment, which allowed them to integrate quickly and fully into society… and as they succeeded and flourished, they were able to give back to those around them in so many ways.

For the Jews who fled here from Eastern Europe, used to vilification and violence, Ireland was a safe haven, a fair country where if you worked hard you were allowed to be successful, and that is all these immigrants really wanted — a chance to work hard and put bread on the table, to give their children a good education and the chance of a better life.

A devout Jew and an Irish patriot

In Robert Briscoe’s autobiography he writes of his father Abraham, who arrived here from Lithuania at the age of fourteen. Abraham Briscoe was both a devout Jew and an Irish patriot. His son Robert writes how he was raised in a fully kosher and traditional Jewish home here, yet also a proudly Irish one. He writes:

… all the time I was growing up I was also learning from my father the dark, storm wracked, history of this country. I learned about the druids and the Firbolgs and the Irish kings … I learned of the great Irish leaders, of Wolfe Tone, and Robert Emmett, of Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell…

Briscoe’s narrative is one that many in the Jewish community can identify with — the need to strongly preserve our personal traditions and heritage and pass them on to future generations, shared with the desire to be proudly Irish, in every sense of the word. This country has allowed and encouraged that to happen, and the list is relatively long of those from our small community who contributed, and still contribute, so proudly to Irish society, whether in the arts or in politics, in medicine or in business, or in numerous other fields.

There is an amusing story told of Briscoe, Lord Mayor of Dublin at the time, leading the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade along New York’s Fifth Avenue in 1956. Two Jewish men were watching the parade, and one said to the other, “Did you know that Robert Briscoe is Jewish?” “Amazing,” replied his companion, “It could only happen in America!”

So, as we batten down the hatches to prepare for the school holidays, let’s focus on the aspects of this holiday season which all faiths share together: the need to care for the poor and homeless, those less fortunate in society; the need to care more for others and less for ourselves; the need to reconcile with those we have fallen out with, and the need to share quality time with our loved ones. If we can work on those things together, whether we light up a menorah or a tree, the world we live in will be a better one for all.

Beannachtaí an tSéasúir daoibh uilig,

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Candles Burning on Golden Menorah
Image by © David Buffington/Corbis

Zalman Lent is Rabbi at the Dublin Hebrew Congregation. You can contact the office at irishjcom@gmail.com.

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