The mazel of the Irish
A Livingston synagogue salutes St. Patricks Day
They lined up at a buffet table adorned with shamrocks, filling paper plates with corned beef and cabbage and reaching into an ice-filled tub for bottles of Guinness Stout.
A few of the celebrants even wore green.
It was St. Patricks Day, and even though it is not a holiday that is recognized on any Jewish calendar, for the mens club at Temple Bnai Abraham in Livingston, March 17 was a time to toast the rich history of the Jews in Ireland and learn their lore from a man who grew up Orthodox in Dublin.
St. Patricks Day is not in any way Jewish, said Theo Garb, who earns his living on the lecture circuit speaking about his years as an Irishman and a Jew.
Years before he began sharing tales of his ethnic identity, Garb and his comrades marched in Manhattan under the banner of the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin.
But in recent years, when he isnt booked a year in advance to speak on St. Patricks Day, Garb still stands along the parade route on Fifth Avenue. Its an American-Irish holiday, surely not Jewish. It has nothing to do with Jewish people. But Im Irish, and I have a feeling for it.
It is an affection he shared willingly as his lilting brogue resonated through the synagogue meeting hall, with the speaker sporting an emerald green tie emblazoned with shamrocks and a star of David.
Garbs life began in Manchester, England, where his father was a cantor at an Orthodox shul. The year was 1929, and his parents had moved their growing family once before from Warsaw, Poland, to Antwerp, Belgium.
In 1931, his father took a cantorial position at the Greenville Hall Synagogue in Dublin, and Garb began his education at a school housed in a Protestant church.
We didnt go to Catholic schools, because the Catholics taught catechism. No religion was taught in the Protestant schools, and we got a wonderful education, he said.
After class, he attended religious school at a shtibl until 1934, when the Zion School was built in Dublin to provide both a secular and a religious education to Jewish children. None of the teachers was Jewish, he said. They were all Catholics and Protestants, and one was a communist.
After the secular school day ended, the students had an hour off, then returned for religious lessons. The Judaism they learned was only Orthodox. We never heard that such a thing existed as Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist or homeopathic or whatever. We only knew Orthodox. That didnt mean all the Jews in Ireland were Orthodox maybe 60 percent. But only after the war did they start a small progressive Reform synagogue.
Garb remembers little anti-Semitism in his childhood years.
There was a street called Clanbrassil Street that was known as Little Jerusalem Street. Thats where all the butchers were Rubenstein and Ehrlich and Waltzman where you bought your kosher meats. And there were all the delis where you bought your pickled herrings and your schmaltz herrings. It was a shtetl. And we all lived in the area 5,000 Jews within walking distance of two big shuls.
The fact that his father became a cantor there was a fortunate turn of fate. He had auditioned and was hired to work at a synagogue in Amsterdam, but one of the stipulations was my mother had to wear a sheitel, a wig, and she said, No. Im religious enough without that. They turned my father down, and not too long after that, Hitler invaded Holland and all of Europe, and I would not have been here to talk to you, he told the temple audience.
Although Ireland was officially neutral during World War II, Garb remembers German warplanes attacking homes and a synagogue in Dublin. Hitler always bombed Jewish neighborhoods, he said. It was amazing.
During those years, Irelands Jewish community had to cope with another problem a matza shortage.
During World War II we couldnt get matzas from England. You need a lot of matzas for 10,000 Jews for eight days. In 1942, the English said they were sorry they were not going to ship them, and they told us, Youll have to fend for yourselves. So the Jewish community leaders got together and decided they would find a biscuit factory so they would at least have some semblance of matzas. They found a dog biscuit factory, Spratts Dog Biscuits. They went and said, Look, we want to take over part of your factory. Well pay you. Well kasher the ovens if you allow us to do that.
In 1942, they started baking these matzas, and they boxed them and put them into shops to sell, said Garb. But somebody must have forgotten to taste them, because you couldnt eat them. You couldnt chew them. They were harder than the dog biscuits. They said even dogs couldnt eat them. It was a real catastrophe.
That year, more matza brei was eaten in Ireland than in all of America, he said.
Belfast and Palestine
Garb, who now lives in Seaford, NY, said he remains pretty neutral in the ongoing struggle for independence waged for decades by the Catholics of Northern Ireland, even as he notes its parallel to another intractable conflict the one between Israelis and Palestinians.
It has to do with the British and how they ruled Ireland and ruined Ireland for 800 years and also ruined Palestine. So there is a tremendous kinship there. When we knew there was going to be a State of Israel in 1948, a lot of Irish wanted to go there and fight against the British, but Israel did not allow them.
Garb remains less optimistic about achieving peace in Ireland than about resolving issues in the Middle East.
I think the Israeli-Palestinian problem will be solved before the Irish-English problem is solved, because they are very tough, the Irish Republican Army people. They dont want to give up their arms. But I would say the Jewish people in Ireland never really got involved with that.
Robert Wiener can be reached at email@example.com.