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Jewtown by Simon Lewis

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Memoir
Jewtown

By Shai Afsai

Over the past few years, Ireland and Northern Ireland’s small Jewish communities, now numbering about 3,000 people, have become the focus of outsized literary attention.

“Representations of Jews in Irish Literature,” an ongoing multi-partner collaboration that includes the National University of Ireland and Ulster University, was launched in 2016, along with an accompanying traveling exhibit of the same name. In 2018, Syracuse University Press released Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture, a collection of essays exploring the comparative history of Irish and Jewish identity. Alongside those two academic projects there has also been a recent proliferation of creative and autobiographical writing related to Irish Jewry by both Jewish and non-Jewish authors, including poet and playwright Gerry Mc Donnell, novelist Ruth Gilligan, former Fine Gael politician Alan Shatter, and educator Simon Lewis.

When Simon Lewis could longer afford living in Dublin, he applied for jobs in less expensive areas of Ireland, landing his first teaching position near Carlow, in the country’s south-east. He and his wife moved from Dublin to Carlow in 2003, and she encouraged him to join a writers’ group there as a hobby. A lecturer in the group, Carlow College’s Derek Coyle, took Lewis under his wing, helped him begin composing poetry, and challenged him to write about his own Jewish and Irish background, leading Lewis to examine the Jewish history of Cork, in south-west Ireland.

Cork’s first Jewish community was comprised of a small group of Sephardim (descendants of Jews who had lived in Spain or Portugal), who arrived in Ireland in the eighteenth century. In the 1890s, Jews fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire began arriving there. Many of those immigrants settled in the center of the city, which became known as Jewtown.

“When I came across Jewtown, I just thought it was a perfect name, because you couldn’t get away with calling a place Jewtown now! My great-grandmother was born there and I soon discovered most Irish Jews can trace their journey through this small area of Cork City,” Lewis explains.

Lewis’s research and writing about Cork culminated in the publication of Jewtown (Doire Press, 2016), a collection of fifty-seven brief poems. I first interviewed Lewis in 2018, publishing two articles about him.

The first-person narrations of Jewtown frequently reference the difficulties Cork’s Jews experienced both in Imperial Russia and in their new Irish home. The anonymous speaker of “Tashlich” (a reference to the symbolic casting away of sins into a body of water during or around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year), for example, recalls his dangerous escape from Czarist antisemitism. He expresses relief at feeling free from physical danger in Cork, while recounting his present poverty in Ireland:

This year, I thank God for a mattress

on a dirt floor, a small knob of butter

melted in mashed potato, to be able

to walk without looking behind me.

The poem immediately following “Tashlich,” however, makes it clear that the Jewish immigrants were not entirely assured of physical safety in Cork, either. The anonymous speaker of “Bromide” addresses her husband, who has been beaten and harassed:

You make up a tale

of how you tripped on Albert Quay,

gave yourself a fine big shiner,

grazed your brow or chipped a tooth…

The Jewish population of Cork decreased from four-hundred in the 1930s to a few dozen in 2016, the year the Cork Hebrew Congregation at 10 South Terrace closed.

There is a seemingly global phenomenon connected to Orthodox synagogues with dwindling or no longer existing congregations in which a Jewish man, usually elderly, amalgamates his destiny with the once-vibrant house of worship that is ultimately destined for complete closure or for transformation into some sort of museum. This deep identification allows for a preternatural, though of course temporary, prolonging of both the life of the man himself and of the building he tends to.

This trend is found around the world. When my brother and I were in the Republic of Georgia several years ago, we traveled to Akhaltsikhe, a small city where, we were told, services were still held during the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av. Arriving there, we found a magnificent synagogue that was over one-hundred and fifty years old and was principally tended to by an energetic elderly Jewish man, named Siman Tov Levi. It was evident that the building would cease functioning as a place of worship when Levi eventually settled in Israel, joining family that had already moved there from Georgia.

The story of the “last” one or two Jewish men left in Afghanistan, and of the respective synagogues looked after by them, has already kept writers busy for the better part of two decades. One of these men passed away in 2005. The remaining Jewish man continued to furnish journalists with copy well into 2021.

In Providence, Rhode Island, where I live, the late Joe Margolis assured that Shaare Zedek on Broad Street remained open for as long as he was able to, while Congregation Sons of Jacob’s president, Harold Silverman—may he live and be well—continues to mind his synagogue on Douglas Avenue.

And so too in Cork, where Freddie Rosehill, chair of the trustees of the Cork Hebrew Congregation, watched over the city’s last synagogue, built in 1896, for many years until it closed in February 2016. The concluding poem of Jewtown, “The Last Sabbath at South Terrace Synagogue,” describes one of the Cork Hebrew Congregation’s final services, with Lewis poignantly relating how the shuttering of the dilapidated structure also portends Rosehill’s end:

…His face, red with the strain,

gave in by the first Kaddish, drooping back into the pew,

knowing he was part of the furniture, ready to be moved on.

Rosehill passed away less than ten months after the closing of the synagogue, at the age of eighty-eight. An exhibit at the Cork Public Museum memorializes Rosehill, the synagogue, and Cork’s Jewish history.

The Cork Hebrew Congregation has also been the subject of a poem, written some thirty years earlier, by the Irish poet and critic Thomas McCarthy. (He wrote a laudatory review of Jewtown for the July/August 2016 issue of Southworth.) McCarthy’s 1987 poem “The Dying Synagogue at South Terrace” moves from contemplation of the building’s shabby exterior, its chocolate-colored paint peeling off, to thoughts of the Irish government’s refusal to aid Jews trying to flee the Nazis during World War II and of the current widespread animosity towards the state of Israel in Ireland:

We who did nothing for you, who

remained aloof with the Catholic world

…We have no right over your batons,

having made nothing for you but L. Bloom.

L. Bloom is, of course, Leopold Bloom of Ulysses, Joyce’s ethnically Jewish character. Bloom remains the character most associated with Jews in Irish literature, and subsequent poets and fiction writers choosing to explore Irish Jewry have in turn been inspired or held back by this legacy.

Joyce’s decision to place an ethnic Jew at the center of Ulysses—in part because he wanted a character who was a foreigner, representing the unknown and arousing the contempt of his Dublin neighbors—influenced the poet Gerry Mc Donnell’s choice to write about Irish Jews. “Ulysses and Bloom also played a role,” he told me when we met in Dublin to discuss his Jewish oeuvre. “I felt an outsider myself as a writer. I was interested in the Other—in the Jews. In Dublin, they were outsiders. If you wanted a subject to write about, what better one?”

In a January 30, 2017 Forward essay (“Who Ever Heard of an Irish Jew?”), Ruth Gilligan wrote about a need to get past L. Bloom: “Of course, any novelist thinking about writing a book about Irish Jews will inevitably be met with two words: ‘Leopold’ and ‘Bloom.’” She noted that reviewers of her Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan often commented “on the ‘chutzpah’ of anyone who would dare to tread on Joyce’s sacred toes. But the fact remains that there is so much more to this wonderful community than some fictional cuckold named Leopold Bloom; so many fascinating stories that have been left untold; so many hidden truths.”

Lewis’s poems in Jewtown communicate some of these stories and reveal some of these truths, and he has been pleased with the reception the collection has received including winning the 2015 Hennessy Poetry Prize.

Jewtown“The response has been overwhelmingly positive from everyone who has come across it. It is very difficult to get media attention for poetry, particularly reviews. However, I was lucky enough to get some media coverage in a couple of national papers and on television,” Lewis says. “The Jewish Community have also been supportive. I have had a number of readings in the Irish Jewish Museum [in Dublin] and this was very much appreciated. I always enjoy giving readings because often I meet people that lived or had family that lived in the Jewtown area of Cork. I enjoy listening to their stories.”

(c) Shai Afsai

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