How Jewish culture is woven in Cork history

Ahead of the Jewish festival of Chanuka, which starts on Friday, RUTI LACHS explains the history of the religion in Cork city and how its traditions and cultures are still very much in evidence
How Jewish culture is woven in Cork history

A Chanukiot lit in Cork City Hall in 2019 to mark the Jewish feast of Chanuka last year.

THE Jewish community in Cork city is very small. Around 20 households. That’s according to the database of the Munster Jewish Community, which includes another 80 or so names, of Jewish families living in counties Cork, Limerick, Wexford, Tipperary, Kerry, Waterford and Clare.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early 1900s, there were around 450 Jewish people living in Cork city and county.

Many of them — or their parents — had moved here from the Kovno region in Lithuania at the end of the 1800s. Did they identify as Lithuanian? I doubt it.

On the 1901 census records, in the ‘country of origin’ column, the head of the family — or whoever in the house could read and write, and therefore filled in the form — wrote ‘Russia’. Because of course at that time, Lithuania was part of Russia. And living there was not good for Jews.

Then. Now. And the bridge in between.

Then: Those Jews were mostly very poor. They came to Cork with nothing. They were fleeing poverty and a restrictive regime. They may have also been fleeing from the fear of pogroms, although there were no anti-Jewish pogroms in that part of Russia at that time.

They had family members and neighbours that had moved to Ireland already. They were mostly religious, from shtetls (Jewish villages) in eastern Europe, where all their neighbours went to shul (synagogue) on Shabbes (Friday night and Saturday) and kept the traditions.

Most of the early Cork Jewish settlers lived in and around Hibernian Buildings, an area of small houses next to the Gasworks, named ‘Jewtown’ by locals. They observed the kosher food laws and celebrated the religious festivals. They spoke mostly Yiddish, a language that sounds like German but also contains some Hebrew.

Most of the Jewish men living in Cork were pedlars. There was an occasional Hebrew teacher, carpenter, or shopkeeper, but mostly they were door-to-door pedlars who left home on a Monday to sell household items and holy pictures around the county, and returned on a Friday, in time for Shabbes.

Once the community had ten men — a minyan — they could pray together. First in the Rabbi’s house, later in a building on Marlborough Street, and by 1892 the Cork Hebrew Congregation had bought the building on South Terrace that became the synagogue.

Now: The current community are blow-ins from England, the USA, Australia, Argentina, Israel, Iraq, Russia, Poland, Germany, France and Spain. Most of us didn’t know each other before we arrived.

We didn’t come to escape poverty or pogroms, but to seek a better way of life, for work, or because we love Ireland, Irish music, the sea, the pace of life, the rural life, the people, the vibe.

The ninth lamp in Shalom Park that also marks the Chanuka festival, which begins this year on December 11. Picture: Clare Keogh
The ninth lamp in Shalom Park that also marks the Chanuka festival, which begins this year on December 11. Picture: Clare Keogh

Many of the current community aren’t from the same orthodox tradition as those early settlers. There are other traditions in Judaism — Reform, Progressive, Liberal for instance — each with their own prayer book and synagogues, and adhering less strictly to the Jewish laws than the orthodox tradition.

I don’t think any of us new Cork Jews are door-to-door pedlars. Some of us are retired. Some are journalists and artists and psychotherapists and jewellery-makers and musicians and yoga teachers. We don’t live close together in a ‘Jewtown’ scenario. We are scattered throughout Munster and beyond.

The bridge in between: I’ve been here 30 years. When Gerald Goldberg and Fred Rosehill — members of the original community, Gerald having been a much-respected lawyer and one-time Lord Mayor of Cork — were alive, they organised events for the festivals, which I used to attend with my children, along with up to 120 others.

Communal meals at Pesach (Passover), parties at Chanuka, the blowing of the shofar in the shul at Rosh Hashana. And there were occasional services on Shabbes, but not many.

By 1990, there were no longer the ten Jewish men in Cork (a minyan) required for orthodox services. The new Jews on the block didn’t really attend shul much because most of us lived outside the city, out in West Cork and Kerry, and perhaps had our own way of communing with God or nature or whatever-it-is-you’re-having-yourself.

And at Jewish festivals, some of us went to the UK or Dublin to celebrate with our parents or with a larger community.

In 2016, the shul in Cork closed. That day, the Munster Jewish Community formed, to ensure Jews living in and around Cork would still have a way to celebrate their identity and traditions with others.

And so, Jewish history, culture and community remain in Cork’s second city, and like in many religions, music and light are part of the tradition.


Then: If you walked past the shul any Saturday morning 100 years ago, you may have heard the sound of many voices singing, because the Jewish prayers include a lot of all-join-in songs for the congregation.

As well as the weekly Torah (bible) reading and the sermon. And the chatting and hand-shaking on the street outside after the service are, of course, as important a part of the tradition as anything else.

Occasionally, when the usual cantor, or Rav, was sick or out of town, one community member, Percy Diamond, a member of the Cork Operatic Society, would sing some of the Hebrew prayers to operatic melodies. More songs would be sung at Friday night and Saturday mealtimes in the many Jewish houses in ‘Jewtown’.

Now: Round the corner from the synagogue in Douglas Street, any Tuesday evening in 2019/early 2020, you may have heard a different kind of Jewish music. Fiddle, accordion, clarinet... the lively, soulful sounds of Eastern European Jewry brought back to Cork by my band Pop-Up Klezmer, playing in The Gables.

Ruti Lachs.
Ruti Lachs.

This is Jewish wedding music from eastern Europe, but it wasn’t brought to Cork by those Lithuanian Jews in the 1880s. The revival of this music only started in the mid-1900s in America, aided by old recordings, and gradually lapped its way to Ireland’s shores over the last 20 years.


Now: The upcoming festival of Chanuka — or Hanukkah, spell it how you like, but make that first consonant a guttural growl — starting on December 11 this year has a special resonance in Cork.

The annual eight-day feast of lights is a moveable feast, because the Jewish year is governed by moon cycles, not sun cycles. So Chanuka is always in December, but sometimes earlier, sometimes later.

Like all Jewish festivals, it starts an hour before sundown. Every evening, candles on a branched candlestick, called a Chanukiah or Menorah, are lit. One the first evening, two the second, etc. A shammas, an extra candle that stands out from the others, is lit first, and is used to light the nightly quota of candles. (It’s a very complicated religion!)

And in Cork, on the 8th evening of Chanuka, a special, unique Cork event takes place in Shalom Park, in ‘Jewtown’. As well as the eight street lamps that light the park every night of the year, a ninth lamp shines out.

This installation, created by Maddie Leach, an artist who lived in Cork a number of years ago, is named Evening Echo.

It is a unique artwork, and an important tribute to the historic Jewish community, and, along with the services and activities of the Munster Jewish Community, gives a sense of there still being a Jewish presence in the city.

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