Page created: 28 September 2014
Latest amendment or revision: 29 February 2016
Cork's Jewish Community -- Small in Size, Grand in Spirit
by Marlena Thompson
After wandering around Cork and noting not only its loveliness but also the exceptional friendliness of its people, I concluded that this second largest city in the Republic after Dublin, was different from any place in Ireland I'd yet seen.
Cork, sometimes called the "Venice of Ireland" due to the various branches of the River Lee that flow into its Harbor, and the footbridges that bedeck the city, also offers 18th century churches, commemorative monuments, an opera house, assorted galleries, bookshops, and bistros. The city offers visitors a glimpse of its past, as well as an array of cultural and casual forms of entertainment, including some fine folk pubs featuring excellent brews and traditional Irish music.
But I had come to this pleasing city with a specific purpose. While exploring the Jewish community in Dublin, I'd inquired about the Jews living in Cork, and was told the community was defunct. But after learning that the synagogue in Cork was still holding services, I knew Cork's Jewish community must have some life to it yet. I decided to come to come and Cork and find out for myself.
Fred Rosehill, the Chairman of Trustees of Cork Hebrew Congregation, and informal "spokesperson" for the Jewish community, past and present, very generously took time from his busy schedule to serve as my guide. After collecting me at my hotel, we drove to the Jewish cemetery. Along the way, Fred filled me in on some of the history of Cork's Jewish community as well as a bit of his own background. Though Fred was born in Cork, his father's family came to Ireland from Lithuania. Most of Ireland's present Jewish community dates from the late 19th century when Jews from Lithuania fleeing pogroms arrived in Dublin, Belfast, Limerick and Cork. The community in Cork, always smaller than the ones in Dublin and Belfast, swelled to almost 500 souls in the early decades of the last century. But the population has since dwindled. Now, in a population of approximately 135,000, there are about 20-30 Jews, most of them intermarried.
When we arrived at the Jewish cemetery situated on a hillside above the city, a faulty lock prevented us from entering. As I peeked through the gates, trying to catch a glimpse of the graves, Fred said: "It's only about a quarter filled. Maybe less." When I asked why, he smiled and replied, "It was intended for a much larger community." The cemetery is, however, still in use.
Our next stop was the home of the illustrious Dr. Gerald Goldberg, another member of one of the Jewish community's founding families. I admit I was thrilled at the prospect of meeting Dr. Goldberg, not only because he had once been the Lord Mayor of Cork, but because I knew of his reputation as a patron of the Irish arts. Although the visit was brief, it didn't disappoint.
After describing how his father, Louis, had come to Ireland from Lithuania, and settled in Cork after having been injured in what is usually referred to as the Limerick pogrom (although no one killed) that took place in 1904, Dr. Goldberg showed me his spectacular library. As a former antiquarian bookseller, I appreciated the inclusiveness of such a collection. During a conversation liberally laced with Yiddish (which I, alas, do not understand,) Dr. Goldberg mentioned he planned to bequeath his collection of Judaica to Cork University College - subject to the College's inauguration of a Jewish faculty.
As Fred and I were about to depart, Dr. Goldberg informed us he would presently be attending a lecture on James Joyce, creator of Ireland's most famous Jew, Leopold Bloom, the hero of Joyce's Ulysses. (Of course, Bloom would have been denied Jewish status by traditional Jews, since he was "born to a Christian mother and twice baptized.") Interestingly, James Joyce's father, John Stanislaus Joyce, was a native of Cork and his home was situated near the Goldberg family home in "Jewtown." (That name had no pejorative overtones but merely described the area in which most Jews had settled upon arriving in Cork.) Looking from Dr. Goldberg who, at just a few years shy of 90 was getting ready to drive the 30 miles to the lecture, to Fred Rosehill, who, at 73, looks and acts like a man at least a decade younger, I wondered if Ponce de Leon shouldn't have come to Cork in his quest to find the legendary fountain of youth.
Our next stop was a lovely green called, Shalom Park, opened in 1989, and situated in the area formerly called Jewtown. Fred explained how the park received its highly unusual name:
We finally arrived at Cork Hebrew Congregation, which has been at 10 South Terrace for the past 110 years. It is a simple synagogue, externally and within. It boasts neither ornate chandeliers nor fancy stained glass windows. And yet, for all its lack of embellishment, Cork Hebrew Congregation has managed to touch the lives of many, including people living thousands of miles away. Fred relayed the story of a businessman from Canada who requested that his granddaughter be allowed to hold her Bat Mitzvah ceremony in Cork. The Canadian told Fred his son-in-law was Irish Catholic but felt strong ties to Judaism. The businessman thought a ceremony in a synagogue in Cork would have special significance for the family. Although Cork Hebrew Congregation is technically Orthodox, Fred allowed the Canadian businessman and his family to make use of the synagogue, and helped to make all the necessary arrangements. The family never forgot the kindness and hospitality, and returned to Cork many times.
Fred acknowledges that many people would object to the way in which he and Gerald Goldberg permit the synagogue to be put to use. "But Gerald and I think the main purpose of a synagogue is that it be used," he explained. "Would it be better for it to remain empty than for us to allow it to be used by, say, a visiting Reform rabbi, or a Canadian businessman who wishes to celebrate his granddaughter's Bat Mitzvah here?" He added with a smile, "Maybe we're just rebels in this part of the country." It would come as no surprise, as Cork's sobriquet is the Rebel County, because of its place in the struggle for Irish independence.
As we left the synagogue, Fred pointed to a nearby footbridge, and explained that although its official name is the Trinity Bridge, everyone refers to it as the "Passover" Bridge because of its proximity to the synagogue. Fittingly, Gerald Goldberg opened the bridge in 1977, during his tenure as Lord Mayor.
As our time was drawing to an end, Fred told me he was expecting a group of 54 Orthodox American Jews to arrive in Cork. He was giving them use of the synagogue in his absence. It is the fourth such group to have made use of Cork Hebrew Congregation in recent years.
Although the community is so small it must "import" a group of Lubavitch "boys" (as Fred calls them) from London to conduct Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, it held a large communal Passover seder this past year. Among the 63 attendees were American Jews, many of them intermarried, working for nearby Motorola, and others who found themselves in Ireland during Passover with no place to go. In Cork, all were made welcome.
I had come to Cork's Jewish community to discover whether it was dead or alive. The answer I found is complex. In numbers, the community might well require life support. But in essence, it manages to exude a brand of energy far beyond its diminished numbers -- which is why it attracts strangers from all over the world. I know of one former stranger who was utterly captivated by the charm of the place and who hopes very much to return.
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