Monday, November 14, 2011
I recently visited the extremely impressive Entertaining The Nation exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town in London. In another interactive section of the collection it was interesting to note how Jewish settlement in Ireland was now barely limited to only three cities - Dublin, Cork and Belfast. There are now no Jewish communities left in Waterford, Limerick or Derry with a functioning synagogue.
The Jewish community in Ireland numbered around 5,500 in the late Forties but today is approximately only 1,900 strong in the Republic of Ireland and 500 or even lower in Northern Ireland.
Despite the sectarian polarisation of the city, the Belfast Jewish community experienced no historical instance of anti-semitism alike that attending the Jews of Limerick at the start of the 20th Century. In Belfast the original community was centred around Carlisle Circus in the north of the city with the second synagogue being located on Annesley Street there.
Famous shipbuilder Gustav Wolff's family converted from Judaism and was thus brought up in the Protestant faith though Hamburg-born Jew Otto Jaffe was Belfast Lord Mayor in 1899. Jaffe launched an appeal during his period of office for the dependents of soldiers fighting in the Boer War. He would nevertheless later be accused of being a German spy during the Great War and left Ulster due to the intensity of national feeling. Jaffe's family linen business was in Bedford Street where James Young's Group Theatre was later situated.
A memorial fountain to Jaffe's father Daniel still stands in the city centre near the Victoria Square shopping complex while another in the City Cemetery on the Falls Road - which has contained a section for Jewish interments since 1874 - has been frequently vandalised.
During the Second World War Jewish refugees from Europe and children from the Kindertransport stayed at the Millisle Refugee Farm on the County Down coast - this remained open until 1948. An urban myth associated with the 1941 Luftwaffe bombing patterns during the Belfast Blitz related to Jewish settlement on the Antrim Road whereas in fact the destruction was essentially based on navigational errors with the Belfast waterworks having been mistaken for the Harland and Wolff shipyards. During the end of the war in turn both SAS leader Blair Mayne from County Down and future Official Unionist Party leader James Molyneaux from County Antrim were amongst the British soldiers who took part in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
The Jewish community was already in numerical decline by the time of the start of the Ulster Troubles in 1969. In the course of the conflict the antiques dealer Leonard Kaitcher was abducted, held for ransom and murdered by Republican terrorists in 1980. Some years previously leading bookmaker Leonard Steinberg survived a murder attempt, left Northern Ireland and as the owner of Stanley Leisure became a life peer in 2004.
For such a small cultural group however it nevertheless did provide a figure of significant historic note in future Israeli President Chaim Herzog who was born in Clifton Park Avenue in 1918. Alike with the Annesley Street area, this would be a very troubled part of the city during the civil disorder and terrorism of the Seventies.
The actor Harry Towb was born in the Northern Ireland port of Larne but grew up in the Oldpark/Crumlin Road district of North Belfast. A familiar figure in British drama, Towb appeared in movies such as The Blue Max and Above Us The Waves and also television dramas from The Avengers to Stewart Parker's Lost Belongings. Towb, who died in 2009, once recalled his early days in mainland Britain in the Fifties where many English boarding houses displayed the warmest of welcomes to him personally: "No Irish, no Jews, no theatricals".
In the early Nineties Towb starred in the BBC sitcom So You Think You've Got Troubles with Warren Mitchell which parodied the various paradoxes of religious tradition. I also recall his award-winning Cowboys BBC television play in 1981 where an American Jew returns to the visit the city of his birth. "Cowboys" is used in the Northern Irish vernacular for "hoods" in the same way that "Apache" or "Comanche" was used during the Troubles as politically incorrect descriptions for areas prone to violent disorder.
The play ends, if I can remember correctly, with Towb and his wife getting lost at night time in a brutalist council estate while retracing the steps of his youth in what was then the countryside on the outskirts of the city. It ends violently with them encountering two (most probably Loyalist) cowboys asking for a contribution to the cause of political freedom. Cowboys fully captured the sadness and waste underpinning so much social change in Belfast in the Seventies including indeed the very area where Towb himself grew up.
The now demographically minute Jewish community of Belfast - alike the Italians of Little Patrick Street - have made a significantly unique contribution to the rich history of the north of the city as one of the most interesting urban districts in the entire British Isles.