An American Jew in Dublin

Dear Friend and Reader,

When I landed in Dublin last week, the population of Jews in Ireland went from zero to one. The Jewish bakery, in the Jewish quarter of the city, is run and owned by an Asian couple. The synagogue has been converted into the city’s Jewish museum. No one there knows what a decent bagel tastes like, and if I were to ask for a shmear of cream cheese or describe someone as klutzy, chances are they’ll either not know the word, not know it’s Yiddish, or both.

As my girlfriend’s brother texted to me, I’m “like something different and exotic for Christmas. Like during WW2 when they imported oranges and bananas!”В He always puts a smile on my face.

It’s interesting though, because I never thought of myself as exotic before I went to Ireland. Sure, I was a minority, growing up among a Christian majority, but my cultural roots were strong. My extended family — mostly made up of my parent’s friends because my blood-family is quite small — are all Jewish, my earliest sexual experiences were at Temple and I was actively involved in youth group, Jewish summer camp, etc. etc. So I was always part of a strong sub-culture: small in numbers, big in presence.

Like much of my generation, I’ve grown away from religion as I’ve gotten older. Judaism has made that easy for me; there are so many cultural aspects that can be separated from the religious that the term Cultural JudaismВ is widely recognized: we still eat matzoh on Passover, but we don’t recline and read the Haggadah. For Yom Kippur this year, our Day of Atonement, my mom and I didn’t fast, but we still invited people over for “break fast,” when we stuff our faces with bagels, lox and noodle kugel as if we hadn’t eaten all day.

So, for someone fairly removed from religion, it’s interesting that I’m getting pangs for lighting the Chanukah candles and frying latkes (potato pancakes) with the pseudo-family. Chanukah, like our other holidays, goes by the Jewish calendar, so it starts on a different date every year. This year, The Festival of Lights, remembering the destruction of the Maccabee’s temple in Israel when they only had enough oil to burn the eternal flame for a day but it lasted for eight, starts sundown tonight and continues through the 29th. And for a girl with two families in two countries, you know what that means: the only Jew in Ireland is celebrating Chanukah alone.

I’m still deciding whether to light them tonight with my Catholic family; they’re curious about my religion but I don’t want to push it on them or be tokenized. It’s a strange position, when you become a symbol for something; especially something you don’t feel all that close to religiously.

I suppose I became Jewish the day I got here, like my ancestors who couldn’t practice their religion until they left Russia. It’s an identity through separation, isolation. But I’m going to choose to look at it a different way. Though this is the second year I’m spending away from my family on one of my favorite holidays (my favorite because of the high ratio of fried potatoes to my stomach), I’m going to take the opportunity to do what my people do so well: take their culture with them. I’m thinking I’ll do this by introducing the latke as brunch food; you won’t find an Irish person turning down potatoes.

To all of you who are the oranges and bananas of the group this year, happy holidays.

Yours & truly,

Rachel Asher

To see more from contributing photographer William Murphey, click here.

4 thoughts on “An American Jew in Dublin”

  1. My best friend was stationed in Dublin as a bureau chief/reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She remained there for years and years, invited me to join her one Christmas many years ago, btw. Anyway, my point is that strangely enough, as she tells it, she felt like she finally made it home once she hit Dublin … strange because she is Jewish, from NYC. I’m not sure how she spent her holidays but I’m guessing there was a pub involved. She spent Christmasses with my family in Washington from time to time, so she was well versed in the Waterford crystal traditions of Irish Catholic, right on down to the massive tree and midnight mass. So, you could say she swings both ways!! Anyway, I hope it’s a good one … and if you’d like, I’ll shake her down for tips for jews when immersed in uber-catholicism. Oy to the World!


  2. Dear Rachel,

    I write this from my home in the most profoundly anti-Semitic corner of Europe, where, in a moment of madness 3 years ago, I decided to settle so I could do some real research on, and writing about, Sephardic (Judeo-Spanish) food.

    As American Jews we may be in the numerical minority but Judaism and Jewish culture are such integral components of American society that we easily take them for granted. As well we should be able. That’s America. By contrast, living and travelling in Europe are always filled with enough bizarre encounters to remind me that I ain’t in Kansas any more. I’ve lived on and off in and travelled to Europe for over 30 years. Outside of a handful of major European cities, anti-Semitism and gross ignorance about Judaism, or Jewishness, still loom large. We are generally treated either as objects of scorn or of curiosity. I have lived this repeatedly in Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Greece. I have been treated like flavor of the month, as in “this is my new Jewish friend” (not for long, buster). I have been dragged by otherwise non-religious Catholics into religious debate as if I were personally responsible for killing Jesus (oh, please). I have had to listen to exhausting tirades against Israel (as if all Jews somehow blindly follow and support all policies of the Israeli government), and I have been used by many profoundly unscrupulous people looking to anoint themselves the champions of the revival of Judaism in modern Spain (among them, funnily enough, a guy named Jesus). This is the only tip of a very big iceberg.

    It can be exhausting being Jewish in Europe, and as an ex-pat it’s that much more difficult if you’re secular, because folks just can’t get their heads around it. Most of the Spanish Jews I know are completely underground. For an American Jew, it’s just bizarre. I grew up taking my religion, my culture, my history, for granted. In Europe I got sick of even hearing about it and then, in one of life’s little ironies, I moved to the most anti-Semitic country of all here and set about a task that forces me to do all that explaining I just didn’t want to bother with any more. But now I get to set the record straight on my terms. I also get to celebrate, and it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys posting the occasional essay with the irreverence that only an insider can use with impunity. It’s liberating.

    All this to explain why and how much I love and appreciate your Irish experience and the thoughts behind your notion of serving up potato pancakes in Dublin. Do it, and just present it as food, which they’ll love. More important, so will you. Happy Hanukah.


  3. You’ve got more company than you think. Check out:

    Chabad Lubavitch of Ireland
    131 Rathfarnham Road
    Dublin, 14 Ireland
    Phone: 353-1-406-4818

    If nothing else, someone with whom to light Chanukah candles (and no chance of being “tokenized”.)

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