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