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Cultures in communion

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

“I was raised in a Jewish family in Los Angeles,” said Ganley, whose film, “Shalom Ireland,” which will be screened this week in New York, explores Jewish life in the country by focusing on three Irish-Jewish families, all from Dublin. But she gained an interest in Irish history and culture after meeting her husband, Michael, an Irish American with, she said, “a deep love for his ancestral homeland.”
It wasn’t until she and her husband visited Ireland in 1995 and toured the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin’s Portobello section that she discovered the existence of a Jewish community in the country.
“Neither us even knew that there was a Jewish community in Ireland, and we were both very intrigued and tickled by it and curious as to what this combination of our two cultures would be,” she said recently from her home near San Francisco.
One example of that combination — and its novelty at the time to the Ganleys — came in the form of two elderly Jewish women who worked at the museum and greeted the couple as they arrived.
“They looked like they could have been my Jewish grandmother walking down Fairfax Boulevard in L.A.,” the director recalled, laughing at the memory. “But when they spoke, these really thick Irish brogues came out. And they were very charming, and they were really funny, and, of course, they had to size us up right away.”
After returning home, Ganley learned from her father that her great-grandparents Jacob and Fanny Lappin lived in Ireland for several years and were the first Jewish couple married in Waterford. Her great-grandfather made his way to Ireland from Lithuania in the late 1800s, says Ganley, part of a migration from Eastern Europe that increased the Jewish population in Ireland from 341 in 1861, according to the Irish census, to more than 3,000 by the turn of the century. The information inspired Ganley to look into her family history. It also sparked the realization that she might have the material for a good documentary.
“I really wanted to make something that was a celebration of these two cultures that I really loved, the one that I was born with and the one that I feel I adopted,” Ganley said.
The hour-long documentary, narrated by actor Aidan Kelly, premiered at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival last May. It explores the contributions of Irish Jews to the founding of both Ireland and Israel, including such figures as Robert Briscoe, perhaps the most famous member of the Irish Jewish community. Briscoe, who served as the lord mayor of Dublin in the 1950s and ’60s, had joined the IRA in 1917, ran guns and ammunition, and later raised money to help settle Jews in Palestine. He also served as a member of the Dail from 1927-65.
The film covers much of that history through interviews with two of Robert Briscoe’s sons, Joe and Ben. Ben followed his father into politics, running for his seat in the Dail in 1965, serving as the lord mayor of Dublin in the 1980s, and retiring from the legislative post only last year. Joe, a retired dentist, claims that, between his father and Ben, the Briscoes have served in the Dail longer than any other Irish family.
While doing research for “Shalom Ireland,” which she filmed in 1998 and ’99, Ganley received assistance from Joe Morrison, a volunteer at the Irish Jewish Museum who has since died.
Morrison and his wife, Cleo, are among those profiled by Ganley, who remains in close touch with the families she interviewed. Morrison, she says, worked as an accountant and the owner of a small import business, while his wife owned a clothing shop.
The third family interviewed in the film are Carl Melkin, an aviation attorney, and his American-born wife, Judy Charry, who taught in Dublin’s Jewish day school until their daughter was born, about five years ago.
Melkin leads an effort on behalf of the Jewish community to bring more Jews to Ireland, a campaign that has brought several families from South Africa to live in the country. A part-time cantor, Melkin lived in New York for a while and met his wife through her father, Marim Charry, a rabbi who now leads Temple Israel in Great Neck, N.Y.
Melkin’s effort to increase Ireland’s Jewish population points to one of the few sorrowful notes struck by the film. The number of Jews in the country has dwindled from a high of 5,500 in the mid-1940s to about 1,700 today, a figure that leaders of the community are worried could decline further. The seven brothers and sisters of Joe and Ben Briscoe, for instance, no longer live in Ireland. And in 1999 as Ganley’s camera rolled, the community had to shut the doors of the Adelaide Road Synagogue, an Orthodox shul and the oldest synagogue in Dublin.
Ganley sees the dwindling numbers, in part, as being driven by the same factors that have caused other Irish to leave their homeland through the centuries: a bad economy and the search for greater opportunity.
“What compounded those factors for the Jewish community,” she said, “was that people had to go outside of the country to find spouses.” The population’s relative smallness, in effect, contributed to its growing even smaller.
Still, the members of Ireland’s Jewish community feel every bit as Irish as they do Jewish, a cause for celebration in Ganley’s eyes.
“They’re very assimilated in their professional lives,” working in such fields as law, politics, teaching and the arts, she said. “They’re very integrated into the fabric of the country.”
The sense of celebration is reflected by the film’s soundtrack, which features traditional Irish music, klezmer music, and what the documentary’s website calls Ceilizemer, a fusion of the two. The musicians hail from two Northern California bands, Driving with Fergus, a traditional Irish band from Oakland, and the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band, a traditional Jewish band from Sacramento.
“Shalom Ireland” is the first film made by Ganley, who has worked as an associate producer and a writer on several documentaries, including a number aired by PBS.
Why might the film might appeal to Irish readers? Ganley says the two cultures “have a shared historical experience, both having suffered from discrimination on the basis of religion.”
(Doug Chandler is a New York-based journalist whose work focuses on Jewish issues and culture. This feature first appeared on TheWildGeese.com.)

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