Director Fetes Two Cultures in 'Shalom Ireland'

CBS News Archives
Wearing the official chain of office, Robert Briscoe, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin, visits New York City as seen in "Shalom Ireland," a documentary about Ireland’s remarkable, yet little known, Jewish community.

By Doug Chandler
Special to TheWildGeese.com

Valerie Lapin Ganley figured she developed a love of Irish culture from her Irish-American husband. But the connection seems deeper than that—she later learned her great-grandparents were the first Jewish couple ever married in Waterford. Intrigued, the California-based filmmaker set about documenting the history of Ireland's Jews. She discusses her findings in this 2004 interview.

NEW YORK — In talking with Valerie Lapin Ganley, the director of a new film about the Jewish community in Ireland, one of the things that emerges is that Ganley learned as much about her subject while making the film as viewers do while seeing it.

"I was raised in a Jewish family in Los Angeles," says Ganley, whose film, "Shalom Ireland," 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 "a deep love for his ancestral homeland."

It wasn't until she and her husband visited Ireland in 1993 and toured the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin's Portobello section that she discovered the existence of a Jewish community in the country, says Ganley, in a phone interview from her home in Pacifica, Calif., near San Francisco. "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."

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."

"They looked like they could have been my Jewish grandmother walking down Fairfax Boulevard in L.A.," Ganley recalled, laughing. "But when they spoke, these really thick Irish brogues came out."

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. (In previous centuries, Jews came from several countries in Western Europe, including Portugal in the late 1600s, according to different sources. Those from Portugal were descendants of Marranos, Jews who professed Christianity to escape persecution or death.)

The information inspired Ganley to look into her family history, Ganley recalls. 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," she says, "the one that I was born with and the one that I feel I adopted." 

A look at Dublin's legendary first family, the Briscoes

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, joined the Irish Republican Army in 1917, ran guns and ammunition for the IRA, and later raised money to help bring Jews to Palestine. He also served as a member of the Dail, the Irish parliament, from 1927 to 1965.

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. His brother 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 1999, Ganley received assistance from Joe Morrison, a volunteer at the Irish Jewish Museum who has since died. The contact led to a personal discovery for Ganley, who says that Morrison's mother was also a Lappin. She and Morrison both concluded they must have been related.

"We never could figure out the direct connection," Ganley says, "but I hope he is (a relative). ... He was just a wonderful person, and when you see the film, you'll know what I mean. He was just a really warm, gentle soul."

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, Cleo, owned a clothing shop.

The third family interviewed in the film are Carl Nelkin, 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.

End of the line for Irish Jewry?

Nelkin 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, Nelkin 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.

The number of Jews in the country has dwindled from a high of 5,500 in the mid-1940s to about 1,700 today, and leaders are concerned.

Nelkin'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. Joe and Ben Briscoe, for instance, are the only ones among seven brothers and sisters still living 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 notes, "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 says. "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. (Ceili, pronounced "kay-lee," is Irish for a hooley, and zemer, Hebrew for song.) 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.

Valerie Lapin Ganley on location during the filming of "Shalom Ireland."

"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.

Asked why she thought 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." In addition, she notes, both groups have lived in the Diaspora, creating another level on which they can relate to each other.

"That's another thing they have in common—forced from your homeland to live somewhere else and how that affects your psyche and your sense of community and who you are." WGT

Doug Chandler is a New York-based journalist whose work focuses on Jewish issues and culture.

"Shalom Ireland" will be screened on Wednesday at 6 p.m., and Thursday at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, 165 West 65th Street, in Manhattan. The screenings are part of the New York Jewish Film Festival. For more information, call the box office at (212) 875-5600. For information on other upcoming screenings around the country or to rent the film for festivals, visit the film's official website, at www.shalomireland.com, or e-mail the director at valerie@shalomireland.com.

RELATED RESOURCES

Official 'Shalom Ireland' Website (www.ShalomIreland.com)

Director Valerie Lapin Ganley chats with WGT

This feature was edited and produced for WGT by Gerry Regan. Copyright © 2004 Doug Chandler.

Views: 376

Tags: Arts, Faith, Film, Ireland, Irish Jewry, Jews, Preservation, Reviews

Comment by mickey mcadden on August 5, 2013 at 9:03pm

I enjoyed 'Shalom Ireland'. It is timely and will become a classic study of Irish life in this era. Valery  created a lovely cameo of Jewish Ireland, and indeed she is correct very few people outside of Ireland realize that it is. Also loved the Briscoe account and the connection with the founding of the State Of Israel. Fascinating stuff.

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