JewIrish: Enough of a Connection to Claim There Is One
Photo Courtesy of the New York Celtic Music MeetUp Group
When I wrote my first post exploring whether there's a Jewish connection to Celtic music and culture in October 2006, I concluded that there might not be any connection beyond "shiksa appeal," but it was clear I wasn't the only Jew who was interested. In my follow-up post this past March, there seemed to be more signs pointing toward a connection, yet there was still no tenable link. Although its tenability is still debatable, I am willing to say once and for all that there is a connection.
Saints & Tzadiks
In April, I learned of Saints & Tzadiks, a band that features the Klezmatics' Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg and fuses klezmer and Irish folk music. Some songs on the band's debut album (which was released in August) are sung in both Yiddish and Irish. In a Forward article in August, Gwen Orel (who also wrote the Village Voice article I quoted from in my March post) quoted McKeown as saying both styles of music "are exuberant" and Sklamberg as saying, "Both have intense amounts of pride." The article concludes:
[Sklamberg] learned Yiddish as an adult. McKeown does not come from an Irish-speaking family. She and Sklamberg share a bit of the viewpoint of the outsider. “Both languages are not lost yet, but they’re both languages that certain members of the community are trying to hold on to and keep alive,” McKeown said. She also concedes that the histories of the Jews and the Irish have certain similarities.United in One Course
“It’s the humanity of the music that comes through,” Sklamberg said, thinking about the impact the 1960s folk revival had on Jews. “You look in any suburban Jewish record collection, and you’ll find Belafonte and the Clancy Brothers,” he said. “Everybody had Theodore Bikel records, and he did some Irish songs in an Irish accent.”
“We’re one of the lost tribes,” McKeown said jokingly. “We have to do the DNA on that. It works well, the Irish and the Jewish music. It’s a good match.”
This past semester at NYU, professors Hasia Diner and Marion Casey co-taught a course called "Irish and Jewish Migrations to America." The syllabus explained:
This course explores, in a comparative format, the experiences of two European immigrant groups who relocated to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries: the Irish and east European Jews. It will examine the forces which propelled the migrations out of Europe to America and the ways in which the migrations took place. The course will look at the kinds of communities and identities the immigrants and their children created in the United States and the forces at work in American society which shaped their actions. Because this seminar pivots around a comparative analysis, students will be asked to seek both similarities and differences in those migrations and to evaluate the reasons for them. Throughout the course we will pay particular attention to the issue of class as a shaping force in the social and cultural histories of these two immigrant groups. Additionally Jews and Irish have intersected with each other at numerous points and the course will look at how the two groups understood and related to each other.The penultimate class focused on "Irish-Jewish Interactions" and featured an appearance by McKeown and Sklamberg. I asked to sit in on that class, but despite my documented interest in the subject matter and the fact that I'm an NYU student in a different program, I was not given permission to do so.
If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews
On October 24 in Manhattan, Irish musician and folklorist Mick Moloney led an ensemble of musicians, including McKeown, at an event called "If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews." They mostly performed songs off Moloney's new album of the same name. I spotted at least one kilt and two kippot in the audience. Finally, everything seemed to gel together.
Moloney explained that in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, Irish songwriters had originally dominated Vaudeville and Early Tin Pan Alley. Jewish songwriters took over, but in the interim, there was collaboration between the two ethnic groups. Moloney noted that both the Irish and the Jews were community-oriented, focused on education, and living in diaspora. The album and the event take their name from a 1912 song co-written by William Jerome, who was Irish, and Jean Schwartz, who was Jewish:
I often sit and think what would this country beMoloney explained that eventually, the business had "gone Jewish." "'Twas Only an Irishman's Dream" was co-written in 1916 by a Jew named Al Dubin, who also wrote "My Yiddisha Butterfly." The former is a soul-touching song about an Irish immigrant's longing for his homeland. Abe Olman co-wrote "Faugh a Ballagh" in 1917, and Abner Silber composed "There's a Typical Tipperary Over Here" in 1920. Even songs with explicitly Irish themes were being written by Jews.
If we hadn't men like Rosenstein and Hughes
[We'd] surely have a Kingdom, there'd be no democracy
If it wasn't for the Irish and the Jews
What would this great Yankee nation really really ever do
If it wasn't for a Levy, a Monahan or Donohue . . .
There wouldn't be an east side in the city of New York
If it weren't* for the Irish and the Jews . . .
I once heard Dave Belasco say you couldn't stage a play today
If it wasn't for the Irish and the Jews
Talk about a combination, heed my words and make a note
On St. Patrick's Day Rosinsky pins a shamrock on his coat
There's a sympathetic feeling between the Blooms and McAdoos
Why Tammany would surely fall, there'd really be no Hall at all
If it wasn't for the Irish and the Jews
Moloney also performed a song about "Shirley Levine," which was not included on the album. It included the line "When she dances the hora, there's none like my Shirley Levine." Moloney described it as a new song that was reminiscent of Tin Pan Alley. He declined to elaborate, despite multiple requests for an interview.
Moloney spoke of (and the lyric book elaborated on) numerous anecdotal connections between the Irish and the Jews. George M. Cohan was Irish but was often confused for Jewish because of his name. In the lyric book, Moloney wrote, "One could say that the first major Irish/Jewish collaboration on the American stage was between Cohan and his Jewish friend and confidante Sam Harris. ... [They] forged one of the most successful partnerships in American theatrical history and ended up shaping the style of American show business for decades." Moloney said that Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline) was called the "Yiddisha George M. Cohan" and that Berlin fell in love with Ellin Mackay, the granddaughter of Irish millionaire John William Mackay. Moloney also mentioned that Robert Snyder, author of a book on Vaudeville, is working on a book about Irish-Jewish relations in Tammany Hall.
The second set of the show began with songs from the Yiddish tradition, which were sung by Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro. She has done research on Jewish cantorial music in Dublin. She explained that her Jewish great-grandfather came from Minsk and married an Irish woman in the U.S. Her father was an Irish Catholic with the last name Shapiro, and he married a Jewish woman with the last name Levy. Spencer-Shapiro noted that the fiddle has "iconic status" in both Irish and Jewish folk music and that both immigrant groups had songs longing for their respective homelands. This point reminded me that when I was getting ready to go to Israel in 2007, I identified with the heartfelt lyric "dreaming of a homeland" in The Tossers' Celtic-punk song "Never Enough."
There is no one singular connection that could possibly explain why I and a number of other Jews embrace Celtic music. Historically, the two immigrant groups were linked in songwriting as well as in other areas. Thematically, songs in both traditions display cultural pride and refer to the longing for a homeland by a people living in diaspora. Musically, Jewish and Irish folk music are often "exuberant," as McKeown said, and both give the fiddle an "iconic status," as Spencer-Shapiro noted.
With all those links, some individual Jews fill in the gaps and relate to Irish music through their Jewish identity in a personally meaningful manner. This connection now seems so common and natural that I no longer believe that my deeply felt connection to Celtic music suggests that I must've been Irish in another life.
*Note: The album's lyric book says "weren't" here and "wasn't" in all other instances. Click here to read my 2008 post about why "weren't" is correct.