By Keith Bloomfield
Three thousand miles separates New York from Dublin. I had been away from home before. Summer camp; my first year of college, but the distance seemed insurmountable to me. I was determined to major in English Literature and Dublin was my destination. Where better than to learn firsthand about my favorite authors: Swift, Yeats, and of course James Joyce?
More than the physical distance, I was plagued with my separation from the Jewish community that gave me strength and focus. Jews had probably been in Ireland since the 11th century. A mention in the Annals of Inisfallen reports a visit to the King of Munster by five Jews from over the sea, but they were sent back from where they came. Ireland's Jewish community was brought into being through a land grant from King Henry II to Peter de Rivall, the Treasurer and Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer. Ireland's Jewish population swelled as high as five thousand. "A drop in the bucket" said my Rabbi when I announced my plans for a semester abroad. But the number had slid to less then two thousand with most of them living in Dublin and its "Environs," as Joyce himself might have said.
Despite being "a drop in the bucket" compared to the rest of the population, Jews had risen to levels of prosperity and importance in the country that was disproportionate to their numbers. Several prominent Jews had even served as the Lord Mayor of Dublin and of several other towns as well.
I was determined to make the best of the experience. I battled my way into a program meant for juniors and seniors, but who knew if I would ever have another chance like this again. Walking through the hall one morning on my way to class, only days before events on a campus in Ohio would polarize the nation; a hand snaked out from a doorway and fell heavily on my shoulder.
"I understand you've decided to be an English major," said a voice behind me.
I turned quickly to face my current English professor and nodded.
"And you're going to Dublin as well," he added. I nodded again. The Professor slammed his office door behind him and walked off down the crowded hallway. "Well, we'll just see if you're good enough when you return," he called back at me, disappearing into a sea of students. He had thrown down the gauntlet and I silently accepted his challenge.
The students, all fifty-two of us, lived in a hotel just off O'Connell Street, a broad palm tree lined avenue that was the spine of the city centre. From Parnell Square in the north, it meandered south over the murky green waters of the Liffey and split near Trinity College. Its side streets branched out in all directions. One major tributary ambled past Saint Stephen's Green and plodded south out of the city and into the suburbs.
A large neon sign marked our home away from home. The Beacon was a classic Georgian style hotel that had seen better days. The bulbs that formed the "T" in the sign were burned out, so at night, everyone could see that they lived in the "BEACON HO EL." We didn't mind.
During the week, we studied and toured the city. I found the Yeats and the Swift and even the Joyce that had brought me to the Emerald Isle. On weekends, I followed O'Connell Street and its side streets so I could explore the neighborhoods outside the city centre.
I ventured down to the South Circular Road to Portobello and a section once called Little Jerusalem, where most of Dublin's Jews had lived. I located 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street, the birthplace of Leopold Bloom, the Jewish protagonist in Joyce's Ulysses. I searched for the other landmarks mentioned in Joyce's works, though I could just have easily taken one of the many tours around the city. I studied the gravestones at Ballybough, the tiny Jewish cemetery and I began to realize that I was not as alone as I thought I was.
One Sunday, I left the Beacon early and took a bus south and out of Dublin. The brick and granite of Dublin fell away behind me and wood and stucco homes lined the uncluttered roads the bus driver seemed to know so well.
I watched families in their best Sunday attire walking to church. I could hear the church bells over the roar of the diesel rumbling beneath my feet.
The bus passed a broad field dotted with what appeared to be hockey goals, only much larger. On each field, I saw teams of young boys anxiously kicking what looked like a volleyball from one end of the field to the other. I had never seen soccer played before and I couldn't understand why these youngsters were not on their way to church like the rest of their neighbors. I signaled for the bus to stop and stepped down onto field adjacent to the roadway.
With my hands thrust into the back pockets of my jeans, I walked slowly to the edge of the field. The players could not have been more than eleven or twelve, yet they played with a sense of confidence and agility that was hard to believe from children that age. A youngster sitting on a ball along the sidelines suddenly realized that I was behind him and he quickly turned around.
"You're not from around here," he observed.
"No, I'm from the United States."
The young boy jumped to his feet. "I have an uncle in California. Maybe you know him."
"I'm afraid not. California is on the other side of the country from where I live and I don't know anyone from the left coast."
The youngster looked at me quizically and his eyes danced in his head while he tried to understand the joke. "Oh, I understand," he giggled. "What's your name?"
I told him.
"I'm Aaron Wolf," said the youngster, thrusting out a hand that I shook with gusto. Now it was clear why these boys were not on their way to church. By pure coincidence, I had happened upon a group of young Jews playing in the crisp morning air. With their peers at church, Sunday mornings were probably the only times the field was available to them. "You don't play football in the States, do you?" Aaron was on his feet, bouncing a soccer ball from one foot to the other, half watching the game and half watching me.
"Of course we do. We have a game in the States that we call football, but it's very different from your football. What you call football, we call soccer. It's not as popular there as it is here."
"Do you play?"
"No, but I'm a great watcher."
"Then watch this. I'm going in." Aaron ran to midfield and shook hands with another boy whose place he had taken. The youngster was winded and sweaty when he reached the sidelines. He sprawled on the grass in front and watched Aaron.
"Are you a friend of Aaron's?" he asked.
"No, not really."
He looked up at me and smirked. "You will be. Aaron makes friends easily. Are you going to his house after the game?"
"I haven't been asked."
"You will be. Aaron has lots of friends."
When the game ended, Aaron asked me to come home with him for lunch. "Your parents won't mind?"
"No, I invite lots of people over and besides, I've never invited an American."
Aaron's mom, Mrs. Wolf, was accustomed to her son bringing home "strays," as she called the strangers that often accompanied the youngster. "Aaron has never brought home an American," she observed, setting out sandwiches of leftover chicken on homemade bread in front of us.
While Aaron ate silently, his mother quizzed me about what I was doing in Dublin and life in the States. When she realized that I was Jewish, she immediately asked me what I was doing for the High Holidays. I thought that I would have to forego them during my semester abroad, but she thought it was nonsense and that her husband was a macher a big shot at their synagogue and that he would arrange for me to have a seat. "You'd like that Aaron, wouldn't you?" she asked. Aaron continued eating. The holidays began the very next Monday. Before I left the Wolfs, I wrote down the address of their synagogue and promised to meet them the following Monday morning at 9:00.
The bus stopped directly across the street from the Wolf's shul. Its high brick walls were punctuated with tall, narrow windows that greeted the morning sun, but made it difficult to see in from the street. Aaron and his parents were on the stairs outside waving at me.
"You really came back," said Aaron, a huge smile lighting his freckled face.
"I said I would."
"Sometimes, the friends that Aaron meets don't always keep their promises," noted his father. "I'm very glad to meet you." He thrust out his hand and I shook it heartily. "I know that you're far from home and a stranger here, but that's no reason to remain a stranger. We are honored that you've agreed to pray with us." Mr. Wolff led the way into the building and I followed him, with Aaron at my side and his wife behind us.
In a country of such differences, different music and foods: different customs and different traditions--I looked around the sanctuary and saw faces that could just have easily been members of my synagogue in the States. It was easy to attach names to them, though I knew that they were celebrating the yontif across the Atlantic.
The congregation greeted me as though they had known me forever and I was a stranger no more. While the accent was different, we chanted the same prayers and hymns to the same melodies and read from the same Torah with the same lilting trup. The blare of the Shofar filled the room with the same three notes and the same intensity as it did at my own shul.
Aaron rushed off to spend time with his friends in the rear pew and I sat with his parents, totally engaged in the service and nearly forgetting where I was. I smiled to myself and marveled how I could feel so at home, so far from home. The warmth of that day remained with me throughout my stay in Ireland.
When I was home once more at the end of the semester, I sent Aaron a letter thanking him and asking that he convey my regards to his family. He sent me a letter thanking me for the kind words, but he didn't remember who I was. "I have so many friends," he wrote.
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from the January 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine