L’chaim! Slainte!

L’chaim! Slainte!

Purim and Saint Patrick’s Day coincide, and Rabbi Joseph Prouser notices

President John F. Kennedy meets with the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, center, and Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, Thomas J. Kiernan, in the Oval Office in 1962. (Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)
President John F. Kennedy meets with the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, center, and Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, Thomas J. Kiernan, in the Oval Office in 1962. (Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Even granting that Purim always is an odd holiday — it’s the holiday of masking and unmasking, concealing and revealing, turning things upside down and shaking them — this year’s celebration is bound to be even odder.

For one thing, it will mark the re-emergence of the community into more or less normal life. The pandemic started right around Purim two years ago; there were some celebrations, but they were small and paradoxically grim. Last year they were online or in parking lots; they were creative, with lots of horn honking for Haman, but the charm of that approach was entirely in its novelty. This year, many Purim celebrations— probably most of them — will be in person, and it’s anybody’s guess which part of whose face which mask will cover.

But the other odd thing about Purim this year is that it overlaps with Saint Patrick’s Day; Purim starts on the evening of March 16 and ends at sundown on the 17th, which of course is St. Patrick’s Day.

Joseph Prouser, the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Franklin Lakes, the Conservative synagogue that sits on a hill, overlooks a lake, and combines the beauty of the stained-glass window that the community took with it as it moved north from Paterson with the simple, proportional elegance of the Dutch Reform church that it remodeled, plans to offer a straightforward, thorough Purim service. It’ll be the kind of service that his community has missed for the last two years.

But Rabbi Prouser also plans to acknowledge the coincidence of Purim and St. Patrick’s Day — two holidays, from two very different cultures that nonetheless have odd similarities. He’ll connect the two days by providing background about the stories of two stuttering shepherds who emerge from slavery to lead their people, with God’s help, from famine to satiety. (God gave the Israelites manna and quail; the Irish got pigs.) Both men worked wonders with their walking sticks, and with snakes. (Yes, some of this overshoots Purim to head right to Pesach, but Purim is an oasis on the desert road to Pesach.)

Not only are there the comparisons between Patrick and Moshe (to be fair, the Irish already knew the Exodus story when they created Patrick’s), Rabbi Prouser wants to tie the two holidays together even more tightly by weaving in the story of Robert Emmet Briscoe, the first Jewish mayor (Lord Mayor, to be punctilious) of Dublin, and the father of the second one.

Rabbi Prouser first became aware of the parallels between Jewish traditions and Saint Patrick when he studied comparative religion as an undergraduate at Columbia. “I try to be an educated consumer of American religious diversity,” he said. “We need to know about our neighbors.”

Robert Briscow, ceremonially dressed, enjoys a cigar.

The connections between the Jewish and Irish stories include “the fine line between wealth and power and vulnerability and slavery,” he said. “Patrick was born into a wealthy, powerful family but he was taken captive and sold into slavery at a young age. In the Jewish tradition, Moses grew up in the palace, but he identified with the enslaved Israelites, and freed them.”

Beyond the textual connections, “there is a whole history of the affinity between the Irish and the Jewish immigrant communities,” Rabbi Prouser said. “There was a popular Tin Pan Alley song called ‘If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews,’ that explicitly talks about Jews wearing shamrocks for Saint Patrick’s Day.” There was “Abie’s Irish Rose,” which first hit Broadway in 1922 and stayed open until 1927; later it was filmed and revived onstage. “But I don’t know how much historical credence there is to linking the tradition of corned beef on Saint Patrick’s Day to Jewish delis,” Rabbi Prouser said regretfully.

“Both stories have an emphasis on the family unit, and more than a religious or moral commonality, that’s the historical common experience of immigrants coming to the United States looking for a better life,” he continued. And he thinks that the Irish are second only to the Jews among immigrant groups in “maintaining a deep emotional and nostalgic connection to their roots.”

That brought  us back to Briscoe, the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who sat in the Irish Parliament for 12 terms, from 1927 to 1965, and then served two terms as Dublin’s mayor. He was an active Irishman and an active Jew, a supporter of the IRA — “before the IRA became a dirty word” during the Troubles in Ireland, from about 1968 to 1998 — and Sinn Fein and of Jabotinsky; he raised funds for Irish independence and for the Irgun, and to bring Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

“He was really a remarkable character,” Rabbi Prouser said, and his accomplishments, as well as their sheer improbability, made an impression in the United States as well as in Ireland. “He made a triumphal tour of the United States during Eisenhower’s presidency, and during Kennedy’s he was received as a hero in the Irish American community, particularly in Boston, New York, and Chicago” — cities with big Irish populations — “and he became a tremendous folk figure.”

There’s a photograph of Briscoe with Kennedy in the Oval Office. The two men together “became a symbol of how being a member of a religious minority no longer was an obstacle to patriotism or service in high office. Kennedy achieved that here, and Briscoe was a welcome figure here because he achieved that in Ireland.

“He was fully invested in Irish independence and freedom and civil rights, and his Jewishness, which was a prominent part of his persona and life story, didn’t stand in his way,” Rabbi Prouser continued. “He was an ardent Zionist, he worked with Jabotinsky, and he was a personal adviser to Begin, as Begin began to transition the Irgun from a paramilitary force to the mainstream.

Mick Moloney, a musician and cultural historian, explores the historic links between Irish and Jewish immmigrants’ music.

“He could help with that partly because he’d already done it.”

After his political career was over, Briscoe was able to use his retirement to enjoy himself, Rabbi Prouser said. “He was on ‘What’s My Line,’ identified as the former Lord Mayor of Dublin, and the panel — which included Vincent Price and Arlene Francis — had to guess that he was now distributing kosher meat in Ireland.

“They guessed that it was somehow related to animals and food, and Arlene Francis asked, ‘Do you specialize in pork products?’ And he said, ‘No. That’s not it.’”

Parenthetically, Rabbi Prouser told a story that connected to Briscoe’s. His wife is Dr. Ora Horn Prouser; Dr. Prouser’s grandfather, Irving Horn also was on “What’s My Line.” He had worked for Hebrew National; because he was the person who answered the phone when a representative of the game show called, he was the person whose line, on the show, was said to be tying the strings at the ends of the salami. (A machine actually tied those strings, Rabbi Prouser said, but Mr. Horn genuinely did work for Hebrew National.)

“So Briscoe and Irving Horn were the only two kosher food purveyors on ‘What’s My Line,’” he said.

To go back to Purim — Lord Mayor Briscoe’s story will not replace Mordechai’s and Esther’s on Purim at Temple Emanuel. Rabbi Prouser will lead a regular Purim service, including a megillah reading. “I will hand out a fact sheet about Briscoe, and we will use Irish music for the English synopsis of the megillah. So after Chapter 1, which talks about the king’s seven-day-long party, we will make the connection to an Irish ballad, sung by the Dubliners, called ‘Seven Drunken Nights.’ And in later chapters, when the Jewish population goes to war to defend themselves, we will play the Irish national anthem, which is the ‘Soldiers’ Song.’”

There will be lots of green, Rabbi Prouser said. There will be food, and as is fitting on both Purim and Saint Patrick’s Day, there will be at least some (not a lot, but some) drink.

“We will celebrate the common Jewish and Irish moral principles — the love of freedom and the rejection of tyrants,” Rabbi Prouser said.

Who: Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes

What: Will celebrate Purim in memory of Robert Briscoe, the Lord Mayor of Dublin

When: On Wednesday, March 16, at 7 p.m.

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