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Showing Posts from Ireland  |  View All

The exquisite splendor of the Irish countryside is rivaled only be the beauty of the souls whom we encounter there.
The exquisite splendor of the Irish countryside is rivaled only be the beauty of the souls whom we encounter there.

Spending the last three weeks traveling across Ireland, we've come to realize that in this part of the world you don't just bump into Jewish people by chance. Our meetings usually come about by working off a list, which has been compiled over the last 18 years, or by the occasional reference of one Jew to the next.

Such was not the case yesterday.

After finishing a very lovely visit with a local Jewish professor and his family (a story for itself, maybe another time...), we were looking for a decent bed & breakfast to pull over to and spend the night.

On our second attempt, as we were getting out of the car to check out the accommodations (take it from a guy with experience: never trust the online ratings!), a middle-aged man pushing a stroller passed by. After a slight hesitation, he stopped and asked us if we were Jewish. When we answered in the affirmative, he asked us a very peculiar question that we would have never expected: "Is Yetta Rubinstein a Jewish name?" After telling him that it most definitely was, he proceeded to tell us this most interesting tale.

Patrick grew up in an Irish family on the countryside and had a troubled childhood. He left home at a fairly early age and tried to put his past behind him. Only a few years ago, he found out that he was actually adopted as a baby. As one can imagine, it was a huge shock, and although it helped him understand a lot of the things going on inside of him, it was a very difficult reality to accept. It created an intense desire to "find out who [he] was" and where he actually came from. The few facts that he stumbled upon were that his maternal grandmother's name was Yetta Rubinstein and his mother had given him up for adoption in London. For the past couple of years, his only connection to his biological family was the lone name: Yetta Rubinstein. That's where the trail ran cold.

That is until yesterday.

We stood there in front of the bed & breakfast and watched as the realization slowly sunk into Patrick that he is a full-fledged member of the Jewish faith. He continued to tell us how recently he's been going through a very tough time and was putting a lot of thought into the possibility of some sort of Jewish connection. We spoke for about 15 minutes, giving (and receiving) inspiration. We offered him some literature and words of encouragement, and then, on that street corner in Cork, Patrick did something for his thirsty soul. With his child watching from the stroller, Patrick rolled up his sleeve, covered his head with a kippah, wrapped tefillin on his arm and forehead, and said the Shema for the first time in his life. He spoke loud and clear, and yet trembling with a flow of emotion pouring out from his soul.

As we watched him walk off over the hill with his child, we knew that we had just experienced the hand of G‑d leading our steps. Although our role was now over, for Patrick, grandson of Yetta, the story had just begun.

Patrick donning tefillin as his baby watches.
Patrick donning tefillin as his baby watches.

Quaint and uniquly Irish, Balbriggan lies just outside the hustle and bustle of Dublin.
Quaint and uniquly Irish, Balbriggan lies just outside the hustle and bustle of Dublin.

At night, he tears along the Irish coast, his fiery goatee flashing against the dark leathers. During the day, he loses himself in the mists of the timeless Shema.

He is the biker from Balbriggan.

The bike was propped up outside the house, a rugged piece with a bumper sticker proclaiming "There is only ONE G‑d. Stop applying for His position." Inside we met its owner, Eddie, also a rugged piece, but in looks only. Beneath the biker persona lies a proud Jew, but one who still has much to learn about what it means to be one.

So we sat down together, the yeshiva students and the Irishman. We walked carefully through the Shema, mining its lessons of monotheism, tefillin, mezuzahs, and reward-and-punishment, which Eddie poetically summed up as "and if ye doo t' wrong thing, yer flubbed."

Reading the Shema together.
Reading the Shema together.

We meandered happily about the landscape of Judaism, munching on kosher biscuits as we stopped to admire its sheer beauty.

We joined hands and skipped along as we shared our stories, two very different paths that crashed into each other in Balbriggan one fine June day.

And then, as the sun made an appearance through the bay windows, Eddie rolled up his sleeve and put on tefillin for the first time in his life. He stood motionless, head bowed, his thoughts a mystery to us, humbled rabbinical students.

After years of riding, of countless miles along endless roads, Eddie had come home.

We pose with the now-famous Bike of Balbriggan.
We pose with the now-famous Bike of Balbriggan.

Installing a mezuzah on Patrick's front door.
Installing a mezuzah on Patrick's front door.

Patrick is a very interesting person. He has lived in many places. Among them: New York, Switzerland and the Irish coast. In the course of his life, he has had some unique Jewish experiences—including being a close personal friend of a very kind Chassidic rebbe. Over the past few years, he has had the pleasure of having the roving rabbis over for a nice chat every summer. He fondly recalls how one year the boys brought out some MSG-laden instant soups and they shared a kosher meal together.

As a spiritually sensitive Jew, Patrick often prays to G‑d wrapped up in his tallit and tefillin. But sometimes he does not.

One recent morning, Patrick spoke to G‑d and told Him that he wanted a sign from Him that he should begin being more consistent about praying every morning. He then went to get his tallit and tefillin and began to prepare for his morning prayers.

At that very moment, we sat down to schedule our appointments for the day. We decided to call Patrick first. His phone began jingling the second that he removed his tefillin from his head.

And he got his sign.

The Irish countryside is a stunning collage of brilliant shades of green.
The Irish countryside is a stunning collage of brilliant shades of green.

Frieda and her son Simon moved to Waterford, a town in southeastern Ireland, eight years ago. Coming from a town in England where there wasn't much of a Jewish community, the fact that Waterford has no synagogue or Jewish life did not concern them very much. And though they don't hide their Jewish identity, they didn't really expect to meet other Jews. Together, they run a shop selling alternative clothing and jewelry.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, we were wrapping up a meeting with a Jew in an Irish hamlet when we asked whether he knew of any Jews in the surrounding areas. "I believe there's a guy Simon," he responded after a moment's thought, "Together with his mum, he runs a shop at the Waterford mall." He then gave us the approximate location of the mall. We immediately made our way over, but to our dismay, the mall was already closed. A Google search at a nearby internet café got us to the shop's website. We weren't sure who reads the company emails, but we figured that an email to the company contact address couldn't hurt.

Early the next morning we received a call from a woman who was both shocked and thrilled that rabbis wanted to visit her and her son. Though we had already left the area, we made up a time to meet later that week.

In classic Irish style, the outdoor tables of a local pub served as a great location to meet with Simon, Frieda, and a few of their friends. An analysis of Guinness and beer production served as a great springboard for a discussion about kosher – the Jewish dietary laws. But it didn't stop there. After much dialogue on the topic of assimilation and intermarriage – and a Tefillin wrapping in the middle of a parking lot – Simon confided that although there is nary another Jewish soul in Waterford, his unwavering commitment not to marry out of his faith was renewed with our discussion.

It's been a few weeks, and I've traveled a few thousand miles since, but the story of Simon, the lone young Jew whose fire burns bright, continues to remind me of the unvanquishable spirit of the Jewish soul.

Eric is a proud Jew who was raised in South Africa. After living in Israel for eight years, he moved to Ireland where he works as an anesthesiologist. A few years back, he bought a pair of Tefillin from the roving rabbis, which he has been putting on every weekday since. Of course, he was excited to meet with us, despite the fact that he had other company scheduled for that evening.

Our conversation ranged from kabalistic minutiae to why G‑d created us with a foreskin if he wanted us to remove it anyway. Eric mentioned that a Jewish friend of his from Capetown happened to be doing a month long locum (doctor talk for being placed somewhere temporarily) in a nearby city, and though his month was nearly over, he would probably enjoy a visit. We, of course, thought that it was a marvelous idea and took down his contact info. When we were in the area where his friend was staying, we called him and arranged a meeting for Wednesday evening.

When we met Ed on the appointed Wednesday evening, he was delighted to see us, since we were the first and only visitors he had had throughout his entire stay. He too keeps kosher, so we brought up three MSG laden soup cups and sat down to eat and talk. We spoke about his family, his job, Chabad, some Jewish jokes, and some Torah thoughts and all-in-all had a wonderful time.

The kind of photo where one normally sees this kind of kippa
The kind of photo where one normally sees this kind of kippa

As we were about to take leave, he told us that one of his fellow doctors at the hospital brought him a book titled "The Jews of Ireland," saying that he thought Ed would like to read it. When Ed returned it to him a couple days later, the doctor mentioned that it just so happens that his mother was Jewish. However he was not raised in the faith and doesn't consider himself Jewish.

Immediately, the "Lubavitcher bells" inside us started ringing, and we excitedly began to explain how since his mother was Jewish, he's Jewish too, and that we would really like to meet him. Ed told us his buddy's name and promised to get us his contact info.

We didn't wait for Ed to call, looked the friend up in the phonebook, and dropped him a line. Since he didn't view himself as a Jew, he was not exactly sure what we wanted from him, but agreed to a quick visit.

He lives on 60 acres of farmland, which his wife works and he finances as a radiologist. He warmly welcomed us to his home, and a nice conversation about this, that, the other, and then some ensued.

He told us of his grandfather who had moved to Ireland from Eastern Europe, how his mother had married an Irish psychotherapist ("he was a pure Freudian!"), and the Holocaust survivors who frequented his home, seeking counsel from his father. After about an hour of healthy banter, we were ready to leave but explained that before we go, we like to offer the people we meet the opportunity to put on Tefillin. He told us that he had never worn Tefillin in his life but was willing to give it a try.

When we took out a kippa, he exclaimed, "I have one of my own!" and went to the next room to bring it. He came back with a kippa the likes of which I've only seen in faded black and white pictures. It was more box-like than round, with a button in the center. "This belonged to my Zeide, and I took it after he died," he explained.

We reflected on the unbelievable turn of events which led us to chance upon this long lost Jew, who wore his grandfather's kippa on the occasion of his first Tefillin laying.

He placed this giant kippa (which had not been on a head in a good fifty years) on his head and we wrapped him up. He recited the Shema, and we offered to take a picture which we could email him at a later occasion.

As we stood together and smiled for the picture, he commented, "My mother would have liked to see a copy of that photo," to which we responded in unison "She doesn't need to, because she and your Zeide are both present at this very moment, beaming with pride."

He asked that we not post the picture on the web, so you'll just have to imagine what we looked like.