Belfast should take pride in its Jewish community
Published 26/03/2014 | 01:30
By Lindy McDowell
Sunday in Belfast – a surprisingly sunny spring afternoon – and we are in the city's synagogue which is packed to its impressive rafters. The occasion is the induction of the new rabbi of the Belfast Jewish Community, Rabbi David Singer, by the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
"New" is actually a bit of overstatement where Rabbi Singer is concerned since he has been with the community for some time. He is a popular man whom locals have already taken to their hearts. Born in Birmingham (his wife Judith is from Finchley) he has lived for most of his life in Israel. But since coming to Belfast, the couple have made great efforts to learn about local culture and sensitivities and have made many friends and contacts in the wider community.
The synagogue service is attended by rabbis from throughout the UK and Ireland, clergy from other denominations, politicians and Dame Mary Peters, Belfast's most elegant Lord Lieutenant.
The Belfast Jewish community has always been a relatively small one. Current estimates put the number of Jews living here at around 500. Even at its peak it would not have numbered more than a few thousand. And yet it has always punched well above its weight in terms of contribution not just to society in this city and in Northern Ireland as a whole, but internationally too.
Jews first came here in significant numbers back in the 1860s and '70s, mostly merchants or workers attracted by the linen trade. Their numbers were boosted down the years by refugees. Jews fleeing Tsarist Russia. Jews from Poland and Lithuania. Jews fleeing Germany.
Outside Belfast there were small Jewish communities in Lurgan and Derry. Early religious services were held in Holywood before the first synagogue was established in Great Victoria Street in Belfast and then later Annesley Street. The current synagogue, with its spectacular Star of David-shaped roof, was built in 1964.
Sir Otto Jaffe, twice Lord Mayor of Belfast, was a Jew. Gustav Wolff of Harland and Wolff fame came from a Jewish family.
Chaim Herzog, who was President of Israel from 1983 to 1993, was born in Cliftonpark Avenue in Belfast. His father Dr Yitzhak Herzog, rabbi in Belfast from 1916 to 1918, became Chief Rabbi in Israel. Chaim's mother Sarah was a powerful figure in her own right. She helped set up the largest mental and geriatric hospital in Israel (it still bears her name) and founded schools and established charities for women and immigrants. At the time the Herzogs lived in Belfast, just a few streets away lived another young Jewish boy, Aubrey Meir. Abba Meir, who was later to take his stepfather's surname, Eban, would go on to become Foreign Minister of Israel.
Among other notable figures in the local Jewish community have been an early Oscar winner, actors, business leaders, lawyers and journalists.
The lovely Solly Lipsitz, for many years this paper's jazz correspondent, was Jewish. So was the late, great Lord (Leonard) Steinberg. (His brother Gerald is vice chairman of the Belfast Jewish community.) Ronnie Appleton QC, a pre-eminent figure in legal circles, and in the history of this country, is Joint President of the Belfast Jewish community.
The community has undoubtedly declined in numbers over the years but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality as it continues to contribute enormously to Northern Ireland society, arts and culture.
In the synagogue on Sunday, listening as prayers in English mix with those in Aramaic and Hebrew, there is a sense of something at once both very different and very familiar. Ancient language and the soaring notes of the cantor. Ulster accents.
May Belfast's new rabbi and his family have a long and happy sojourn in our midst. And may that small community that has for so long been such a vital and valuable part of the lifeblood of our country continue to grow, to prosper and to flourish.
Muppet would fit right in here
Kermit the Frog is but the latest celeb to enter the Scottish independence debate. And it's a "no" from him.
The soft foam, hand-operated puppet has, in other words, aligned himself with other heavyweight political commentators such as, umm, Rod Stewart (above) and Ziggy Stardust in the "Scotland stay with us" camp.
A Muppet in politics. Now there's a novelty. Perhaps he could be drafted in here to share his views on our own flag flying impasse? Are you a designated days man, Kermie? You must have a view. Everybody else has. Smile as we might about a Muppet seeking to influence matters constitutional, is an opinionated frog all that worse than the other comedians we have to put up with? Kermit the Political Pundit ... on the plus side it would at the very least give us a break from Russell Brand on Newsnight.