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Home to a future president of Israel, the inventor of Haagen Dazs ice-cream, and founder of Beaverbrooks the jewellers... Belfast’s remarkable Jewish history can now be revealed

Jews have always played a key role in the cultural and commercial life of the city. Now Steven Jaffe has devised a heritage trail to preserve their contribution for posterityparcel

On the way to the airport, the taxi driver tells me with pride he installed the lights at Belfast synagogue when it was built more than 50 years ago - except there was a last minute hitch, and all the fittings needed changing in time for the first service. Then, the Jewish community numbered 1,200 and believed it had a bright future. Today the synagogue, the only one in Northern Ireland, has fewer than 80 members.

When you wear a kippah, a Jewish skull cap, in Belfast you can expect to be stopped in the street - and mostly for a good reason.

A woman wants to tell me her first job was for Levy delicatessens, delivering special Passover foods to the Jewish community on the Antrim Road. Another asks me why a religiously observant Jewish family living next door in the Oldpark used to pay her to light the fire for them on a Saturday morning - the Jewish Sabbath.

I am frequently told by Belfast people of friendships with Jews going back to schooldays. They remember the Club, grandly known as the Belfast Jewish Institute, off Glandore Avenue, where they played tennis, cards, or danced the night away with Jewish friends and neighbours, never forgotten.

People ask what happened to the Shribmans, Bonovitzs, or Coppels. Hardly classic Belfast names, but part and parcel of the city's Jewish history and the memories of people living here.

As a Belfast Jew, born and bred, now living in London, I turn my mind to how Belfast's Jewish community is going to be remembered by future generations.

In Venice, they have the Jewish ghetto, in Prague they queue to get into the Old New synagogue and in Amsterdam the Jewish Museum is a popular tourist attraction in its own right. There's no reason - as I share with friends on Facebook - why Belfast can't have its own Jewish heritage trail.

The city is rich with Jewish heritage and alongside the depressing headlines of resurgent anti-semitism, there is no shortage of positive interest about Belfast's oldest ethnic and religious minority.

Emboldened by the enthusiastic response on Facebook, I'm going to be leading the first-ever Jewish walking tour in Belfast city centre.

I've decided to focus on the handful of families who founded the Belfast Hebrew Congregation as far back as the 1860s and 1870s. We will be looking at what brought these mostly German-speaking Jewish pioneers to Belfast and what contribution they made to the growth of the city.

The community they founded had its synagogue on Great Victoria Street and its cemetery off the Falls Road. It has left a surprising and distinctive mark on Belfast city centre to this day.

The business acumen and international connections of families like the Jaffes, Betzolds and Lowenthals sold Irish linen across the world and helped propel the town of Belfast into becoming one of the leading industrial centres in the world.

I wonder how many passing commuters realise the ornate yellow fountain at the back of the Victoria Shopping Centre commemorates the founder of the Belfast Jewish community, Daniel Joseph Jaffe? Jaffe's enlightened personality is uniquely carved into his business premises, today Ten Square hotel, at the back of City Hall.

Look carefully at the building - it's lined with busts of scientists, musicians and artists.

His son Otto's philanthropy and civic leadership is commemorated on plaques in Belfast's hospitals, schools, Queen's University and, of course, at City Hall, where he served twice as Lord Mayor.

Turning to a later generation of Belfast Jews, refugees arrived here from Eastern Europe in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, fleeing the pogroms and poverty of Czarist Russia.

They included my great grandparents who hailed from Lublin, travelled to Dublin and then made the 100-mile trek north to Belfast, where they settled just outside the walls of Crumlin Road prison.

The international significance of Belfast Jewry reaches even new heights as a result of this influx of refugees from Eastern Europe. A future President, Chief Rabbi and Foreign Minister of Israel were living in the city a century ago - a fact that not even New York or London can boast.

Next month, we mark the centenary anniversary of the birth of President Chaim Herzog on Clifton Park Avenue; his father, Isaac, held his first rabbinic post in Belfast before becoming Chief Rabbi of the Irish Free State and then of pre-state Israel. At the same time that Chaim Herzog was born in Belfast, Abba Eban, Israel's future ambassador to the USA, Foreign Minister and deputy Prime Minister, was living as a toddler at Kinnaird Street off the Antrim Road.

The Belfast Jewish story is more than the story of great men who made it on an international stage, it's a story of artisan cabinet makers, tailors and door-to-door pedlars who established their own community in North Belfast very much in the image of the East European world they had left behind, immortalised in Fiddler on the Roof.

It was an intense world of Jewish religiosity, centred on the synagogue in Annesley Street, off Carlisle Circus, with Sabbath observance, joyful celebration of festivals like Purim and Chanuka and, after a hard day's work, daily learning of Jewish religious texts.

And, of course, there was the food. Mrs Evans wheeled a barrow filled with bagels and pickled herring along the Crumlin Road, Mrs Hodes and Diamond opened the first kosher butchers and then there was the fishmongers, owned by the Klotz family, in the little Jerusalem between the Old and New Lodge Roads.

All in a Belfast setting, wedged in between the host Protestant and Catholic communities, Jewish door-to-door pedlars had to learn quickly in which parts of Belfast they could offer Sacred Hearts for sale and where they could sell paintings of King Billy crossing the Boyne.

Those pedlars often ended up opening a family shop, and some of Belfast's best known trading names were associated with the Jewish community, whether it was music distributors Solomon and Peres, Goorwitches fashions, or Gilpin's furniture shop of Sandy Row.

Some businesses that began in Belfast went on to become national brands, like Stanley Leisure and Beaverbrooks, the jewellers.

The cultural contribution of Belfast's Jews also needs remembering. The Rosenfield sisters pioneered women's journalism, the Scott brothers owned cinemas in Belfast and Bangor, Helen Lewis introduced modern dance, and the Belfast Jewish Dramatic society helped found the Group Theatre.

And it's the story of gradual assimilation as new generations of Belfast Jews strove to improve themselves through a secular education - at Belfast Royal Academy and Queen's University - and traditional Jewish learning took a back seat to professional qualifications, as lawyers, doctors and dentists.

Often, this professional advancement was to the detriment of the Belfast Jewish community, as young professionals - not tied to a shop - moved away in search of new opportunities, Jewish marriage partners and the facilities, like kosher restaurants and Jewish schools, that only larger communities in London, or Manchester, could offer.

The Belfast Jewish community's decline is also a story of the Troubles, of intermarriage and Aliyah - emigration to the state of Israel, where the world's largest Jewish population now lives.

But it's not yet time to switch off the lights.

The community boasts an incredible history and this month a new chapter begins as a new minister arrives in Belfast to serve as spiritual leader.

Of course, a tour guide needs to throw in a few quirky anecdotes and some facts which no one could possibly know. I'm not short of material.

And I'm convinced that absolutely no one knows that the founder of Haagen Dazs ice-cream was Jewish and lived for a time in Belfast.

There are two Jewish heritage tours of Belfast tomorrow, Wednesday, August 22, at 12.30pm and again at 6pm. Contact for details

Belfast Telegraph


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