By Dick Hogan
More than 60 years ago there were some 400 members in Cork's Jewish community. Now, at a push, that community can bring together no more than eight.
It is a loss felt, most likely, by no one more than Gerald Y. Goldberg, proud Corkonian, the oldest Jew in Cork and a former Lord Mayor of the city. To him the death of the once-thriving community is a sadness second only to the death just over a year ago of his wife, Sheila.
"How sad it is to say that if we can muster between six and eight males, we are lucky. We are left hoping that members of our faith in summer will want to pray with us and that there will be reason for us to keep our synagogue open because they are visiting. But in a heartfelt way I am sad to say that for the local community this seems to be the end. It is so sad."
The synagogue, not far from the city centre, on the South Terrace, is more often closed than open. Services are no longer held there. That is because, under Orthodox Jewish teaching, a minyan, or a quorum of 10 males over 13 years, must be present before the prayerful can gather.
While the synagogue, as a place of worship, has fallen almost into disuse, it is not closed down. There is always the hope, as Mr Goldberg says, that visiting Jews will want to go there and tell their people back home they prayed with their brethren in Cork.
Mr Goldberg no longer goes to the synagogue. There is no point, when a formal service can't be held any more; instead, he reflects on how things turned out.
He is convinced, for instance, that Prof Dermot Keogh's forthcoming book on the Jews in Ireland, which will be published on March 5th, will show that were it not for a deliberate Irish government policy of keeping out European Jews seeking refugee status here during the last war, a different scenario might have emerged in places like Cork and the communities today might be more vibrant. Instead, everywhere the story is one of decline, and with the exception of Limerick, probably nowhere more so than in the city which he once served as Lord Mayor and where he grew up.
"I have always loved Cork. As a Jew, and as one who grew up and made my career here, I believed that people like me owed something to the State that we should give something back to the places in which we were spawned. That is why I stayed and that is why I consider myself to be a proud son of Cork. I have no recriminations. My city elected me as its first citizen, the National University of Ireland conferred me with an honorary degree. I love my city, my faith and my Irishness," he says.
When he married Sheila in Belfast in 1933, the Jewish community in Cork was thriving. They married in the North because, though her mother was from Cork, Belfast was where the family had been brought up. They married, and because of family ties and connections, there was initially a real possibility that they would go to live in Israel. But Mr Goldberg, who likes to think he speaks classical Hebrew with a Cork accent, decided to remain in his native city. He adores Cork, its literature and its feel. He could not, he says, live in Dublin. Though probably he could have made more money there.
For most of his 63 years as a solicitor in Cork, Gerald Y. Goldberg was pre-eminent. He operated a law practice dealing mainly with criminal matters which was the State's largest, with the exception of Dublin. He was a fearless and daunting advocate. Goldberg on your side was one thing - it was another matter if he was against you. As a young reporter I saw his style first hand.
He was unfailingly courteous, and took meticulous notes in court no matter how comparatively trivial the case. He wrote into a ledger everything the witness was saying in the dock. A fountain pen recorded minute the chink in his an opponent's weakness. He often found it and his courteous demeanour couldn't hide an inner toughness.
At 85, his intellect is as fresh as ever. He is no longer enjoying robust health, and has come through a triple bypass and two minor strokes. His interest in the arts, culture and scholarship has not waned and he continues to read hungrily and enjoys his formidable library.
He once represented the writer Frank O'Connor in a case. He has a unique collection of paintings, glass and books, reflecting a life's passions. In time he hopes his library will pass to University College Cork, where he is again a student, doing a thesis in the area of English literature.
"I am resentful of the decline and resentful of the fact that what is left of the Jewish community in Cork has been neglected by their fellow Jews, particularly in Dublin. It's too late now for a revival. I don't see it happening, the opportunity for that has come and gone. I'm the oldest Jew left in Cork. What has happened here is nothing short of heartbreaking. It is one of the greatest sadnesses in my life."
© Copyright: The Irish Times
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