CULTURE

Ruti Lachs — Jewish Renaissance

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The Cork-based musician, writer and educator shares The Silent Accordion – A Quiet Irish Jewish Voice, in response to the current crisis

“Are you ready for Christmas?” This is the standard question you get at this time of year in Ireland. My answer, over the 35 years I’ve lived here, have varied from “Oh yes, nearly” to “I don’t do Christmas, I’m Jewish” to “Ah sure, you know yourself…” whilst trailing off in the hope they don’t pursue further.

This year, to save me from tears, I’ve been playing Christmas carols on the trombone, wearing my Santa hat occasionally, rejoicing in my piano students’ renditions of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer’. But no, I’m not ready for Christmas, never will be, and even though I’m writing this on the first night of Hanukkah, I’m not ready for that either. Cork’s tiny Jewish community has three events planned for the festival of lights, but I’m not ready, and nor is my accordion. It’s staying in its bag this year. It’s not playing Hanukkah songs.

Why? Am I worried that it’ll attract the wrong kind of attention to the group gathered on the eighth night for the annual event in Shalom Park? Or scared that I’ll stand out as the only noisy musician there and may be picked out later? Or do I feel that it is inappropriate in this time of horrendous suffering of our Israeli family and friends and their neighbours to create that joyful accordion sound at such a public event? Or do I just feel the need to mark that this year is different from other years? The answer is probably all of the above, and more, deeper, stuff.

Shalom Park is small. It’s where the gas works used to be in Cork city, in an area called Hibernian Buildings, known fondly by locals as ‘Jewtown’. Many early Jewish settlers lived in the small houses here when they arrived in Cork in the 1880s to the early-1900s, mainly from Lithuania. Once a year people gather to see Evening Echo, an artwork by Maddie Leach that was installed 13 years ago and takes the form of a street light – the ninth in the park. On the last night of Hanukkah, this ninth lamp, which is dark every other night of the year, lights for half an hour at dusk.

This lovely tribute to the former Jewish community is attended by the Lord Mayor, who will read a pre-prepared speech about the artwork (not mentioning the war), City Council representatives, a few attendees from of Cork’s newish Jewish community, young and old from disparate backgrounds, a bunch of older people from the area who take the opportunity to remember their former Jewish neighbours and friends (long departed to Israel, USA, England, Australia and the afterlife), and a few kindly Christian folk like the ones who sent me messages in the few days after 7 October asking if my family were ok. The police will be there too this year I expect. It will be grand.

I’m not bringing my accordion, but we will sing Hanukkah songs unaccompanied, just voices, and that will give us, the bereft and saddened 20 or so members of Cork’s Jewish community, a feeling of togetherness. The joy and sharing that we’ve experienced during this event in previous years will be replaced by a mixture of comfort at being together and fear of gathering so publicly. And then we’ll return to our homes around the county, to our villages or country cottages, and to our mostly Catholic neighbours who read the news, try to understand the world and assure us we are safe and loved in Ireland.

But in the city, as a Jewish musician, out there playing klezmer, making Jewish history documentaries and giving talks, I am uncomfortable. Nothing’s happened. No one has said or done anything. And most people I’ve reached out to, the ones I know are informed and thoughtful, rant against Hamas as well as Netanyahu, and they’ve sympathised with my personal dilemmas, encouraging me to keep the accordion strapped on. “’We’re on your side,” whispered the mother of one musician friend at his gig. “I don’t have a side,” I whispered back, “but thanks.” And I meant it.

I don’t know what the future of my work is in Ireland. Can I continue to perform Jewish music and theatre? At the best of times, it’s super niche and only happens with arts funding. And will I continue to get grants to compose and perform klezmer-related music/plays/films in the current climate? Will anyone come to the Irish Jewish Theatre Festival I’m planning in Cork in November 2024? Or shall I just take on more teaching and hide my creativity under a rock? I’ve thought of moving away, but where? This is my home.

Two weeks ago, at one of my gigs, I taught a klezmer dance and, as I looked around at the joyous, slightly inebriated dancers, I wondered if they would regret it in the morning, waking up to news of the latest bombardments in Gaza. Would they feel they had been dancing with the devil? I know that most people here know the difference and sympathise not just with the people of Gaza but also very much with Israel and the Jewish people’s terrible loss – yes, loss – through murder, abduction and other horrors on 7 October. But those voices are quiet. They don’t shout outside government buildings, they just whisper in the ears of the few Jews that are here to hear.

“It must be terrible to be in Ireland,” say Jewish friends who aren’t in Ireland. It’s not. It’s a bit lonely, sure, but I feel safe here. I’ve played four gigs and presented a talk and a film in the last eight weeks, and all the shows have been really well attended and appreciated. So roll on 2024. We’ll get that accordion out. We’ll have some tunes and craic and – hopefully – peace. Hup.

Ruti Lachs is a Cork-based musician, who has helped revitalise Irish Jewish culture through her theatre projects, klezmer bands and walking tours. rutilachs.ie

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