17 March 2011

Why Saint Patrick's Day is Good for the Jews

We're loud, assertive, neurotic corned-beef eating hyphenated-Americans. Stereotypes and interfaith relationships abound when discussing Irish Catholics and Jews, and to be sure this post could be comprised only of those common traits to attract a few stragglers to read this blog. And the growing Israeli fascination with Saint Patrick's Day, mainly the imbibing aspect of it, is also enough fill a few lines' worth; but the intermediate identity of this holiday – between its Catholic origins as a Saint Day and an excuse to drink green beer – as an institutionalized ethnic holiday in American culture is the source of inspiration for millions of immigrants and its connection with Jews.

Few other immigrant populations in the USA endured the same processes of alienation, assimilation and cultural rejuvenation than Jews and Irish Catholics. And few other diasporas created as deep and complicated multi-generational connections with their countries of origin than these two communities.

Catholics endured ongoing stigmatization, if not outright discrimination, for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries with the brunt of this xenophobia leveled against the Irish. They were quickly stereotyped by the existing Protestant population as backwards and barbaric, with their thick brogues, violent temper and allegiance to the Catholic Church. The first examples of “Black” being used in a derogatory fashion in the USA were not against African slaves, but rather against the Irish. The theories of race, in fashion at the time, denigrated the Irish as sub-human.

So too did the Jews of Eastern Europe face similar discrimination in their initial absorption into American society, at the hands of both the Protestant population as well as German Jews. The American immigration experience created cultural hybridism, with some traditions being eschewed for fear of their isolating effects; some being relegated to the home or place of worship; and others being invented by said population or by the larger society. Think of foods, music, aesthetics; American culture is a composite of its immigrant populations, ever changing and quickly absorbing new experiences. The Wasabi craze of a few years ago turned into the Sriracha frenzy of today. Anyone in a major metropolitan area has experienced first-hand these hybrid zones of cultural manufacturing, tongue-in-cheekly described in a recent post on the New York Times.

There is no single holiday of the Jews in the American cannon like Saint Patrick’s Day, even with the childhood stories of baseball players refusing to play on Yom Kippur notwithstanding. But Jews, like other immigrant populations, contributed in other ways to American culture; furthermore, perhaps because of Jews’ inherent diversity of self-expression that there is no one, single day which celebrates Jews’ contribution to America like Saint Patrick’s Day has become.

The connection to one's homeland, while not exclusive no Irish Catholics nor Jews, has been championed by them in ways many other ethnic communities wich they could emulate. The Fenian raids against the British in Canada in the mid-19th century are a classic example of using diaspora relaities to further homeland ideals. the NORAID scandal of the 1980's, which inculpated Irish-American elected officials, has parallels with AIPAC and accusations of American Jews spying on behalf of Israel. Ironically, this common connection wth one's homeland (called by Jacob Neusner "enlandisment) was not heralded by the IRA but by the Northern Irish Ulster -- ostensibly, as the former was dependent on money and arms from countries hostile to the UK and thus banded with the growing anti-establishment Left of the Cold War era, whose financer was the USSR and Palestinian opposition groups as the go-between (another example of logistics preceeding ideology comes from the Basque separatist group ETA, who boycotted an Israeli food fair).
What was the point of this post's foray into American history, if not to justify my plans (or yours) for imbibing Guinness? To point out the commonalities of Jews with other communities that otherwise get used for more cynical reasons, like non-Jewish support for Israel without reciprocal support of other's homelands (hello, Armenia) or in the course of trying to publicly justify the otherwise personal nature of interfaith relationships, which can potentially help Jew and non-Jew alike in their self-identity development and relationship with their homeland.

Éire go Brách from Jerusalem.