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St. Patrick's Day in New York now means parades and green beer. But 50 years ago, it also meant green matzo balls at the annual banquet of the Loyal League of Yiddish Sons of Erin. The league was a fraternal organization of Irish-born Jews.
The major migration of Jews to Ireland started in the 1880s and '90s, says Hasia Diner, who teaches history and Judaic studies at New York University. Thousands moved, primarily from Lithuania.
Diner says the first generation of Irish Jews mostly worked as peddlers. But by the 20th century, peddlers became business owners.
"Then the Irish Jews, as Jews historically did, they went to where there were better economic opportunities," Diner says.
A lot of Irish Jews found those opportunities in New York. Like many immigrant groups, they kept their culture alive in the new world. And in the early 1960s, they formed the Yiddish Sons of Erin. According to member Rosalyn Klein, the whole thing started as a joke.
"An advertising agency was trying to get some business for Moskowitz & Lupowitz, which was a Jewish restaurant," she says.
The restaurant took out a newspaper ad for a meeting of Irish Jews. Klein thinks they didn't really expect people, but a lot of them showed up.
"And most of them had lived in Dublin, so it was kind of this mishpocha getting together again," she says.
Bernetta Nelson joined her mother in the Loyal League in the late-1960s.
"Getting together it was like a family, it was a party. Somebody would take out a harmonica and start playing, and they'd all start singing. It was really a hoot," she says. "There's nothing quite like listening to Yiddish spoken with [an Irish accent]."
The group's president was AFL-CIO head Michael Mann, and it held monthly meetings at the union hall. In the summer, one of the members would stake out a picnic spot in the Catskills.
"He'd have a big banner up, so we knew where to find him, that said, 'The Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin.' And you could smell the kippers and onions for miles," Nelson says.
But the group's biggest event was the annual Erev St. Patrick's Day Banquet. It was a formal gala at the Americana Hotel, complete with a big band, kosher corned beef and green bagels. Nelson and her brother, Mel Kochan, both attended.
"Tickets were at a premium; there were fights over tickets to this function. They used to have Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara perform for us because he being Jewish, and her being Irish," Nelson says.
Kochan says politicians and union presidents attended.
"If you didn't have a ticket, you were just plain out of luck," he says.
Most people aren't used to seeing this sort of Irish pride among Jews. But Diner says that even though Ireland is a Catholic country, there really wasn't a conflict.
"The Irish Constitution states we extend friendship and equality to the Hebrew congregation. So in a way, it's a comment on the kind of integration that this small Jewish community had achieved in Ireland," she says. "And there were a number of key individual Jews who played a role in the Irish struggle for independence."
Most famous of these was Robert Briscoe, the lord mayor of Dublin. His son, Billy Briscoe, was a member of the Loyal League.
But as the older generation of Irish-born Jews died off, the organization gradually faded away. These days, what's left are scattered newspaper clippings and a few poems from the annual banquet, one of which concludes with both the Jewish expression of peace and an Irish shout-out to the motherland:
"From all of our league members, those near and those far, shalom to you all, and Erin go Bragh."
These handfuls of keepsakes are enough to keep the warm memory of the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin alive. Even without green matzo balls.
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