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Jewish Journal

Faith ‘n’ begorra, Irish film fest has a Jewish accent

by Tom Tugend

September 24, 2008 | 9:52 pm

Production still: Grandpa … Speak to Me in Russian

Production still: Grandpa … Speak to Me in Russian

First we had the Israel Film Festival, then the Jewish one, followed by the Polish and Hungarian presentations, and now, begorra, it's the first Irish film fest, running from Oct. 2-5.

Not to worry, though, there is, as always, a Jewish angle. In this case, it's two films, "Shalom Ireland" and "Grandpa ... Speak Russian to Me," set for Saturday evening, Oct. 4.

The more interesting of the two is the documentary, "Shalom Ireland," which serves the dual function of introducing its Jewish community to the Irish and a bit of Irish history to any interested viewer.

"Shalom Ireland" benefits greatly by two lively narrators, the marvelously colorful Joe Morrison, curator, guide and everything else of the Jewish Museum in Dublin, and Joe Briscoe, son of Robert Briscoe, the first (and only) Jewish lord mayor of the Irish capital.

As Briscoe points out early in the film, Jews tend to take on the characteristics of their host country's inhabitants. By this rule, German Jews are the most arrogant, British Jews the most pompous, American Jews the most boastful and Irish Jews the friendliest -- and heaviest drinkers.

Surely the jolliest of the friendly Irish Jews is Morrison, who opened up the Jewish Museum with a medieval key on a holiday to guide my wife and myself through the museum, with its wildly eclectic artifacts, a few years before his lamented death in 2002.

In the film, Morrison gleefully recounts the legend that one of the lost tribes of Israel settled in ancient Ireland, but according to more reliable research, the first Jews arrived about a thousand years ago.

Following their expulsion from Spain, some Sephardic Jews found refuge in the Emerald Isle, but the largest wave of migrants started in the 1850s, consisting mainly of Lithuanian Jews.

Briscoe takes up more recent history, especially the role of his father and other Jews in the Irish fight to win independence from the hated British. Irish Catholics and Jews were natural allies, explains Briscoe, because they shared a common sense of victimization.

The older Briscoe joined the bloody 1916 Easter Rebellion and became a close friend of future Irish president Eamon de Valera, the two men fighting together in the 1922-24 civil war.

At its height during World War II, Ireland's Jewish population stood at 5,000 but has now dwindled to 1,200, as younger Jews, especially, leave for economic reasons and to find a larger pool of marriage partners.

In 1988, Dublin's historic Adelaide Street Synagogue shut down, and while some hope for a Jewish renaissance remains, Morrison is more pessimistic.

"In 50 years," he predicts, "there will be no more Jews in Ireland."

"Grandpa ... Speak to Me in Russian" chronicles Irish Jewish director Louis Lentin's long search to discover his own roots by retracing his grandfather's journey from a Lithuanian shtetl to Dublin.

Grandfather Kalman Lentin's story parallels that of millions of Eastern European Jews who came to the United States at the beginning of the last century.

Indeed, according to the film, many of the emigrants thought they were headed for New York, only to be dropped off when their ship made port in Ireland.

Festival director and Irish native Lisa McLaughlin-Strassman said she picked the two Jewish-themed films on their merit, though it would be "fantastic" if they also attracted some Jewish Angelenos to the fledgling festival.

"It was quite an eye-opener to watch these pictures, because I know very little about the Irish-Jewish experience," she observed.

McLaughlin-Strassman said she didn't know how many Irish and Irish Americans live in the area, though there are concentrations in Santa Monica and Orange County.

In total, the four-day festival will screen six feature films, four documentaries and six shorts. Included are the high-definition, restored version of John Ford's "Iron Horse," the rarely seen "The Luck of Ginger Coffey" and the Gaelic-language "Kings."

The Irish Film Festival will be held Oct. 2-5 at the Clarity Theater, 100 N. Crescent Drive, Beverly Hills. The two Jewish-themed films will be shown Oct. 4, starting at 8:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 933-1439 or visit www.lairishfilm.com

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