Director’s Personal Statement
I grew up in a Jewish family in Los Angeles, California. My long ago, our ancestors came from “somewhere in Russia.” Growing up, I asked countless questions about our family and why they came to America, but with our relatives spread to the far corners of the world – Australia, England and South Africa – it was hard to get the answers.
When I met my husband, Michael, an Irish American, I was impressed with his strong sense of ethnic pride and his knowledge of his people’s history. It didn’t surprise me that I would fall for an Irish American. After all, I had Irish American friends my entire life. But it had never occurred to me before why Irish and Jewish people are so compatible. When we married, I maintained my Jewish identity, but I also developed a deep appreciation for Irish people, their history, music and literature, and soon embraced Irish culture as my “adopted culture.”
In 1993, Michael and I traveled to Ireland. It was my first visit. Michael found the Irish Jewish Museum listed in a travel guide. Our first reaction was one of amusement that quickly turned to curiosity about the very notion that there was such a thing as an Irish Jew. We wondered what would be the result of the blending of our two cultures. So off we went for a visit to the museum. We were greeted by two charming “little old Jewish ladies.” There was something familiar about their appearance, their mannerisms and their doting personalities. They reminded me of my own Jewish grandmothers. It seemed as though they could have easily been found strolling Fairfax Boulevard, the heart of one of the predominately Jewish neighborhoods in Los Angeles close to where I grew up. But when they spoke, their thick Irish brogues were laced with Yiddish! As we toured the museum, I was struck by the remarkable history of Irish Jewry and how Jewish people had risen to prominent positions in Irish society including Lords Mayor of Dublin Belfast and Cork and that prior to becoming the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Isaac Herzog, the internationally renowned Hebrew scholar, had been the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland.
Shortly after our return from our trip to Ireland, I received a document from a cousin indicating that my great-grandparents had been married in Waterford, Ireland. My father didn’t be believe it at first since he had never heard anything about our family living in Ireland before. I wrote to the Irish Jewish Museum seeking information about my Irish roots. One morning the telephone rang. It was Joe Morrison, a museum volunteer calling from Dublin. The curator had given him my letter because his mother and I shared the same surname (Lapin) and that we could be related. Joe found an article that ran on the front a page of The Waterford News and General Advertiser in 1894 describing in great detail my great-grandparents wedding – “the first Jewish wedding in Waterford.” As I searched for more about my Irish roots, it occurred to me that the story of Irish Jewry would make for a fascinating documentary and that is how the film began.
During the course of working on the project, I have found out a lot more about my family. My ancestors came from Lithuania, as did most of the Jews who settled in Ireland as they escaped from religious persecution during the Tsar’s pogroms. Many Jewish boys, like my other grandfather, left Eastern Europe at the age of thirteen -- after their Bar Mitzvahs when they became men -- to avoid conscription in the Russian Army which of often ran for as long as twenty-five years. Some of my relatives, as well as, most of the other Jews who lived in their Lithuanian town, were exiled to Siberia. Those who remained, including some of my cousins, were later killed by the Nazis.
I have also learned about Irish history. How the Irish people living under British rule for centuries were denied the right to vote, own land, speak their own language and practice their religion. How one million Irish people died of starvation and fever and another two million were forced to emigrate during the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s.
I also began to understand how the common experience of being victimized may account for why a certain bond exists between Irish and Jewish people.
I met Joe Morrison in person, and he and his wife, Cleo and daughter, Rebecca participated in the making of the film. Joe and I never figured out if we shared common ancestors, but we decided to consider ourselves cousins anyway. The Morrisons and the other Irish Jews I met are now like family. The longer I worked on Shalom Ireland the deeper my own sense of my Jewish identity grew, and the irony is that it would happen by going to Ireland for a little vacation.
Valerie Lapin Ganley
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