Each day this week, the Scroll will be featuring a post from a writer at JN Magazine—short for “Jewnited Nations”—a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.” Each post has been commissioned and edited by MaNishtana, the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, a Tablet contributor and editor-at-large at JN Magazine.
The Catholic church that I went to when I was little was built by Irish immigrants just 10 miles outside of Philadelphia. It was dedicated to Saint Mary, but you could only tell by the name and one statue of her at the very front of the church, up by the altar. The interior screamed green. Green carpets, green arches with gold accents. Shamrocks were painted along every other bit of wall. Along with the big crucified statue of Jesus above the altar and that statue of Mary, there were the other prerequisite statues for any Irish Catholic church: Saints Theresa and Anthony and, of course, Patrick. There was no mistaking who built that church from the surnames of their descendants who still attended the parish: nearly every name began with an “O” or “Mc” or had some other distinct Irish ring to it.
I also went to the school associated with this church from the time I was four years old up until I was 12. And while we were very dutiful to observe every holy day while school was in session, none of those days, with the exception of the ones leading up to Christmas and maybe Easter, came close to the celebration we had on Saint Patrick’s Day.
Saint Patrick’s Day was serious business at my school. We were pretty much required to wear a green sweater with our uniforms on that day, and if we wanted to wear any party hats or other party gear, it was strongly encouraged. I remember my friend Colleen wearing a crown that said in green and silver glitter, “Erin Go Bragh,” which translates to “Ireland forever”. We made little desserts in class called Irish Potatoes that consisted of lots of coconut and brown sugar, and they would send your head spinning from the sugar rush and the yumminess. We’d talk about Saint Patrick chasing all the snakes out of Ireland and how he was a liberated Roman slave who then saved the Celts from going to hell. It was a day of partying and silliness and weird talk about hell and snakes and saving Ireland.
And I loved it.
It wasn’t until I was older and learned more about my Irish roots and about the true hell that Irish Americans before me went through, that I realized what Saint Patrick’s Day really means in this country, and why it’s not (for grown-ups anyway) so much about snakes and being saved from damnation after death.
I learned about the “Irish Need Not Apply” signs at businesses and other hatred we encountered when we came to America, just after fleeing starvation and the brutality of British landlords back home. I learned even more about what happened in Ireland after the mass immigration to the United States, the stories of Michael Collins, the original and more recent Irish Republican Armies, Sinn Fein, Bloody Sunday, and the case of the Guilford Four (popularized by the film In The Name Of The Father).
I also made it a point to go even further back in time and learn more about my Celtic roots as best I could because I’m a firm believer that in order to know who you are, you need to know where you came from. And I continue to learn today, trying now to research what I can on the Irish Travellers (and I don’t mean watching “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”—I mean by learning about this nomadic people: who they are, what they go through, and what they believe—and respecting them and their traditions). As a convert to Judaism, I’ve also taken a keen interest in the Jewish communities of Ireland and read about the days when people would literally stop fighting in the street based on whether or not the Jewish people in question coming by were for or against the British crown.
So, for me, Saint Patrick’s Day isn’t about Saint Patrick. It’s about being Irish and what my people have been through from Coleraine to Cork. It’s about our vibrant culture and our deep, deep history going all the way back to when we openly believed in the land of Tir na nÓg (no, it’s not a bar, Google it). It’s about being proud of it all in the face of others who quite literally would have loved to see us die off more than once in the course of time.
I still wear green on March 17. I crank up the Dropkick Murphys enough to make my neighbors wonder if they moved to Boston. I eat my share of traditional boiled cabbage, potatoes, and corned beef. And yes, I’m sure someone will counter with some snide comment, “They learned how to eat that stuff from Ashkenazi Jews.”
They’re missing the point.
This was all we could afford when we got here. We didn’t eat it because it was delicious. And as soon as we could afford better, you bet that we bought better (though admittedly, Irish seasoning still remains salt and pepper… yeah, just salt and pepper. Luckily I’m also part Italian…) But on March 17, we will have our Irish immigrant seder, to remind us where we came from, to keep us humble, and to make sure that we appreciate how good life is for us now.
I bet that sounds familiar too, right?
And yes, there’s drinking. Well, not for me. I can’t drink alcohol. But of course, there’s the partying hard on this big day for most of us. Another Irish Jewish friend of mine was unbelievably excited a year or so ago when Saint Patrick’s Day and Purim overlapped.
How ridiculously perfect of a combination was that?
But if you want to party like a true Irish Jew, let me clue you in on something. I have yet to come across a decent Gaelic version of the word “goyishe,” but that would be what we’d call green beer. And, for that matter, green milkshakes. And green bagels—oh, wait, that one upsets you? Okay, good, go with that feeling. Because now you get it!! We HATE the dyeing everything green. STOP IT. Just stop!
Partying aside, I spend the day in remembrance of people who fought hard, worked their hands raw, died in jails, and lost their lives in other ways fighting for a life of dignity and fairness, who wanted better for themselves and their children and their neighbors. I remember the ones who just wanted to not starve to death. It’s not all shamrocks and glitter, though there’s room for that fun. It’s also about remembering the grit and the tears. It’s going beyond the legend woven around some Roman slave who showed up somewhere in the British and Irish Isles way back in the day and proselytized Christianity to the Celts. Saint Patrick’s Day, for me and many others, is about everyday heroes going way back through time and who walk alongside us now, and loving them because they are my kin.
Again, I’m sure that sounds good and familiar. I’m sure I don’t need to explain further why this is one holiday, despite it beginning in “Saint,” that I’ve not abandoned since converting. I’m still Irish, and I’m damn proud of it.
Now, please, again, put down that pathetic green beer and drink a decent whiskey or stout, if you must drink at all.
Gavriela Rivka hails originally from Philadelphia, PA. but now resides in Forest Hills, NY. She has a Master’s degree in clinical social work from Temple University and is a dedicated volunteer in the animal rescue community.