Life & Culture

What’s it like being an Irish Jew?

My debut novel explores issues of identity facing Jewish people living on the Emerald Isle


Who ever heard of an Irish Jew?

I often heard that question when growing up in Dublin and sometimes still do. “Are there many of you? That’s an odd combination. I’ve met Jewish people, but an Irish Jew?” people would ask. Well, I am one.

I often asked myself whether it can be possible to be both Irish and Jewish when I sat down and wrote my debut novel, Winter Sun (Afsana Press 2024). But it was more than that. I wanted to know why it was a question that occupied my father, Louis Lentin, so much throughout his life.

My father was born in Limerick, south-west Ireland, before moving to grow up in Dublin. His grandfather, like many Jewish men, arrived in Ireland on the boat from Lithuania. He was 13. We all know the stories. Here they were, lost, brave young men who had left their families behind in search for a better life.

My father shared a bedroom with his grandfather for many years when he was a child, but unlike sharing a room with a sibling, this old man didn’t speak much, apart from a bit of Russian. He drank half a pint of Guinness alone every evening in the pub after work. He was silent, perhaps cut off from a world he now occupied, a world he maybe didn’t quite understand.

In many ways this silence and an inability to break with the past haunted my father as he grew up. He often told me that he didn’t get much affection or warmth from his parents, and like many in post-war Ireland, maybe his parents thought it was better to not speak of the past and keep things to themselves. But this question of where precisely my father was from, and what did that mean, percolated in his mind as he grew up and entered a career in the theatre and then television.

He took to literature and the theatre to understand the world around him. I’d never met someone who read so fervently and understood the nuance of theatre with such clarity. To him the answers often lay in the books of Roth, Zweig and Bellow and the plays of Beckett, O’Casey and Mamet. He explored the inner depths of what it means to be Irish and Jewish through Joyce, often studying the oblique references to events in Ireland such as the pogrom of the Jewish community in Limerick in 1904 in Ulysses. Maybe he wanted to find what lay beneath the often-told stories. Could he be both Irish and Jewish, and what did that even mean?

Despite his best efforts, I don’t think he ever found the answers he was looking for. Instead, he found that a colleague once told him that he could never understand because he was Jewish and not Irish.That hurt. And after the 1996 broadcast of his award-winning documentary Dear Daughter, which exposed the cruelty of the Sisters of Mercy towards children in Goldenbridge Orphanage, there were antisemitic phone calls to our house in Dublin. I remember them well.

He found this supposed lack of acceptance difficult. It was among some of the many things he found hard. He was someone who yearned warmth throughout his life and maybe that’s why he gravitated towards the sun so much, and why towards the end of his life that he started to go on holiday every winter to feel some heat on his skin and get away from the drizzle of wintery Ireland.

My novel Winter Sun is set in Tenerife on a nine-day holiday I went on with him in November 2005. It was the last holiday the two of us went on together. I wanted to use the opportunity to try and ask him some questions about his past and why he was the man he was; stubborn, difficult but also incredibly loving, creative and interesting. I wrote the book not as a eulogy to my father or even an attempt to try to understand him. After all I don’t think one can ever understand a parent, but maybe I was trying to keep him alive in my mind.

As I wrote the book, I would play out the dialogue and scenes between us, playing both characters, just like a two-hander. I’d read both characters aloud so I could really think and hear what he might say and what he might do. I wanted us to get into situations that he might have got into himself, and to see what would have happened. And as I wrote, I soon found his life on the page, mixing with Bellow and Zweig and Bashevis-Singer, just as he would have liked it.

My father died in July 2014. He suffered a massive stroke after a swim in his favourite hotel in Rosslare, Co Wexford. I remember it being a rare stiflingly hot day when I went down to see him in the morgue of Wexford Hospital. There he was in a freezing room, surrounded by crucifixes and fake candles, lying on a table, his head propped up with a bracket and covered in a purple blanket with an embroidered motif of Jesus Christ. The assistant told us that we should pray for him. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Winter Sun by Miki Lentin is published by Afsana Press and is out now in paperback.

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