A Walk Through Dublin’s Jewish Heart

Portobello, a quickly gentrifying area, was once the city’s historic Jewish quarter.  
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Boat tours are a prime attraction along the 144-kilometre-long Grand Canal that borders Portobello on the south. Photo by: Stock Image Collectors/Design PicsInc/Alamy/indiapicture

Considering Ireland’s intrinsic culture relationship with the fictitious, it’s worth mentioning that James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom was born in Portobello. Besides being the childhood home of the protagonist of Ulysses—and the heart of Dublin’s early Jewish settlement—the area is now a neighbourhood undergoing rapid gentrification.

The houses on Portobello’s winding streets date back to the early 1880s, mainly built as affordable living quarters for the middle class. The area was about 50 per cent Jewish then. When Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe arrived, members of the community got together and bought the vacant houses, which they rented out to refugees.

Today, luas (tram) tracks run through its serpentine streets, a street food market holds its own among restaurants and coffee shops, a pub named after a Nobel Prize winning playwright serves up drinks to thirsty locals, and an old bakery caters to kosher-specific needs.

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The city’s best-known kosher bakery, The Bretzel Bakery boasts of 17 different dough preparations. Photo by: Xavier Subias/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

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The traditional challah, served at The Bretzel Bakery, is eaten during Shabbat. Photo by: FOODCOLLECTION/ Dinodia Photo Library

 

The Bretzel Bakery is still the best-known bakery for kosher bread in Dublin. Started in 1870, Bretzel is known for its bagels and challah, fresh loaves of which fly off the shelves on a Friday quicker than patrons can say cream-cheese-bagel. “We even supply our challah to the Super Valu store in Churchtown,” Ines Silva, a member of the staff, tells me. After a quick phone call with the head office to make sure they are indeed the only bakery in Dublin to prepare challah as per the traditional recipe, Silva explains how lots of Jews walk in to buy their kosher bread before Shabbat every week.

A two-minute walk away stands another beacon of Jewish importance: The Irish Jewish Museum. I’m there on a rainy Monday afternoon when Chairman Edwin Alkin walks in wearing a black coat and hat. He guides me upstairs, to the part of the museum still preserved as a synagogue, and we take a seat among the benches that at one time were probably occupied only by the area’s Jewish men. After reminiscing about his prior meetings with journalists, Alkin tells me about the museum. “This was a synagogue. Its lifespan was from 1905 to the early 1970s, by which time the Jewish population that lived in this area had moved away. The synagogue lost its congregation and closed, and then lay empty for over 10 years while the trustees decided what to do with it.”

During this time, the building and its belongings remained perfectly safe. “But it needed upgrading, and exhibition cabinets. We had to locate things to put on display,” Alkin continues. When it was finished and ready to open in 1985, Chaim Herzog, who was then the president of Israel, happened to be here on a state visit. Born in Belfast, and raised primarily in Dublin, Herzog was the son of a Chief Rabbi of the country. His family lived in Portobello on a street called Bloomfield Avenue.

“It was the first state visit by a sitting Israeli president. He performed the opening ceremony of this museum,” Akin continues. From the early 1900s until the 1950s, there were about seven small synagogues in Dublin. Some closed and others merged. “This synagogue was a piece of living history when it closed and it’s been a piece of history ever since. That’s how it became a museum,” Alkin explains.

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The first floor of the Irish Jewish Museum is still preserved as the synagogue it was between 1905 and the 1970s. Photo courtesy: Ireland Tourism

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Ulysses commemorative pavement plaques can be found across Dublin, including at O’Connell Bridge and Westmoreland Street. Photo by: jackieellis/Alamy/indiapicture

 

The museum building was once someone’s home, and like Portobello’s houses, was built around 1880. Every street had a designated prayer room in a house, where people would congregate twice a day. The prayer room that was in the house that’s now the museum became popular and was expanded.

Dublin’s only functioning synagogue is in Terenure, a new, more affluent neighbourhood most of Portobello’s Jews moved to around 1956. It was after the Second World War that the Jewish population began declining, with families moving to Israel and New York. Most of those who remained shifted to Terenure. Yet, Portobello is still sometimes referred to as “Little Jerusalem.” The synagogue is a connection to its Jewish past, not much of which remains in the neighbourhood. A small community still resides here, although schools, slaughterhouses and other businesses no longer exist. Neighbouring Rathgar has the Stratford College secondary school, founded by the community in 1954. Old institutions like The International Tailors, Machinists and Pressers’ Trade Union, are only preserved in plaques. Portobello now hums with new activity.

The part-gentrified, part-gritty neighbourhood, where space is both available and affordable, is a lucrative spot for new entrepreneurs and ambitious chefs. From restaurants serving up modern Irish cuisine to new ventures by chefs who’ve made a mark in Dublin’s upscale neighbourhoods—Portobello is an up-and-coming culinary hotspot. It’s now fashionable to visit for international cuisine, coffee and croissant, or even bagels at Bretzel (they added a small outdoor café in 2014). If—like most of the area’s younger patrons—you don’t come to Portobello for the Irish Jewish Museum or fresh challah on Fridays, do so for the excellent ramen and sushi at Aoki, lipsmacking street food served at Eatyard from Thursday to Sunday, or a pizza and pint at the Bernard Shaw.

  • Vritti Bansal is a writer and editor who lives between Dublin and Delhi. She has previously led the Food & Drink sections for Time Out Delhi and India Today Group Digital, and now runs a food website called Binge.

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