RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is St. Patrick's Day, and this weekend people across the country are celebrating with parades, festivals and plenty of green beer. But 50 years ago, St. Patrick's Day celebrations in New York City included green matzo balls at the annual banquet of the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin. Deena Prichep tells the story of this fraternal organization of Irish-born Jews.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Basic facts first: yes, there are Irish Jews.
HASIA DINER: The major migration of Jews to Ireland, and several thousand come primary from Lithuania starting in the 1880s and 1890s.
PRICHEP: Hasia Diner teaches history and Judaic studies at New York University. She says the first generation of Irish Jews mostly worked as peddlers. But by the 20th century, peddlers became business owners.
DINER: Then the Irish Jews, as Jews historically did, they went to where there were better economic opportunities.
PRICHEP: And a lot of Irish Jews found those opportunities in New York. Like many immigrant groups, the Irish Jews kept their culture alive in the new world. And in the early 1960s, they formed the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin. According to member Rosalyn Klein, the whole thing started as a joke.
ROSALYN KLEIN: An advertising agency was trying to get some business for Moskowitz & Lupowitz, which was a Jewish restaurant.
(SOUNDBITE OF JINGLE)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Oh, let's go down to (unintelligible), Moskowitz and Lupowitz.
PRICHEP: The restaurant, whose Yiddish jingle you're hearing now, took out a newspaper ad for a meeting of Irish Jews. Klein thinks they didn't really expect people, but a lot of them showed up.
KLEIN: And most of them had lived in Dublin, so it was kind of this mishpocha getting together again.
BERNETTA NELSON: Getting together was like a family. It was a party. Somebody would take out a harmonica and start playing. And they'd all start singing. It was really a hoot.
PRICHEP: Bernetta Nelson joined her mother in the Loyal League in the late-1960s.
NELSON: There's nothing quite like listening to Yiddish spoken with a brogue.
PRICHEP: The group's president was AFL-CIO head Michael Mann, and they held monthly meetings at the union hall. And in the summer, one of the members would stake out a picnic spot in the Catskills.
NELSON: He'd have a big banner up, so we knew where to find him, that said The Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin. And you could smell the kippers and onions for miles.
PRICHEP: But the group's biggest event was the annual Erev Saint Patrick's Day Banquet. It was a formal gala at the Americana Hotel, complete with a big band, kosher corned beef and green bagels. Nelson and her brother, Mel Kochan, both attended.
MEL KOCHAN: It was quite an affair.
NELSON: Tickets were at a premium; there were fights over tickets to this function. They used to have Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara perform for us because he being Jewish and her being Irish.
KOCHAN: There was politicians, the presidents of unions that showed up.
NELSON: Oh yeah. The borough presidents would show up.
KOCHAN: And if you didn't have a ticket, you were just plain out of luck.
PRICHEP: Most people aren't used to seeing this sort of Irish pride among Jews. But Professor Hasia Diner says that even though Ireland is a Catholic country, there really wasn't a conflict.
DINER: The Irish constitution, you know, states we extend friendship and equality to a Hebrew congregation. So, in a way, it's a comment on the kind of integration that this small Jewish community had achieved in Ireland. And there were a number of key individual Jews who play a role in the Irish struggle for independence.
PRICHEP: Most famous of these was Robert Briscoe, the lord mayor of Dublin, whose son, Billy Briscoe, was a member of the Loyal League. But as the older generation of Irish-born Jews died off, the organization gradually faded away. These days, what's left are some scattered newspaper clippings and, as Rosalyn Klein reads, a few poems from the annual banquet.
KLEIN: It says from the Cohens, the Finkelsteins, Mentons(ph) and Mann, the Louises(ph), Latins(ph) and all the Jake clan.
PRICHEP: And these handfuls of keepsakes are enough to keep the warm memory of the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin alive - even without green matzo balls.
KLEIN: From all of our league members, those near and those far, shalom to you all, and Erin go Bragh.
PRICHEP: For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.