The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) in Worcester, Massachusetts or what my brother-in-law calls “The Irish Club,” starts celebrating St. Patrick’s Day over a week before March 17th. I started following the Worcester branch of The Ancient Order of the Hibernians on Facebook when my nephew did his bar mitzvah project there; volunteering on weekends at their fundraisers.
This week, my brother-in-law popped up in posted pictures of the pre-St. Patrick’s Day festivities and as I scrolled through, I saw children and adults in Irish uniform, wearing sashes and carrying the flag of Ireland. I saw pictures of Traditional Irish Dancing, a dance form that originated in the 1500s, and a parade of marchers walking in peace but hearkening to a time when regiments marched to war. Through action, music, song and food, Irish culture is kept alive here. According to its website, the AOH is the oldest lay Catholic ethnic organization in the U.S. Around for hundreds of years, these groups helped Irish immigrants in their new homeland while still maintaining times to their ancestral homeland.
My brother-in-law is Irish Catholic and his devotion to The Ancient Order of Hibernians is remarkable. When he and my sister got married the only problem that caused worry for John’s family in this intermarriage was that any future children, it needed to be understood, would be Red Sox fans even though our side was from New York.
My nephews are raised Jewish and my sister has worked hard to creative a devoted synagogue life for them, but in this week of St. Patrick’s Day, I want to acknowledge my brother-in-law and all the parents that may be raising kids in a different religion than their own and share with you what I learn from him that makes me a better Jew.
From him, I learn an immense cultural pride. He is part of an organization that regularly imparts the customs and traditions of Irish heritage with joy and celebration. My brother-in-law and his family model endless openness and caring to the choice that my nephews would be raised Jewish. He and his family never viewed Judaism as a threat. In fact, it has been the opposite. They have danced Horas, eaten Matzah and John wore a kippah at my grandmother’s funeral when my brother reminded him Rocky wore a kippah at his coach’s Jewish funeral.
In October 2020, when Covid led to a mere 15 guests in Worcester, Massachusetts celebrating my nephew’s bar mitzvah, it was John and his brothers who lifted my nephew up on a chair and we danced to Siman Tov around the outdoor tent. At that moment, I looked at my mom and said I only hoped we would be half as generous of spirit if the tables were turned.
In this week’s Torah portion, as we come to the end of the book of Exodus, we read in Exodus 40:34-38
(34) The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and God’s glory filled the Mishkan. (35) Moses could not come into the tent of meeting, because the cloud rested on it and God’s glory filled the Mishkan. (36) [Later], when [God] raised the cloud up from the Mishkan, it [would be a signal] for the Israelites to move on, [and this was true] in all their travels. (37) When the cloud did not rise, they would not move on, [waiting] until the day it did. (38) God’s cloud would remain on the Mishkan by day, and fire was in it by night. This was visible to the entire House of Israel, in all their travels.
Rabbi Yitzchak Weiss of Verbau views the cloud of the day and the fire of the night as two different kinds of people. As he teaches, “The Mishkan, where the [Tablets] were housed, alludes to a Torah scholar. If a Torah scholar publicizes himself as the day is public, [God] will bring a cloud of obscurity over him. However, if a Torah scholar conceals himself like an object concealed at night, [God] will spread his fame as a fire is seen from a distance.”
In other words, the most humble of people are those whose light shines the farthest.
When he made the decision with my sister that the kids would be raised Jewish, that certainly took some humility on John’s part. To be a supportive father in the Jewish realm and also model for my family unabashed pride in his own history and culture. I learn from his devotion to his Irish club, all the things that any parent of any religion would hope for their child: That they take the best of the taught traditions and use those teachings to find pride in who they are.
Whether your family hoists a Guinness or a kiddush cup or both this Friday, I offer you the Irish prayer John’s mom offered at my nephew’s bar mitzvah that crisp, New England October day.
“May love and laughter light your days and warm your heart and home, may good and faithful friends be yours wherever you may roam
May peace and plenty bless your world
With joy that long endures
May all life‘s passing seasons bring the best to you and yours.”
Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Mates
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton