Jews in Irish Music

JIIMThe Roman diaspora following the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD sent Jews all over the known world. Many subsequent events pushed them out of one place to another, most notably the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 15th Century. Part of their survival [ and success ] was their ability to live in two cultures simultaneously; a Jewish life and one of their adopted new country.

diasora2Another factor would prove to be an advantage on one level and a vulnerability on another: in order to pray, Jewish males needed to be able to read [ and write ], making for an entirely literate culture, for at least half the population. So, if the rulers of a host country needed a speech or law written, or taxes collected, they could get a Jew to do it for them. Then, as it nearly always happened, when the poorer people had enough of the laws or paying taxes they would revolt against their oppressors. Those at the top would simply deflect this wrath to their Jewish employees [ or slaves ] and say: “the Jews did it…”  Time for more Jews to die or move on. My father was a very insightful man, and used to say that anti-semites were in a way their own worst enemies, because each pogrom had a Darwinian effect of winnowing out the slower, less-intelligent Jews, leaving the hated race much more able to succeed and thrive.

In many countries, Jews were forbidden to own land. They could not be farmers, so had to find other ways to feed their families, like owning stores, writing books or PLAYING MUSIC. They became a disproportionate majority of the high level virtuosi in classical music. In the US, they formed the core of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composers early in the 20th Century.


As the Folk Music Revival of the 50s and 60s blossomed, they once again were over-represented in all aspects of the “business” compared to their percentage in the over-all population. I was part of that world, introduced by my father and uncle to the rich culture of NY’s Greenwich Village.

new Hal & MartyWhat many of us involved in Folk Music sought was an anchor in a shifting, unstable culture that seemed to celebrate change and chaos for it’s own sake.  We listened to the old, “tradition-bearers” sing and play the music they had inherited from their ancestors in the continuum, and found ROOTS there, ones that extended deep into time and place. We became able and enthusiastic participants in a cultural experience that was not our’s, but one of great comfort and inclusion. Many of the older players from the Blues, Bluegrass, Country and various kinds of ethnic music greatly appreciated the recognition of their talent [ and concert/recording income ] from a new, young, sophisticated audience. Many gave these younger players lessons as well.

When I made a choice to trade Rock ’n Roll for Folk in my late teens, I unknowingly began my “roots” quest. Once again, not MY roots, but those of the poor people of the Mississippi Delta and the Appalachian Mountains. I had the great fortune of working at radio stations and record stores during these early years, and got to see many of these artists perform at smaller intimate clubs, where you could see their hands make that special magic.

mjh1Roots are products of the geography of place, but also a result of migration and marriage. More precisely, the banjo tune or ballad played or sung on a porch in the American South often has lived previous lives in England or Ireland. I found this dynamic fascinating and sought answers to the recurring “where’s that from?” question. Gradually, my interest in American Roots Music extended and morphed into one more focused on those Western European places.


After college and the demise of my last record store job, I moved to The Northeast of England to immerse myself in their local music I had discovered and fallen in love with. So much of the wild abandon of Appalachian Old Time Music was there, but with chords and lyrics I found more compelling. It turned out that the kinds of economic and social injustices that made for Wandering Jews had done similar things to Irish folks, and they had come to Northumberland to work in the coal mines. And, have fun playing their own music. And, bring their unique approach to the music of the Geordies, as well. I was invited by some young players to travel to a village on the outskirts of Newcastle called Hebburn to attend an Irish “session”. I had NO idea what that meant. When we got there a whole bunch of guys were sitting around a table playing an instrumental. All of a sudden, they all changed, simultaneously, to a new, different tune. I turned to my buddy and asked “HOW did they do that ?” That was “it” ~ I was hooked for life !

When I returned to the States I moved to Boston, and found the same dynamic Irish Music scene was alive and thriving there. My friend Tommy had a family friend who was a cop who played accordion and took us to an “Irish Social” in Dorchester. The music was similar to the pub session scene, but this was an ancient-feeling family event. The tunes were not just being played around a table by guys drinking; they were on a stage playing for dancing couples and groups of little girls. I had never seen anything like it in my life. It felt like I was IN IRELAND, even though I had never been there as of yet. We were scruffy hippies, but EVERYONE welcomed us in, and encouraged us to play along. They had a similar interest in our interest in them as the old Blues guys, or the Southern fiddlers did: “these nice young people think we have something good going on in our culture !” And they did, indeed; something much more compelling than what mainstream culture was offering up.

Within a year or so of attending Socials I was asked by the two best musicians to be the music director of Boston’s branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. [WHY? – got me !]

Larrry me & SeamusI was honored and did what I could to serve the Org and promote the music. Eventually I did get to Ireland, staying with those musician’s families, getting pointers from the best-of-the-best players, and enjoying the exquisite joy of experiencing the music truly in situ.

There is a unique concept in Jewish culture called “nachas” ~ meaning the pride and joy you get from your children.  You can “harvest” – or “shep” this pride by telling someone about your child, “oh, my son THE DOCTOR, has a successful practice on Park Avenue..”.  I was at a family gathering very early in my involvement with Comhaltas where all these things collided. My grandmother had passed away and relatives from all over the East Coast were having a get-together at my father’s cousin’s house.  I overheard our host shepping nachas about his son’s many TIN WHISTLE trophies on a shelf.  I barged into the conversation ~ “WHAT ?” He replied, “Oh yes, he also teaches the Irish Bagpipes at the Irish Arts Center of NY, where he is the Music Director.”   After I picked myself off the floor, I got his phone number and arranged to visit him in NY the next day.

rebThis cousin, Bill Ochs, was someone I never met growing up, yet we had lived parallel lives and arrived at amazingly similar destinations.

We shared a common great-great grandfather, Reb Lerman, and now, a lot more.

This coincidence was the inspiration for writing this piece, 40 years later.







That’s IT ~ a common thread that weaves and surges through both culture’s hearts, blood and DNA.

Longing for a home never had, or lost through no fault or failure, and loved-ones banished, enslaved or murdered.

Two peoples that have a fearlessness of singing sad songs, publicly, and doing it well.

If you’ve ever held both hands of an old woman in a cottage in Connemarra, while she makes circular motions with those hands, singing a 20-minute Sean-nós song in Irish, you know her “longing”.

JA-Nichoach-CD-6-2If you’ve ever joined a dancing circle of Chassidic men singing a wordless prayer, you saw it there, as well.

I’ve had the amazing fortune of having both those experiences, and I’m all the richer for it.

Freilachs and Jigs are both supposed to be “happy” dance tunes. But ask any musician in either genre and they will tell you they are most drawn to those melodies that are neither harmonic or melodic major or minor, but of a mode the Bluegrass players fondly call “the high-lonesome sound”.


Mick Moloney left Limerick in the late ’60s and went off to Philadelphia to study Folklore with Kenny Goldstein.  The rest is history.

If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews




Urban dictionary has this as  “The innate ability to detect Jewishness in another person. Like a sixth sense.”  Even the Neo-Nazi group StormFront acknowledges this ability and praises it’s usefulness for their ends.

Faces are the ones that look like my cousins, uncles & aunts. And old people that look like my grandparents & their sibs.  But the kicker, for my contemporaries: the kids in HEBREW SCHOOL ~!

The flip-side of this is who to avoid/be afraid of; in my case, the kids who beat me up. They were usually Italian or German. It took going away to college and visiting my friend Richard Iannelli at his house & meeting his family and eating home-made pizza on Fri nite to learn how Italians were just like Jews but different. And their sisters were HOT.

SO, the bottom-line for Jewdar, as a kid, was SAFETY. Who you could depend on

1] to not beat you up &

2] to help you, maybe, when you were being beat on.

As an adult, I moved away from home and folks and relatives, so a jewish face or voice or SENSE OF HUMOR brought a feeling of familiarity and comfort.  Well-worth seeking out when shiksas or work with goyim got you a case of the blues.  Maybe even a loan….

I don’t know how or if my Jewdar would work if not for voices and faces and senses of humor.  Names, shmames; did you ever hear the song “Change the Name” about our penchant for doing that?  Did you know my name is Ruvin Ratsky, for instance ?

Jews have historically lived on edges. One of the sharpest ones is the need to hide from the next pogrom, and keep their ethnicity secret.  There is also a fear of adding fodder into the anti-semitic mind-set and jealousy by calling attention to the success of some of their brethren in finance, politics or entertainment.  At the same time, the need for recognition, and no small amount of pride, leads some Jews to brag to each other of their own accomplishments, “shep nachas” about their children’s achievements, and significantly, talk about those famous people who are in fact successful in finance, politics and entertainment. At times some feel they need to “out” those who have lived as hidden Jews, asking “you know who’s Jewish?”.

And then, there’s sharing the dark side.  I just found out that many of the most infamous pirates were, in fact Sephardic Jews.  Or Bugsy Siegel. Or Meyer Lansky.

This is a relevant problem in my search for Jewish folk who play Irish Music for a variety of reasons. For instance, my Jewdar may tell me that a particular musician at a session I play at is “one of the Tribe”, but when I ask that person if they would like to join in this project, they say “HOW did you know I was Jewish?” or “WHAT makes you think I’m Jewish?”  The old fears are not far down below the surface. MY fear is asking for participation of someone with a level of accomplishment and recognition in the wider world and having them respond negatively that I could even believe they might be Jewish.  Could be faulty jewdar on my part, latent or overt anti-semitism on their part, or something I recognize that they themselves are unaware of in their family history.  Several of my best informants have only one Jewish parent and others have to dig deeper into their genealogy to find that link that lets them SELF-identify as a Jew.

Click the bold red names below each picture to read their fascinating musical story.

Float DC

Danny Carnahan


Marla Fibish


Daniel Manor


Bobbi Nikles

bw5583Lewis Santer


Jason Pollack


Mickie Zekley

Peter Kasin

Peter Kasin


Robert Feiner

Daniel Hoffman

float Tunes on Torah