Forged in Amer­i­ca: How Irish-Jew­ish Encoun­ters Shaped a Nation

  • Review
By – November 27, 2023

A cen­tu­ry or so ago, it was dan­ger­ous for Jew­ish Amer­i­can boys to walk through Irish neigh­bor­hoods on the way to and from school. The descen­dants of those kids would be pleas­ant­ly sur­prised to read the revi­sion­ist argu­ment advanced by the dozen con­trib­u­tors to this illu­mi­nat­ing vol­ume. These schol­ars have iden­ti­fied not fric­tion, but coop­er­a­tion in the ways that Jew­ish and Irish immi­grants — and their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren — secured their places in Amer­i­can soci­ety. Indeed, Forged in Amer­i­ca has uncov­ered a shared sense of mar­gin­al­i­ty in a nation of Protes­tant hegemony. 

Packed with sur­pris­es, this pio­neer­ing work of com­par­a­tive schol­ar­ship in eth­nic rela­tions high­lights many par­al­lels between the two groups. Both, for instance, appealed to the vic­tors of World War I at Ver­sailles to gain nation­al recog­ni­tion, with the Irish seek­ing self-deter­mi­na­tion, and the Zion­ists, a home­land in Pales­tine. In addi­tion, Lil­lian Wald spear­head­ed the fight for ade­quate pub­lic health on the Low­er East Side, ally­ing her­self with uptown Jew­ish phil­an­thropists. And Mar­garet Sanger took sig­nif­i­cant per­son­al risks to give women access to birth con­trol, in defi­ance of her own Church.

Coed­i­tor Hasia R. Din­er anchors this anthol­o­gy with an excep­tion­al­ly astute open­ing essay that empha­sizes how his­tor­i­cal and struc­tur­al asym­me­tries kept the Irish and the Jews large­ly free from rival­ry. Even when Ger­man Jew­ish immi­gra­tion coin­cid­ed with the Irish strug­gle to escape the famine, these new­com­ers occu­pied very dif­fer­ent nich­es in the econ­o­my. One group was asso­ci­at­ed with con­struc­tion work and domes­tic ser­vice, and the oth­er, with the gar­ment trades. 

A gen­er­a­tion or so lat­er, when East­ern Euro­pean Jews fled pover­ty and per­se­cu­tion, Tam­many Hall and oth­er male Irish Amer­i­can boss­es pro­vid­ed Jews with trans­ac­tion­al help in an effort to gain elec­toral sup­port from new con­stituen­cies. Female Irish Amer­i­can pub­lic school teach­ers became for many Jew­ish chil­dren deft and even ten­der tutors, pro­mot­ing mid­dle-class val­ues and fuel­ing aspi­ra­tions for suc­cess. Alfred E. Smith, a pro­gres­sive New York gov­er­nor, ben­e­fit­ed from the coun­sel of Belle Moskowitz and Robert Moses. Anoth­er New York pro­gres­sive, Paul O’Dwyer, defend­ed the gun­run­ners who helped pro­tect Israel at its found­ing, while a team of ded­i­cat­ed Jew­ish lawyers and pub­lish­ers helped lib­er­ate James Joyce’s Ulysses from the grip of offi­cial cen­sor­ship. From both minori­ties also came women who seized lead­er­ship in labor unions. It would seem, then, that the Irish and the Jews rarely got in each other’s way.

In Ire­land, the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion was too tiny for any sig­nif­i­cant encoun­ters to occur. But in Amer­i­ca, inter­ac­tions proved mutu­al­ly rein­forc­ing in the expan­sion of demo­c­ra­t­ic opportunity.

Discussion Questions