I’ll admit it, there’s nothing objectively Jewish about St. Patrick’s Day. But I have a strong urge to make St. Patrick’s Day a Jewish event, because my name is Patrick, and for the past twenty years or so, people around me have acted like St. Patrick’s Day was somehow my second birthday.
I’m not going to get into the particulars about who St. Patrick was. Bottom line: he was a Catholic missionary who went to Ireland and converted the natives. That simple.
More important to the how-to-make-St.-Patrick’s-Day-Jewish story is about the process of St. Patrick’s Day being an Irish-Catholic holiday, to the Guiness-drenched, Shamrock Shake chugging pot-pie festival that turns everyone green for a day.
Like most great things in America, it came from immigration: after the Great Potato Famine, Irish immigrants flooded the United States seeking better opportunities. They were met with strife: a Protestant nation that considered itself settled that did not want any more people “polluting” its shores. Yet, they came, and integrated into society. Eventually, their cultural practices blended with other cultures in the key metropolitan immigrant cities, and became normalized. As people left these large cities for smaller cities and towns to escape overcrowding and to find better opportunities, they took this Americanized Irish identity with them. Over time, people found themselves attracted to their culture and eventually we got the St. Patty’s Day that we have today.
So what does this have to do with Judaism?
The Jews, like all other religious cultures that survived the Axial Age, are really good at adapting to the world that surrounds them and integrating other cultures’ ideas to meet their needs. The Purim story is a great example. This tale of survival is most likely an adaptation of the Babylonian story of Ishtar (Esther) and Marduk (Mordechai). Most of what we call “Jewish food” is really “kosherized” versions of dishes that already existed in Europe and North Africa. The wearing of kippah is another folkway that found a means of expression in the Talmud and became the yarmulkes that we wear in synagogues.
Today, Jews celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, like everyone else in America, in a secular sense. Wearing green, pinning a shamrock to your chest, searching for four-leaf clovers, eating traditional Irish dishes and of course, drinking copious amounts of dark lager, are all a part of the festivities. The fact that Jews can celebrate this holiday without feeling less Jewish is what makes the holiday Jewish!
Our survival has been based on taking what the world provides us, and making it Jewish, so that we can always have a place to be. By being active in the culture around us, but with a Jewish inflection, Jews show that we are the same as everyone else. And it’s this adaptability that makes us both attractive, and unique. There are no “Jewish” people in the way that there are no “American” people. We aren’t one culture, one language, one race. In fact, we are a collection of cultures, languages and races. But we fuse these elements together, each of us with a different slant, to create this amazing Oneness called “Jewish”. This is the same way that America made an Irish holiday a favorite past time.
Shalom, and save a beer for me!