Standing on the bima behind a golden menorah, an emerald green leprechaun read from the megillah last Purim, a plush green top hat perched on his head and a red Irish-chasidish beard glued onto his flushed cheeks.
Carl Nelkin, a native of Dublin, prays regularly at the Dublin Hebrew Congregation – Terenure Synagogue, the Irish capital’s main Orthodox shul, and has been a guest cantor in Laredo, Texas; New York City and England. An aviation lawyer by day and recording musician by night, he uniquely blends Celtic and Yiddish melodies to create albums available nowhere else. Inspired by both the great Irish tenor John McCormick and Toronto Cantor Louis Danto, Nelkin released his first bicultural CD in 2003, entitled “Irish Heart – Jewish Soul – Favourite Irish and Jewish Songs.” And in January, after accumulating more than 25 years of learning about the Holocaust, he unveiled a second album, “The Little Trees Are Weeping – Songs of the Holocaust and Resistance.”
Though he felt emotionally compelled to create the Holocaust memorial album, Nelkin feels that he has carved out more of a niche for himself in the quite rare Irish-Jewish music market.
“I wanted to show a blending of Irish and Jewish culture through music,” Nelkin said, noting that Dublin has about 1,500 Jewish residents. “I interpret the Yiddish music with Irish instruments. They both have a history of persecution, they both have a history of trying to establish their own state.”
His original album contains 14 alternating Yiddish and Irish medleys, both infused with the rhythm and sounds of Celtic tradition. The songs echo that mutual yearning for freedom common to both the Jewish and the Irish peoples, something that he feels connects the two cultures so well. As Uileann pipes (Irish bagpipes) and whistles pepper the Jewish and Irish tunes alike, Nelkin’s Irish-inflected Yiddish melds the once foreign songs together seamlessly.
“Both have a good love of celebration and a good time,” Nelkin said.
“Irish people like to drink and Jewish people like to nosh,” he continued. “You put the two together and you get a very interesting blend.”
Even this year’s somber Holocaust album could not escape the poignant influence of an Irish heart. The songs — many first sung in the recesses of concentration camp confinement — have little historical connection to Ireland, but a hint of Irish voice comes to light in nearly every tune.
“It’s been said that the music has an Irish flavor to it, but I think that’s an accident,” Nelkin said, noting that the entire orchestra was made up of Irish musicians. “I didn’t set out to do that but that’s what it seems to be.”
Though he had been studying the Holocaust for years, Nelkin was looking for a way to add new meaning to an event that had become so distant in textbooks.
“The more I read, the more it’s just becoming numbers and figures,” he said. “It’s not having the same impact on me that it should have.”
But throughout his research, Nelkin became intrigued by the music that came out of the prison camps, from the Jews who inhabited those hostile barracks.
He chose many of his pieces from a 1963 book called “Songs of the Ghettos and Concentration Camps,” which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
“There’s an enormous body of music from the Holocaust era; there are many that are going to basically die away,” he said, noting that he was captivated by the stories behind the songs. “I wanted to revive these songs and give them my own interpretation.”
One of Nelkin’s favorite songs, “Rivkele de Shabesdike,” tells the story of one of the “Saturday Wives,” the women who waited for their husbands’ return when an SS regimen entered Bialystok, where they burned 1,000 Jews and abducted 3,000 men. The song, written by Pesach Kaplan, follows young Rivkele, who cannot accept the tragic idea that her husband will never return, he explained.
Another piece, the postwar “Under the Little Green Polish Trees,” was actually the inspiration for the album itself as well as its title, “The Little Trees Are Weeping,” Nelkin said.
“The title depicts an Eastern European landscape now devoid of the Jewish children who used to play and frolic in its fields, towns and villages, leaving only the trees to mourn a way of life that has ceased to be,” he added.
“Those are songs that are going to be lost, so he’s making an effort to save them,” said Rabbi Zalman Lent, spiritual leader at the Dublin Hebrew Congregation and Chabad emissary to Ireland, who has known Nelkin for the past eight years.
“We’re at a stage where we’re no longer going to have survivors after a few years,” Nelkin agreed. “There are young students out there who have never heard of the Holocaust.”
In the past six weeks, Nelkin has sold about 80 copies of the album, almost all of which have been purchased by non-Jews, he said. What draws most people to buy his CDs is a simple intrigue for the unique Irish-Jewish crossover featured on his Web site (www.irishjewishmusic.com), he assumes.
As he continues along in his Irish-Jewish musical career, Nelkin also finds inspiration in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” where the half-Jewish character Leopold Bloom adamantly declares that he is 100 percent Irish in addition to his Jewish roots.
“Even though I’m a Jew I am also an Irishman,” Nelkin said.