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Caught In The Crossfire In Belfast

Caught In The Crossfire In Belfast

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

As the rest of our society turns toward Halloween, we brave our own demons on Yom Kippur, in a particularly Jewish way that points toward the possibility of redemption. In Gavin Kostick’s new play, “This is What We Sang,” presented at the Synagogue for the Arts in Tribeca, five generations of a Jewish family in Belfast search their souls on the Day of Atonement to come to terms with the tangled, century-long past of their people and their region. The play, which is produced by the Kabosh Theatre Company of Belfast, premiered last fall at the Belfast Hebrew Congregation, where The Irish Times lauded it as a “smash hit” with “superb” acting.

Directed by Paula McFetridge, who appeared in last year’s acclaimed film, “Five Minutes of Heaven” starring Liam Neeson, the production brings over the original cast from Belfast: Jo Donnelly, Paul Kennedy, Lalor Roddy and Ali White. Alan Burke performs Neil Martin’s blend of Irish and Jewish music. The play is part of an Irish theater festival that is presenting the work of 16 Irish playwrights.

“This is What They Sang” provides a window into the Jewish community in Northern Ireland, which dates back to the mid-19th century when a group of Jews emigrated from Germany. The Jewish population peaked in the mid-1960s at about 2,500 in the mid-1960s. But the younger generation of Jews has left for greater opportunities in other cities, and Belfast’s Jewish population stands today at only about a hundred.

Kostick, who grew up in England, now lives in Dublin. His paternal grandfather was a Jewish cabinetmaker from Eastern Europe who ended up in Ireland after being tricked by an unscrupulous ship’s captain who told his passengers that they were in America. Kostick’s play about his family history, “The Ash Fire,” ran at the American Jewish Theater in New York in 1994.

“This is What They Sang” is based on five dozen interviews with members of Belfast’s Jewish community about their lives in Northern Ireland. Jews have been “caught in the middle” between the Protestants and Catholics, Kostick pointed out, with “very vocal competing political strands that want to co-opt you and make an issue out of you.” He noted that the play also reflects the roller coaster in Ireland’s recent fortunes, as the “Celtic Tiger” went from being one of the most successful economies in Europe to one of its most depressed.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a play set on Yom Kippur, one of the play’s overarching themes is forgiveness. “The characters argue with themselves and with the Divine about what a good life is and whether or not they have lived it,” Kostick said. “They also have to confront the idea that their idea of a good life may be damaging to someone else.” In the end, the play testifies to the importance of Jewish history in Northern Ireland. “It’s an affirmation that we were here, that we lived, that we have a part and a hand in this too.”

“This Is What We Sang” runs from Sept. 19-29 at the Synagogue for the Arts, 49 White St. Performances are Saturday through Tuesday evenings at 8 p.m. with matinees on Sunday, Sept. 26 and Wednesday, Sept. 29 at 3 p.m. For tickets, $30/$20 students, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444, or visit For information on the festival, which is running through Oct. 4, visit

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