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The Jewish influence on Belfast

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People browse inside the Linen Hall Library. (Tourism Ireland photo)

Some 100 years before there was a Catholic lord mayor of Belfast, a German-born Jew held the office – twice.

Later knighted, Sir Otto Jaffe was a philanthropist, justice of the peace, governor of the Royal Hospital and elected to the top position in Northern Ireland’s capital city in 1899 and again in 1904.

And I am convinced I slept in his Belfast office. Because what’s travel for if not to inspire dreams as you delve into history?

Wouldn’t the great man want a bright corner office? My suite on the second floor of the 10 Square Hotel in the historic Yorkshire House building has high ceilings and large windows on two sides.

Yorkshire House sits prominently on the south side of central Belfast’s Donegall Square. The top of the first floor is ringed with carved busts of men of arts, literature and science. The building housed a successful linen export business run by Otto’s father, Daniel Jaffe, founder of the Belfast Jewish community. The linen warehouse was on the main floor, offices above. There may have been family apartments on the top level.

His sons joined the firm. The Jaffes were a hugely influential family as the largest exporters of linen in Ireland. Later, Otto Jaffe ran the business.

“The linen industry would not have been what it was without the Jaffe family,” says Marty McAuley.

The Jaffe Fountain in Belfast (Linda Barnard photo)

A member of the Blue Badge professional association of British Isles tour guides, McAuley leads excursions around Northern Ireland.

Visitors to Northern Ireland rightly think of green fields, castles, great food and hospitality, history, dramatic coastal drives and maybe even Game of Thrones. Belfast is a must-see. But not many travellers know about the city’s rich Jewish heritage.

“It might surprise you,” says McAuley of the stories he shares with visitors about Jewish Belfast. McAuley does custom tours of Jewish Belfast, exploring the “Jewish influence on Belfast and the Belfast influence on Israel.”

Did you know Belfast is the birthplace of Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel? His father, Isaac Herzog, served as chief rabbi of Ireland and later, chief rabbi of Israel.

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With all this history, why is there no official Jewish heritage trail or organized walking tours?

That’s something Belfast-born Steven Jaffe (no relation to Otto) wants to see changed. The London lawyer, who also works as a consultant to the Jewish Leadership Council, believes Jewish Belfast would be a popular tourist attraction for history buffs of all backgrounds.

He wrote about growing up in Belfast and the city’s Jewish history in a 2018 story for the Belfast Telegraph.

“When you wear a kippah … in Belfast you can expect to be stopped in the street – and mostly for a good reason,” Jaffe wrote.

He leads occasional Jewish walking tours when he’s in Belfast and took a group tour of American Jewish tourists around the city in August.

He tells visitors about Daniel Jaffe, founder of Belfast’s first synagogue in 1871 on Great Victoria Street. Otto Jaffe was life president of the Belfast Hebrew Congregation, built in 1904 on Annesley Street. The building still stands, although it closed in 1964, replaced by the current synagogue on Somerton Road.

With advice from Jaffe and McAuley, I did my own small walking tour. It took less than 45 minutes.

My first stop was my own hotel, where an Ulster History Circle blue plaque identifies the building as the office of lord mayor and philanthropist Sir Otto Jaffe.

The hotel’s deputy general manager, David Commander, met me at the original business entry, an impressive doorway just up from the hotel’s main entrance. Inside, a graceful, tightly curved wooden staircase leads up. Here, as elsewhere in the historic wing of the hotel, windows have simple-yet-elegant leaded glass inserts.

10 Square Hotel deputy general manager David Commander at the original business entry to the Jaffe family linen export company (Linda Barnard photo)

Another set of stairs leads to the third floor and the 900-square-foot Jaffe penthouse, with the former mayor’s name on a plaque on the door.

Commander said the 131-room boutique hotel sees a number of Jewish guests each year, including those on Northern Ireland bus tours. He’s happy to take guests on hotel tours and with a little notice, the chef will provide kosher meals.

Across the street from the hotel and behind Belfast City Hall, I stopped at the historic Linen Hall Library on the north side of Donegall Square.

There’s an ornate key to the new synagogue on display, presented to Jaffe in 1904.

Visitors can ask a librarian to see Jewish cemetery records. Or join the one-hour walking tour that begins here to explore Linenopolis, the 19th-century nickname for Belfast. It runs each Tuesday at 10 a.m. and the Jaffe family figures prominently in the tour.

A quick turn around the corner outside the library and I was in the main shopping district. The streets leading to the historic Cathedral Quarter (a must-visit area) are car-free and packed with heritage buildings, restaurants, cafés and interesting shops, from big retailers to independent businesses.

The attractive Victoria Square Shopping Centre a few streets to the east draws plenty of tourists, but I’m headed to the back of the building to admire a bright daffodil-
yellow-and-white fountain. It’s Victorian-style and quite ornate and a commemorative plaque at the top reads: In remembrance of Daniel Joseph Jaffe, 1874.

Otto Jaffe erected the fountain to honour his father.

One of the biggest tourist sites in Belfast is the Titanic Belfast attraction. It’s located on the site of the former Harland & Wolff Industries shipyard – Wolff was a German Jew – where the Titanic was built. A museum and experience combined, visitors explore the story of the Titanic, Belfast and the people who built the great ship and sailed on her doomed 1912 maiden voyage.

Steven Jaffe pointed out a significant number of the Titanic’s 2,200 passengers were Jews, providing another link to the Belfast’s Jewish heritage. Read their names among the 1,512 lives lost in the disaster in the Titanic Memorial Gardens at City Hall on Donegall Square East.

The numbers of Jews in Belfast has been in decline since the conflicts of the Troubles began in Belfast the late 1960s. Today, there are just 70 members of the Jewish Belfast Congregation.

Anti-Semitism happens here, as elsewhere in Europe these days. Attempts to deface the Herzog birthplace during the Gaza War led to the removal of its heritage plaque. A mural to Jewish heritage and Israel on Shankill Road that McAuley includes on his tours was vandalized in 2016.

The community endures. Historic Belfast has stories to share with visitors.

“Belfast Jews, no matter where they are living, have a very strong identity,” says Jaffe. “It’s a place you have strong feelings about.”

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Freelance food, film and travel writer Linda Barnard lives in Victoria. Find her at @barnardwrites and lindabarnardtravels.com