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Do Jews “Erin Go Bragh?”

Today, March 17th, marks St. Patrick’s Day, an important celebration for Irish people worldwide. The patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick was kidnapped from Britain and sold into slavery in Ireland when he was just 16 years old. Years later, he returned to spread the word about Catholicism. He lived in Ireland on a mission for 20 years until he died on March 17, 461 A.D., a date dedicated to his memory ever since.

So do Jews celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Officially, not a chance! Though St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. has evolved into more of a celebration of Irish culture than religion, the fact that the holiday is named for a Catholic saint makes it something you won’t see mentioned in Jewish day schools. However, if you grew up attending public school, you probably cut out green shamrocks or did word searches about leprechauns and pots of gold. And, while there’s nothing Jewish about that, there is one thing that many Jews and Irish (and Irish Jews) alike seek out on St. Patrick’s Day: corned beef!

Back in the day, beef was preserved by curing it with giant rock salt kernels that became known as “corns of salt.” The Irish began exporting this “corned” beef in the early 19th century. It was traded for troops in Britain and the U.S. as sustenance that wouldn’t easily spoil, and was frequently fed to slave laborers on Caribbean sugar plantations by the French. The Irish actually didn’t eat much corned beef themselves until the turn of the century. Irish immigrants in New York City found corned beef readily available and adopted it as an alternative to bacon. Jewish immigrants also produced a kosher cured beef made from brisket. Whether they got the idea from the Irish or the Irish began eating the brisket as corned beef is somewhat unclear. Either way, it became popular among the Irish and is eaten by many throughout the U.S. on St. Patrick’s Day — including Jews!

Here are a few facts you might not know about this delicatessen delicacy:

  • Corned beef was presidential. President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural dinner included a main course of corned beef and cabbage.
  • Corned beef was once a staple for the IDF. Since Israel became a state, loof, or canned corned beef, was fed to IDF soldiers in the field. Considered the kosher version of Spam, the common ration was phased out in 2011 (years after its manufacturing company went bankrupt) — much to soldiers’ delight.
  • Corned beef was served on Erev St. Patrick’s Day. In the early 1960s, Irish Jews in New York formed the Loyal League of the Yiddish Sons of Erin, a group that met monthly. Their biggest event each year was their Erev St. Patrick’s Day Banquet, in which attendees ate, among other things, corned beef, green matzo balls and green bagels!

Perhaps we won’t be “celebrating” St. Patrick’s Day when many of us hit up Canter’s and Langer’s this week in search of corned beef. Whether you like it lean and thinly sliced or thick-cut and fatty with cabbage, cold and slathered with mustard or served warm, juicy and with sauerkraut, corned beef is something that many associate with both the Irish and Jewish cultures. And, March 17th or not, we’re okay with that.

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