Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Irishman In Me

This song is one of the most beautiful, one of the most powerful that I know. And having chosen to make my life and build my family half a world away from my own family, I completely relate to the song on many levels.

The song was based on actual letters written by a father to his son who emigrated from Ireland to America in the mid 1800’s. Throughout the five verses I am particularly struck by several subtle (and perhaps not-so-subtle) points.

While the father obviously misses and loves his son, at no time does he berate him for leaving to find his fortunes across the sea. The same is true regarding the possibility of the son visiting home. According to the first verse, dated 1860, the son travelled to America with the intention of working for a while before returning home. The parents express typical parental concern of what type of work should be avoided.

By the second verse, dated 1870, the young man was married and had four children, so it was clear that he would be staying in America. In the following verses, the father mentioned how wonderful it would be if the son could visit – they would all love to see him and meet his family. No guilt, no rebuke – just love of a father who misses his son.

It is clear throughout the song that the son never did visit in his father’s lifetime, and the final verse, written by the man’s brother sharing that their father had passed away, also does not complain about the man living in America – rather the final line written by the brother is “Oh, why don't you think about coming to visit, we'd all love to see you again”.

Obviously there are several differences between the family featured in this very moving song and myself. For one thing, even before internet, Instant Messenger, emails, video calls and low-cost inter-continental phone calls, the communication available to me and my family have always been light years ahead of what was available in the second half of the 19th century.

Yet for all the differences and for however much easier it has been for me than for the son of the letters, this song still touches me to my core.

Sharon and I have been very lucky in so many ways. Like the father in the song “Kilkelly”, our parents have always been very supportive of our decision to live in Israel. Unlike many of our friends, we have never had to answer the “how could you abandon us” questions, or "when are you coming home" queries.

Also unlike the son in the song, we have also had plenty of opportunities to visit our families, and for our parents and siblings to know our kids – more important, for our kids to know the family in America. It has been made even easier by the fact that one of Sharon’s sisters lives in Israel, so besides the long-distance relationships with most of their cousins, our girls have been able to establish a very close and very loving relationship with the four first-cousins living here.

Yet even with the wonders of modern communications, living 6,000 miles from my family is not an easy thing.

Seeing our parents once or twice a year is a treat, but of course we would love for it to be more often. And Sharon and I see our siblings (except for the one in Israel) much less often - and that's hard for us.

The kids knowing all of their aunts, uncles and cousins from afar works as well as can be expected, but as we’ve seen with the family that we do have in Israel, it’s far from ideal.

And even with the ability to communicate, and see one another on webcams, the distance will be a real problem if there is ever an emergency. This lesson was driven home for me years ago, before telecommunications had become what it is today.

In the summer of 1991, while I was serving in the IDF, my mother underwent surgery for breast cancer. The surgery was successful, and after long treatments afterwards, she has been cancer-free for very many years, but at the time, I felt that my hands were completely tied while she was undergoing surgery.

I know – there is nothing that I could have done had I been there. But I would have been there – with her, with my family, just as I would hope my kids would be there for me if I ever go through something similar.

Instead, I was stuck on a base in the middle of the Judean desert, waiting to get a collect call through to America (pre-cell phone era) and finally reaching my father a day and a half later – and only being able to talk to Mom several days after the surgery once she was back at home.

So the song still resonates.

2010 is nothing like 1860, and moving from America to Israel is different in almost every way imaginable than moving from Ireland to America. I came to Israel for ideological reasons, tinged with cultural and religious overtones, whereas those who moved from Ireland to America moved for financial reasons – period.

Yet the longing and the love written from a father to his son in 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1890 still strike a chord with the guy who misses and loves his family in North Carolina.

Moving to Israel from America without family presents so many difficulties - financial, cultural, political, just to name a few. But the real price we pay is the distance from our family, our most natural support system. That is what we sacrifice in order to build the life in which we believe.


  1. This posting had an extra meaning for me because I became re-acquainted with your mom (a high school classmate and newspaper colleague) in 2008 when our graduating class had its 50th anniversary reunion. I also had the privilege of meeting your dad for the first time at that event. It's really clear to me how proud your parents are of you and what you've accomplished; you are fortunate that they love you in a very adult way and don't play the "Why did you leave us" guilt games found in other families. What you are writing about and how you write about it give your Mom and Dad ample reason to be proud of you. BTW, one of my daughters, to whom I sent a link to your blogs, wrote to confirm what a good writer you are and to thank me for sharing that link. One more point, there's a lot of Irish in my background so I have a special bias for the Irish song you used as the basis for your posting. Keep on writing, Asher. You're giving a wealth of knowledge and insight to your readers. Pat Fulton

  2. Asher, The first gift your father gave me, about a week after we first met, was a little book by a Lebanese philosopher named Khalil Gibran; it was called "The Prophet." There's a chapter, "On Children," that encapsulates our philosophies about the place of parents and children and G-d in the world. I'd like to share it with you and your blog friends. The truth is, your dad and I are enormously proud of you for the choice you've made to live in Israel. Yes, we miss you; yes, we'd love to see you all more often, yes, we worry about you and are glued to the news reports every time there's a terrorist attack. But would we change things? Absolutely not! It takes a great deal of courage to live life according to your ideals, courage that many, many people simply do not have. All I can say is, Kol ha k'vod. May the Almighty keep and protect you, and give you success in all you do. And may you merit raising your children in peace and health and happiness in the Land where G-d saw fit to settle you.

    Here's the chapter of "The Prophet." The story is that the Prophet, Almustapha, has been in a city for several years and finally a ship comes to take him home. The people of the city ask him to leave them with some of his wisdom on many subjects. One of the citizens asks him to speak of children. This is his response. The last couple of lines are especially cogent for your essay today:

    On Children
    And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, "Speak to us of Children." And he said:
    Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
    You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
    For they have their own thoughts.
    You may house their bodies but not their souls,
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
    You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
    For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
    You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
    Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
    For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.