The day of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston is always frantic for David Falvey, the parade’s Jewish (yes, Jewish) organizer.
As commander of the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council – the group that organizes the parade – there’s a lot to worry about. Which bands and floats go where? Is everyone credentialed? Are the marchers stepping off on time?
Then there’s the politicians, “always a big stressor,” said Falvey. Will they manage to tear themselves away from the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast – a festive Boston tradition for the city’s power brokers – and get to the parade on time?
The legendary 121-year-old parade, which took place on March 20, is a hybrid celebration, commemorating both St. Patrick’s Day and Evacuation Day. (On March 17, 1776, British troops were forced to evacuate Boston from Dorchester Heights in South Boston.) Drawing hundreds of thousands of green-clad spectators, it honors the service of military members and also celebrates Irish spirit, Irish history and – crucially – Irish pubs.
This year’s parade went off without a hitch, until it didn’t. A cluster of 20 or so men wearing masks and neo-Nazi insignia showed up along the parade route on West Broadway Street, behind a banner that read “Keep Boston Irish.” The logo they wore identified them as members of the Nationalist Social Club which espouses racism and antisemitism, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Its members, the ADL states, “see themselves as soldiers at war with a hostile, Jewish-controlled system that is deliberately plotting the extinction of the white race.”
Falvey, 39, was furious. “These spectators were neither invited nor welcome at our parade, which is an inclusive celebration and not at all a place for hate and division,” he said in a statement. “As a Jewish American, it hits especially close to home for me.”
Anyone familiar with the fraught history of the Jews and the Irish in Boston might be astonished to learn that a Jewish man – a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts Army National Guard, who had a bar mitzvah when he was 16 and went on a Birthright trip to Israel shortly before deploying to Iraq in 2007 – is in charge of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Southie, home to one of the country’s largest Irish enclaves.
“The background of the Boston Irish-Jewish relationship was not a happy one,” said Harvey Weiner, a Newton attorney and Vietnam War combat veteran who grew up in Mattapan, and witnessed it firsthand.
In the early 1940s, Jews in Boston were regularly menaced by a right-wing Irish group called the Christian Front, inspired by the antisemitic rants of the popular radio priest known as Father Coughlin. Even after the Front’s influence waned, it had an antisemitic “afterlife,” according to Charles R. Gallagher, author of a new book, “Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front.”
Although it didn’t make headlines – police turned a blind eye and kept the details hidden, Gallagher writes – Irish-on-Jewish violence was pervasive, perpetuated by Irish Catholic gangs.
“When I grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s, Jews could not travel to South Boston. That would be a big mistake,” recalled Weiner. “There was a practice in the Irish community called ‘Hebing’ in which gangs of Irish toughs went into Jewish neighborhoods to beat up Jewish kids.”
Though it’s fair to say St. Patrick’s Day is still not a red-letter day on most Jewish calendars, times have changed, as evidenced by how swiftly city officials spoke out against last week’s neo-Nazi episode, decrying it as “repugnant” and “repulsive.”
“As a Jewish veteran, I was disgusted,” said Falvey, 39, who works as an acquisition program manager for the U.S. Air Force at Hanscom Air Force base.
“I felt [their message] was addressed to me, too. And when you know it’s directed at you, it is pretty powerful. I don’t just want Irish people to come to the parade. I want Jewish people to come to the parade. I want every demographic to come to the parade. I wouldn’t want any group to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome there.”
The issue of exclusion from the parade is what drew Falvey to the Veterans Council in the first place. He joined it in 2017, part of a new wave of veterans who wanted to re-energize the Council which at the time was mired in controversy.
For years, longtime parade organizer John “Wacko” Hurley had sought to keep gay advocacy groups from participating in the parade. In 2017, organizers told a group of gay and transgender military veterans they would not be allowed to march. (It eventually reversed the decision.)
“I thought, ‘What a bad look,’” said Falvey, who grew up in Billerica. “Why deny this group from being in the parade? There was a realization that this organization needs to kind of adapt to the times. There needed to be more pragmatic leadership and I knew I could provide that.”
“He has always been a leader,” said his mother, Marcia Falvey. “He has always had that drive, always. Even when he was a little boy.”
Falvey grew up in an interfaith family; his late father was Irish and his mother is Jewish. “But Judaism has always resonated with me,” he said. “I’m very proud of both my Irish and Jewish heritage.”
The family observed Jewish holidays, though his mother’s efforts to give him a Hebrew education were not a success. “I was a terror as a kid,” he said. “I was probably a maniac and it didn’t work out too well.”
His 13th birthday sailed by, bar mitzvah-less, but at 16, after attending his cousins’ bar mitzvahs, he decided he wanted one, too. His parents arranged for tutoring, and he was bar mitzvahed by Rabbi Susan Abramson at Temple Shalom Emeth in Burlington, followed by three years of confirmation studies.
His bar mitzvah speech, preserved by his mother, hint at the stirrings of a Jewish social conscience. He spoke of the profound impact Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical Holocaust account, “Night,” had on him, and of his visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
That trip “gave me a lasting impression of the sacrifices and sufferings of millions of Jews,” he said in the speech. “The museum showed me the horror of the Holocaust and made me realize how important it is for the Jewish religion to continue on.”
Abramson, who is still the temple’s rabbi, recalls there was something “extra special” about Falvey’s bar mitzvah. “For most kids, they do it because it’s expected of them, or they’re forced to do it, or they don’t know what it’s all about, or they’re going through the motions,” she said. “Because he did it of his own volition, he put his whole heart and soul into it, and totally got the significance of it on a much higher level.”
He attended UMass-Amherst where he served on student government, proving his chops in fighting for a cause. In 2003 he led a successful campaign to get funding restored for the men’s indoor track and field team.
He said he always fights for what he believes in. He was in college when the September 11 attacks took place. “That shaped me. It was a watershed moment,” he said. He enrolled in ROTC and joined the Army National Guard.
He’s spent nearly two decades in the National Guard, and was deployed to Iraq in 2007 and Qatar in 2012 with the 972nd Military Police Company of Reading. He was a platoon leader in Iraq when he was only 22. (His knowledge of Hebrew came in handy here, he said, for conversing in Arabic.) He was also activated after the Jan. 6 insurrection, assigned to secure House of Representatives office buildings during the Biden inauguration.
Along the way he’s earned many awards and honors, including a Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service and a bronze Order of the Marechaussee award recognizing exceptional service among Army Military Police officers. He’s even written a children’s book, “Letters to a Soldier,” incorporating questions from fourth graders about Iraq and his answers to them.
When he returned from Qatar in 2013, he joined a VFW Post in South Boston. “I wasn’t interested in the parade, especially,” he said. “But because of the banning of the gay rights groups, I stepped up.”
But possibly never as vociferously as at this year’s parade – an unlikely role for someone Jewish to step into.
“I do find it a bit ironic,” he said, “though I can’t say I’ve thought too much about it, which is perhaps a reflection of the type of progress that has been made from any wounds of the past.”
Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org