It is odd that the creator of the most outstanding Jew in modern literature did not at that time know any of the Jewish community in Dublin. – Padraic Colum, p. 56, Our Friend James Joyce
Yes. Only a foreigner would do. The Jews were foreigners in Dublin at that time. There was no hostility towards them. But contempt, the contempt that people always show towards the unknown. – James Joyce, in the New York Times
It is a truth universally acknowledged that James Joyce’s modernist epic Ulysses tells the story of a Jewish Dubliner named Leopold Bloom. So famously Jewish, in fact, that Mel Brooks borrowed the name for the peevish accountant in The Producers. I say this because the title of this post may seem absurd on its face. “Of course Bloom is Jewish!” you may be scoffing. Before you turn to another blog, hear me out. Is Dublin’s most famous Jew not really Jewish?
Bloom’s father Rudolph was a Hungarian Jew, so most of the Jewish references swimming around Bloom’s mind have their origins in childhood memories of him. Jewishness is matrilineal, however, and Bloom’s mother, Ellen (née Higgins) was not Jewish. There is some speculation among folks who are given to speculate about such things that Ellen’s father, Julius Higgins, was also a Hungarian Jew and therefore Leopold is ¾ Jewish, though this is not explicitly backed up in the text of Ulysses. We know little about Julius Higgins other than that he was born Karoly. While this is a common Hungarian name, it doesn’t necessarily make him Jewish. Regardless, even if Julius had been devoutly Jewish, his status alone wouldn’t factor into whether Leopold or Ellen were Jewish as he was a father and not a mother.
Participation in religious rituals marks membership in a religious community. For instance, Jewish boys are circumcised as infants. However, we learn that Bloom has a foreskin in “Nausicaa.” He thinks:
“Stuck. Well the foreskin is not back. Better detach.”
There are varying opinions on whether or not a man can be considered a Jew in good standing if he has not been circumcised. Cultural connection to the ritual of the bris is so strong that even in the 21st century, American Reform Jews who decided to forgo circumcision for their sons largely refused to be named in a recent article on the topic. In the Bloom household holding a bris for baby Leopold was likely never a topic of discussion, though, as he was baptised a Christian as an infant “by the reverend Mr Gilmer Johnston M.A. alone in the protestant church of Saint Nicholas Without, Coombe”. As a result, we can also infer that young Leopold was never bar mitzvahed.
If Bloom wasn’t Jewish coming into this world, he doesn’t plan to be Jewish exiting it, either. In “Hades,” he reflects:
“Mine over there towards Finglas, the plot I bought. Mamma poor mamma, and little Rudy.”
Bloom has bought a plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, a Catholic burial place, and plans to lie in repose near his late mother and infant son. This is a sensible choice, as Bloom converted to Catholicism when he married Molly. Bloom also doesn’t keep kosher – it’s one of the first things we learn about him in “Calypso”- and he seems to have only a cursory understanding of many basic aspects of Jewish culture (the mezuzah, the Haggadah, the Shema, to name a few). Bloom has memories of some Jewish friends, but he seems fairly distant from them. We never meet them directly in Ulysses, and his friends we do meet are all Gentiles. We know that there is at least one Jewish man living in his neighborhood, Mr. Dlugacz, but their relationship begins and ends at pork kidneys. We might consider Bloom a secular or cultural Jew, but even that seems to be stretching either definition.
Most directly, Bloom tells Stephen he’s not Jewish. Now, Bloom does assert his Jewish identity to the Citizen in “Cyclops,” but when recounting his run-in with the Citizen to Stephen in “Eumaeus,” Bloom says:
“So I, without deviating from plain facts in the least, told him his God, I mean Christ was a jew too, and all his family, like me, though in reality I’m not.”
The quote opening this post is from a book called Our Friend James Joyce by Padraic and Mary Colum. Young Joyce came to them when he lived in Dublin requesting an introduction to some of their Jewish friends. As we’ve learned when looking into inspirations for Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, it’s probably not totally factual that Joyce knew no Jews in Dublin, but it does seem likely that he knew exceptionally little about the Jewish population of Dublin, which, Mr Deasy’s remarks notwithstanding, did exist.
Ireland did let Jews in, but in the mid-19th century (around the time of Leopold’s birth), their population was quite small, numbering in the low hundreds in Dublin, and was on the decline. By 1901, Dublin’s Jewish population had surpassed 2,000. This was due to a wave of immigration from the Russian Empire, where Jews faced terrible persecution under Tsar Nicholas II, including pogroms in the 1880’s and early 1900’s. Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, referred to as Litvaks, were the largest group to settle in Dublin, concentrating in “Little Jersalems,” including in Lower Clanbrassil Street and St Kevin’s Parade. As a result, there were two main groups of Jewish Dubliners in 1904 – the “English” Jews, assimilated, English-speaking Jews whose families had been in Ireland for generations, and the more recently arrived, Yiddish-speaking Litvaks.
Bloom doesn’t quite fit in with the English Jewish population, folks like Altman the Saltman, as he was the son of an immigrant. In fact, Rudolf Virag (later Rudolph Bloom) would have arrived from the Continent and fathered Leopold at a time when the Dublin Jewish population was on the decline. Leopold was born on Upper Clanbrassil St in 1866, a time and place with no Little Jerusalem, unlike the Jewish community that would exist on Lower Clanbrassil St a few decades later.
The Lithuanians who populated Little Jerusalem might not have welcomed Bloom with open arms, either. We can assume Bloom has no Yiddish, the dominant language of that community. Bloom’s heritage is Hungarian rather than Lithuanian, so no connection there, either. The Litvaks were a pious, insular bunch, and would likely have been turned off by Bloom’s secularism and his “marrying out” – not only wedding a Gentile but being baptised Christian on three separate occasions. Not to mention he is the son of “mixed” parents himself. Politically, the Litvaks were “emphatically loyalist,” as Cormac Ó Gráda describes it, celebrating Victoria’s jubilee and supporting the English side in the Boer War. Parnellite Bloom might have found himself on the outs politically in Little Jerusalem, even if he could overcome the linguistic, cultural and religious barriers.
So, where does Bloom fit in? That’s the thing – he really doesn’t. Hugh Kenner points out that Bloom wouldn’t have been counted as a Jew on the 1901 census as Jewishness was measured as a religious affiliation, and Bloom was a Catholic on paper. Kenner points out, “he undergoes the disadvantages of a Jewish name and appearance unsupported by any claim to solidarity with an interwoven community.”
In “Calypso” Bloom reminisces about the early days of his marriage when he and Molly would socialize with their pals Citron, Mastiansky and Moisel in St. Kevin’s Parade. The passage about these old friends describes distant memories, though. Bloom isn’t even sure if Citron is still alive. At least on Bloomsday, Leopold only socializes with Gentiles, who are a much larger part of his daily life than his old Jewish acquaintances. Joyce picked the names “Citron” and “Mastiansky” out of Thom’s 1904 Dublin Directory. Both were real men, though the latter was actually “Masliansky,” both were Lithuanian immigrants and neighbors in St. Kevin’s Parade. It seems like Joyce lifted Lithuanian names from the directory in order to add some realism to his novel, but didn’t know much about the real men behind the names, proven in part by the fact that he preserved the misspelling of “Masliansky” as it appeared in Thom’s.
1904 was an important year in Irish Jewish history as it was the year of the Limerick Boycott, also known as the Limerick Pogrom. In 1904, the Limerick Jewish community was prosperous, though small – around 150 people total. In January of that year, Redemptorist priest Fr. John Creagh gave a sermon calling suspicion onto the Jews of Limerick, claiming they had built their wealth at the expense of the Christian population of the city, which largely lived in dire poverty. Fr. Creagh accused the Jewish peddlers and moneylenders of charging higher rates than their Christian counterparts. Following this sermon, the Jewish neighborhood was attacked with stones and mud. Fr. Creagh followed up by decrying the violence but suggesting instead an economic boycott of Limerick’s Jews. The Limerick Leader, the Irish Independent, the Times of London, and Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith all supported the boycott. Only two major public figures – Michael Davitt and John Redmond – spoke out against it. In April 1904, there was more violence, including the stoning of Rabbi Elias Levin. By the end of 1904, there were fewer than ten Jewish families in Limerick, their community destroyed.
The Limerick Boycott was major news in Ireland in 1904, with some of its ghastly incidents taking place only months before Bloomsday. Dublin newspapers like the Freeman’s Journal carried news of the boycott in their headlines. It’s impossible that Bloom and his peers would have been ignorant of the boycott given its magnitude, and it would have been an even bigger subject of discussion amongst Dublin’s Jewish population. If Bloom had still been hanging with Citron and Mastiansky, they would have been a point of discussion between cither performances. However, the Limerick Boycott is not mentioned in the text of Ulysses. It does not appear in the thoughts of Bloom and is neither referenced during his altercation with the Citizen in “Cyclops” nor when he discusses antisemitism with Stephen in “Eumaeus.” It seems unlikely that Joyce, who was living in Dublin during the boycott would have been unaware of it. Why it is not mentioned in the pages of Ulysses is unclear, but it does indicate that Joyce did not understand the mind of a Jewish Dubliner in 1904. The lack of discussion of the boycotts is a major omission in a novel that attempts such an all-encompassing depiction of the city in that moment, especially from the point of view of a Jewish man.
The intersection of Jewish and Irish identity is explored in “Aeolus.” The men in the Freeman’s Journal office are discussing a speech given by John F. Taylor advocating for the revival of the Irish language. Taylor’s speech leans heavily on parallels between the Irish of 1904 and the biblical Israelites in bondage in Egypt:
“Israel is weak and few are her children: Egypt is an host and terrible are her arms. Vagrants and daylabourers are you called: the world trembles at our name…. But, ladies and gentlemen, had the youthful Moses listened to and accepted that view of life, had he bowed his head and bowed his will and bowed his spirit before that arrogant admonition he would never have brought the chosen people out of their house of bondage….”
The implication here is that the Irish in 1904 are like the enslaved Israelites, downtrodden and oppressed by a foreign power. Both the Israelites and the Irish were ethnically and culturally distinct from their conquerors and spoke a language that their oppressors sought to stamp out. And like the Israelites, the Irish had a Moses to lead them out of bondage – the late politician Charles Stewart Parnell. Before his untimely death in the 1890’s, Parnell had championed the rights of the Irish in Parliament and campaigned for home rule, or a devolved Irish Parliament. Adding to the myth of Parnell, much as Moses died before entering the Promised Land, Parnell had died before Ireland achieved home rule. The discourse comparing Moses and Parnell was common amongst Irish Nationalists and Home Rule advocates of the day. Lady Gregory’s 1911 play The Deliverer leaned heavily on this analogy, and James Joyce himself wrote an article entitled “The Shadow of Parnell” in 1912 for the Triestine newspaper Piccolo della Sera that described Parnell as a Mosaic figure in Ireland, leading his people to the border of the Promised Land.
Parnell’s connection to Moses appears in Ulysses in both overt and subtle ways. In “Calypso,” Bloom buys a pork kidney from the Zionist porkbutcher Dlugacz. Based on a man Joyce knew in Trieste called Moses Dlugacz, he is subtly urges Bloom and any other of God’s chosen people that might happen into his non-kosher shop to find their way to the Promised Land by buying land from Agendath Netaim, their pamphlet strategically left on the counter. Bloom remarks at first that Dlugacz is “ferreteyed”, but then changes his assessment to “foxeyes” once he has begun to read the Zionist pamphlet. “Mr. Fox” was Parnell’s alias, and it’s thought that references to foxes in Ulysses are subtle references to Parnell. Perhaps when Bloom realizes Dlugacz is indeed a Zionist (“Thought he was.”), he sees him as a sort low-level Moses with the eyes of Mr. Fox, coaxing Irish Jews toward their true homeland.
In “Circe,” Bloom himself is raised on high by the rabblement and then condemned by the same mob as “like Parnell”:
“Lynch him! Roast him! He’s as bad as Parnell was!”
Bloom could be an ideal figure to lead his people (or perhaps just Stephen) to a new Bloomusalem as he is Jewish like Moses and Irish like Parnell. Like Moses and Parnell, he is not destined to see his Promised Land, and like Parnell, it will be his own followers that turn on him in the end.
It’s clear James Joyce, Bloom’s creator, certainly intended for him to be Jewish, describing Bloom explicitly as Jewish on many occasions. For Joyce, developing an Irish-Jewish Odysseus was the key to one of Ulysses’ central analogies, as “an epic of two races,” as he described it to Carlo Linati. It’s fitting that Stephen and Bloom should ultimately bond over similarities between Irish and Jewish culture in “Ithaca,” with a focus on similarities between Hebrew and the Irish language. To Joyce, the connection between the Irish and the Jews also allowed for a future in which the Irish would flourish. The Jews had been persecuted everywhere they had lived (including in 1904 Ireland), but they still maintained a distinct culture and managed to prosper despite their oppression. Morton P. Levitt wrote that, to Joyce, the Jews offered “an ongoing promise that humanity might not just endure but could even prevail in a time when everyone might seem an outsider.”
One shortcoming of this sunny outlook is that the uplifting Home Rule rhetoric focused on the Biblical Jews rather than modern Jews. Nationalist Dubliners like the Citizen or the men in the Freeman’s Journal office are happy to embrace a historical or metaphorical Jew, but they are either dismissive or outright hostile to the actual Jew in their midst. Bloom’s Judaism in the text of Ulysses is reduced to metaphor, allowing him to be an exile like Moses or Odysseus, or even the Wandering Jew. Even if there is some feeling of kinship between the two oppressed groups, it is only rhetorical and nothing more.
It may seem that Joyce didn’t do his due diligence when crafting a Jewish protagonist. For someone who was so meticulous in his re-creation of 1904 Dublin that he once hubristically claimed the city could be rebuilt from his novel, Joyce really seemed to have dropped the ball when it came to the finer points of Jewish Dublin. Mr. Masliansky and the other denizens of Dublin’s Little Jerusalem only get a pale replica of their corner of the city. As Erwin R. Steinberg wrote, “Perhaps also [Joyce] knew less about Jews and Judaism than he thought he did and because of lack of information simply did not accomplish what he intended.”
Joyce did do “research” into Jewish culture, though. He had many Jewish friends in Trieste, and it seems he grilled his close friend Ettore Schmitz (aka Italo Svevo) for details about Jewish culture. Schmitz once joked to Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, “Tell me some secrets about Irishmen. Your brother has been asking so many questions about Jews that I want to get my own back.” Indeed, while Bloom doesn’t fit in with Dublin Jews, he would have been right at home amongst the more middle-class, agnostic Jews that Joyce knew in Trieste. Schmitz, for his part, was a non-observant Jew married to a Catholic woman, a situation more common in Trieste than Dublin.
Joyce’s error wasn’t that he didn’t make an effort but that he assumed all Jews were alike. He assumed his dear friend Schmitz could speak on behalf of all Jews and that a middle-class Jewish man in Dublin would be similar to Schmitz in most respects. Joyce played fast and loose with many details when it suited him, sometimes meticulously accurate and other times willfully anachronistic. However, mischaracterizing a cultural identity that was so central to the themes of his novel is different than moving up an outbreak of foot and mouth disease by a few years. I think that Joyce, for all his brilliance, had a blindspot when characterizing Jewish culture, not recognizing the diversity that exists within the worldwide Jewish diaspora. His bias was such that, like Stephen, he could defend the Jews to out-and-out antisemites like Mr Deasy but still see Jewish merchants as “goldskinned men quoting prices on their gemmed fingers.”
As mentioned above, Bloom is clearly ambivalent about his Jewish heritage, clinging to his Jewish identity more as a link to his late father than as a religious or cultural identity. Despite this complexity of character, Bloom will always be Jewish in the eyes of the Dubliners he interacts with. No matter what his personal feelings may be, no matter how lax he is about practicing Jewish rites of passage, no matter how many times he converts to Christianity, Bloom doesn’t get to not be Jewish. Bloom’s connection to Judaism, in the eyes of his friends and neighbors, is more racial than religious or cultural. His peers judge him not for his actions, but for some deeper, immutable character that they register in him. He’ll always be a foreigner in his native Dublin. In the eyes of his Jewish neighbors, he is not sufficiently Jewish either (shown by the estrangement from his old Jewish friends and Dlugacz’s professional coldness). If Bloom doesn’t fit in with Jewish Dubliners and if he isn’t fully accepted by his Gentile peers, then he doesn’t belong anywhere. He’s perpetually in the “other” category, regardless of what he feels.
We need to consider, then, that the question of whether Leopold Bloom is or isn’t Jewish is too simplistic. The ambiguity allows Joyce to characterize Bloom in a way that sets him apart from previous, largely stereotypical, literary depictions of Jewish people. Bloom is able to move between worlds, reminsicent of Stephen’s description of himself back in “Proteus”: “I moved among them… a changeling.” While Bloom certainly possesses some qualities that are stereotypically Jewish – his preoccupation with buying and selling, his rejection of the pastimes of his Irish Catholic friends and neighbors (gambling, social drinking) – he is too complex to be written off as a stereotype.
It’s possible that the lack of definition of Bloom’s Jewish identity is a comment on Joyce’s distaste for nationalism. Bloom, the Irish Everyman straddling cultures and bringing his people into a new Promised Land, is a native Dubliner, just like Stephen, just like the Citizen, and the rest of them, but he isn’t seen that way. Is a nation really just “people living in the same place,” or does it require the exclusion of the people who don’t fit a homogenous racial or cultural ideal? We, the readers, have a chance to be wiser than Bloom’s peers and see the scientifically curious, multicultural, religiously-nonspecific Leopold as the true symbol of the Hibernian Metropolis, diverse and complex. And if Dublin is to take its place amongst the great cities of the world, it must embrace its Leopold Blooms or risk being just another provincial backwater.
Cheyette, B. (1992). “Jewgreek is greekjew”: The Disturbing Ambivalence of Joyce’s Semitic Discourse in “Ulysses”. Joyce Studies Annual, 3, 32-56. Retrieved May 4, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/26283605
Colum, M., & Colum, P. (1958). Our Friend James Joyce. Doubleday & Co., Inc.
Davison, N. R. (1998). James Joyce, Ulysses, and the Construction of Jewish Identity: Culture, Biography and ‘the Jew’ in Modernist Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/rp9ctrt
Haddick Flynn, K. (2004). The Limerick pogrom, 1904. History Ireland. 2(12). Retrieved June 3, 2020 from https://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/the-limerick-pogrom-1904/
Kenner, H. (1987). Ulysses. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved fromhttps://books.google.com/booksid=Ajlz5rzPBOkC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA19#v=onepage&q&f=false
Killeen, T. ( 2003, Jun 13). Leopold Bloom: the Jewish Irishman or the Irish Jew? The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/leopold-bloom-the-jewish-irishman-or-the-irish-jew-1.362737
Levitt, M.P. (2004-2005). “The greatest Jew of all”: James Joyce, Leopold Bloom and the Modernist archetype. Papers on Joyce. 10/11: 143-62. Retrieved from http://www.siff.us.es/iberjoyce/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/12-Levitt-Proofed-and-Set.pdf
Magalaner, M. (1953). The Anti-Semitic Limerick Incidents and Joyce’s “Bloomsday”. PMLA, 68(5), 1219-1223. doi:10.2307/460012 Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/460012
Ó Gráda, C. (2004). Lost in Little Jerusalem: Leopold Bloom and Irish Jewry. Journal of Modern Literature, 27(4), 17-26. Retrieved February 11, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/3831802
Steinberg, E. (1981). James Joyce and the Critics Notwithstanding, Leopold Bloom Is Not Jewish. Journal of Modern Literature, 9(1), 27-49. Retrieved February 11, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/3831274
Tracy, R. (1965). Leopold Bloom Fourfold: A Hungarian-Hebraic-Hellenic-Hibernian Hero. The Massachusetts Review, 6(3), 523-538. Retrieved February 11, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/25087315