James Joyce, Ulysses, Calypso, Leopold Bloom, Moses, Judaism

Is Leopold Bloom Jewish?

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.

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James Joyce, Calypso, Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, Tayto, potato

Bloom’s Potato

“On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have. Creaky wardrobe. No use disturbing her.” Ulysses, p. 57

The episodes “Calypso” and “Telemachus” correspond roughly to the same point in Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus’ day – 8:00 A.M., breakfast hour.  The beginning of their stories overlap in many ways, including that both Stephen and Bloom leave home that morning without their key. Stephen’s is “usurped” by Buck Mulligan, while Bloom’s is absentmindedly forgotten.  A relatable mistake to most folks – he changes his trousers for a funeral, but neglects to transfer all the contents, leaving his latchkey in the other pair. However, he is unwilling to go back upstairs and disturb a dozing Molly, and so he leaves to buy his kidney without the latchkey to the front door of his Ithaca. However, Bloom idiosyncratically remembers a seemingly odd and insignificant item – a shriveled, black potato. A peculiar and impractical object to carry in a pocket it would seem, but Bloom thinks as he leaves for Dlugacz’s “Potato I have.” Why in the world would a grown man carry a dried-out, old spud in his pocket?

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James Joyce, Ulysses, Calypso, Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, metempsychosis

Met Him Pike Hoses

— O rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words. 

While Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan were sniping at each other over breakfast on June 16, Leopold and Molly Bloom were discussing the idea of metempsychosis (better known as reincarnation) over their morning tea. After toiling through “Proteus,” we’re all familiar with high-minded metaphysical ideas and obscure references sliding in and out of the text of Ulysses. “Calypso,” like the preceding episodes, is full of references a 21st century reader might miss, but in this episode, we find high-minded topics like metempsychosis embedded in pop cultural ephemera that would have been recognizable to people in 1904 but might go over our heads today. Welcome to the mind of Leopold Bloom.

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James Joyce, Leopold Bloom, Ulysses

In the Jakes with Mr. Bloom

The life of [Ulysses] comes first and the philosophy afterwards. Obscenity is a question of manners and conventions for ever changing. Virtuosity, if it stood alone, would soon become demoded, and philosophy too, but living character stays through whatever material is presented. – Frank Budgen

Professor Bloom is a finished example of the new womanly man. – Ulysses, p. 493

While Leopold Bloom’s interest in butts is not the first thing we learn about him in “Calypso,” it certainly plays a key role in his actions over the course of Ulysses’ fourth episode. Ulysses, among many, many other things, is an ode to butts. It was written by a man smitten with hinderparts, as revealed in Joyce’s love letters to Nora Barnacle, which describe in graphic detail his lust for her butt and its various, predictable functions. Butts are celebrated in Ulysses’ 700+ pages as both functional and sexy. 

Of our two protagonists, Leopold Bloom shows a particular affinity for shapely cheeks. Bloom is so connected to butts that when he appears as Haroun al-Raschid in Stephen’s prophetic dream, one of the symbolic images Stephen recalls is, “The melon he had he held against my face. Smiled: creamfruit smell.” The image of a melon culminates  in “Ithaca” when Bloom finally curls up next to Molly, head to toe, and describes how “he kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation.” A melon is not just a melon in Ulysses.

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James Joyce, Ulysses, Calypso, Leopold Bloom, kidney

Agendath Netaim

He took a page up from the pile of cut sheets: the model farm at Kinnereth on the lakeshore of Tiberias. Can become ideal winter sanatorium. Moses Montefiore. I thought he was. Farmhouse, wall round it, blurred cattle cropping. He held the page from him: interesting: read it nearer, the title, the blurred cropping cattle, the page rustling.

The cited passages appear mainly on pgs. 59-60 of Ulysses (1990 Vintage International Edition). 

Sometimes all a man needs is a nice pork kidney to start his day.

Leopold Bloom is endeavoring to do just this in “Calypso,” Ulysses’ fourth episode. Our hero has nipped around the corner from his house to buy the last pork kidney from Mr. Dlugacz, a porkbutcher and fellow Hungarian Jew. This encounter highlights just how tepid Bloom’s Judaism is – he’s opting for a decidedly un-kosher breakfast treat while ogling the “moving hams” of a stout cleaning woman. To reign in his lust while waiting in line, Bloom picks up a pamphlet for Agendath Netaim, a Zionist “planter’s company” offering to sell plots of land in Palestine to be planted with citrus trees and other crops. The Zionist movement encouraged the Jewish diaspora to settle in Palestine in order to create a Jewish homeland, eventually (spoiler alert) culminating in the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. Bloom reads the pamphlet with interest, but given the casual nature of his Judaism, does it stir a longing in him for a Promised Land far to the East? 

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Who Was the Real Leopold Bloom?

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

This post is a part of an occasional series on the real people behind the characters in Ulysses.


Where to begin piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of Leopold Bloom’s inception? Like most of the characters in the Joycean canon, Bloom was inspired by real people and events from Joyce’s life. Unlike a character like Buck Mulligan, however, there is no single, definitive inspiration for Bloom. Such a literary puzzle leaves the curious amongst us to hunt down clues and tidbits.

Let’s start by considering Blooms’ defining characteristics.

Leopold Bloom lives in a house on 7 Eccles St. on Dublin’s north side. He works as an ad canvasser for the Freeman’s Journal, a nationalist newspaper. He has an unfaithful wife, a maturing teen daughter, and a son who died in infancy. He loves organ meats. He’s ethnically Hungarian on his father’s side. He’s tepidly Jewish. He has a moustache. He’s awkward and nebbish on the outside but insightful and witty in his internal monologue. He’s our Dubliner-Everyman-Odysseus, the consummate outsider living in his hometown. 

Finding a single person in Joyce’s life that meets all these prerequisites is difficult. Instead, one begins to realize that Bloom is actually a Frankenstein’s monster of moustachioed Jewish men that Joyce knew throughout his life. The list I’ve compiled is by no means comprehensive, but I have tried to include the major inspirations for these definitive qualities of Leopold Bloom. The sum total of their parts is a truly singular, Hellenic-Hebraic-Hibernian hero.

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James Joyce, Ulysses, Calypso, Leopold Bloom

Ulysses & The Odyssey: Calypso

“… I found that for [Joyce] human character was best displayed – I had almost said entirely displayed – in the commonest acts of life. How a man eats his egg will give a better clue to his differentiation than how he goes forth to war… Cutting bread displays character better than cutting throats.”  – Frank Budgen

Part of an occasional series on the Homeric parallels in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The Odyssey: Book 5

The gods are having a council. The nymph Calypso has imprisoned Odysseus on her island, Ogygia, and Athena persuades Zeus to intervene. Hermes the messenger is sent to Calypso, delivering Zeus’ message to release Odysseus or else. Calypso wanted to make Odysseus her immortal lover, but he was not interested. While on the island, he was forced to spend nights with Calypso and then spent the days weeping on the beach. Calypso lets Odysseus go, but not before reminding him that she’s way hotter than his wife. Odysseus builds a raft and sails away. Poseidon is not impressed, though, and sends thunderstorms to destroy Odysseus and his raft. After more divine intervention, Odysseus makes it to land.


Is it just me, or is it incredibly satisfying when, after finishing those last few pages of “Proteus,” you turn the page and it says “II” in giant Roman numerals? If you’re feeling a pronounced sense of accomplishment, feel free to raise your fists aloft like Rocky. You deserve it. Maybe stop for ice cream on the way home tonight.

Angelica_Kauffmann_-_Calypso_calling_heaven_and_earth_to_witness_her_sincere_affection_to_Ulysses
Calypso calling heaven and earth to witness her sincere affection to Ulysses, Angelica Kauffmann, 18th c.

Here in “Calypso,” the fourth episode of Ulysses, we finally meet our hero, Mr. Leopold Bloom, namesake of Bloomsday and our Odysseus stand-in. Like his son Telemachus, the reader spends the first three episodes of Ulysses searching for their own lost Odysseus, and here he is! Though Joyce’s novel runs parallel to Homer’s epic, the characters and situations are not always direct correlations. Rather, they are sideways versions of Homer’s archetypes. When we meet Odysseus in The Odyssey, he is languishing on the island of Ogygia where he is held captive by the nymph Calypso. Mr. Bloom is also languishing, but more subtly. Rather than weeping on a beach, he is preparing breakfast for his household. While Odysseus’ emotions are powerful and effusive, Bloom represses and evades his frustration as best he can.

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Decoding Dedalus: God Becomes Featherbed Mountain

This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a passage of Ulysses and  break it down line by line.

The line below comes from “Proteus,” the third episode of Ulysses. It appears on page p. 50 in my copy (1990 Vintage International). We’ll be looking at the line that begins “God becomes…” and ends “…featherbed mountain.”

God becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain. 

This sentence is a riddle for us, Stephen’s phantom students.

Early in “Proteus,” Stephen thinks, “Signature of all things I am here to read,” and as the episode closes, Stephen is still deciphering these signatures. All of the items in this list are, at least theoretically, signs that might appear to Stephen on the seashore. The question is, can we (or Stephen) interpret these signs? This sentence shows a progression of concepts shifting and metamorphosing into one another, staying true to the slippery, protean nature of the shore. Where does the land end and the sea begin? It’s all a matter of perspective depending on ever-changing and overlapping forms – the sand, the water, the tides that join them, all existing on a continuum, nacheinander and nebeneinander. 

How does God transform into a featherbed mountain, anyway?

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James Joyce, Proteus, Ulysses

The Word Known to All Men

Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. O, touch me soon, now. What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me.

The lines above appear towards the end of “Proteus,” page 49 in my copy (1990 Vintage International), as Stephen pens the first draft of his poem while reclining on a rock on Sandymount Strand. Our key line today is Stephen’s unanswered question: “What is that word known to all men?” James Joyce seemingly never met an obscure allusion or rambly list that he didn’t love. Naturally, posing a question and not giving a concrete answer is solidly in line with his style. 

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