James Joyce’s 1922 novel



Cultural pilgrims flock to Dublin annually on June 16 to celebrate the inside-baseball, literary “holiday” Bloomsday, which marks the single day upon which James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses is set.

The Irish Jew?

“Hands up how many people have read James Joyce’s entire 265,000-word masterpiece, Ulysses? Even if you’ve never picked up James Joyce’s iconic novel Ulysses, you can still enjoy Bloomsday,” advises Ireland’s tourism board, which notes that writers and cultural figures first organized the festival in 1954.

This June 16 marks the 120th anniversary of the day upon which Ulysses is set: June 16, 1904. As the novel’s setting marks that milestone of Jewish longevity, JNS sought comment from Joyce experts about the novel’s central Jewish character and the book’s frequent treatment of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism.

“Now is the perfect time to return to Ulysses and Joyce’s choice to make his protagonist Jewish,” Seamus O’Malley, an associate English professor at Yeshiva University, told JNS.

In 1904, Dublin’s Jewish community was “tiny,” and it hadn’t grown much larger 18 years later when the novel was published, according to O’Malley.

“But 1904-1922 could be usable dates for the movement for Irish independence, partially gained in 1922,” the professor said. “That movement had some good qualities, but its logic of ‘Ireland for the Irish’ led inevitably to anti-Semitism, as Jews were cast as outsiders as much as the colonizing British.”

A person like Leopold Bloom—an advertising “canvasser” and the novel’s ostensible hero—wouldn’t have been “Irish enough” for many Irish people, “even though he was born and raised in Ireland,” O’Malley told JNS. “Joyce pushes back against this idea by making him central to his Irish epic, and casting anti-Semites like “The Citizen” as villains.”

“In our contemporary period that’s witnessing the rise of nationalism, and its sinister cousin anti-Semitism, Joyce’s book continues to offer sharp critiques,” O’Malley said.

In one chapter, “The Citizen” berates Bloom in anti-Jewish terms in a pub. When Bloom tells The Citizen that Jesus was a Jew, the anti-Semite responds, “By Jesus, says he, I’ll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will. Give us that biscuitbox here.” (He misses when he throws the box at Bloom.)

Bloom is “a wandering Odysseus, an émigré citizen with Austro-Hungarian forebears and a Jewish Everyman,” notes Anne Fogarty, professor of James Joyce studies at University College Dublin, in the catalog to the Morgan Library and Museum’s 2022 exhibit “One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses.”

Elsewhere in the catalogue, Colm Tóibín, a humanities professor at Columbia University, refers to Bloom as “a Jewish man of great independence of mind, a born noticer, whose response to life is original and sensuous and intelligent.”

Grappling With Identity

Few details are easy to grasp in Joyce’s notoriously opaque work, about which the Irish author is said to have remarked that he ensured his immortality by packing it with so many enigmas that it would keep professors busy for centuries debating what he meant.

Fond Of Trief

It is clear that Bloom is perceived as Jewish, but one of the first things readers learn about the character is that he is a foodie on his way to purchase a decidedly unkosher pork kidney at a butcher shop called Dlugacz’s.

“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes,” Joyce writes when first introducing the Jewish character. “Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

Critics have long debated Bloom’s Jewishness, writes Cormac Ó Gráda, professor emeritus of economics at University College Dublin in the 2004 journal article “Lost in Little Jerusalem: Leopold Bloom and Irish Jewry.”

Ó Gráda notes that Bloom doesn’t qualify “by strictly confessional criteria,” since his mother Ellen Higgins wasn’t Jewish, his father converted to marry her, and Bloom was neither circumcized nor bar mitzvah-ed. Bloom also married out of the faith and “went through the motions of conversion to Catholicism,” Ó Gráda  writes, and “he flouts the Jewish dietary laws and proclaims himself an atheist.”

“On the other hand, in support of the Jewish Bloom there is the possibility that his maternal grandmother was a Hungarian Jew,” he adds. “But surely what matters most is that Bloom is perceived as (or even mistaken for) Jewish by others.”

Seen As Outsider

“For Joyce, surely Bloom was an Irish Jew,” he writes.

Yvonne Altman O’Connor, vice chairman of the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin, told JNS that Bloom’s character “is more relevant than ever given the current modern assortment of Jewish identities, especially in the diaspora.”

“He felt unique as a ‘double outsider’ but perhaps if he were living today, he may feel quite ‘at home’ in a more multicultural, secular society,” she said. “One feels, however, that his heritage and interest in Judaism would still be of great importance to him.”

The Jew-hatred in Ulysses that is “still spawning in the world after 120 years” is “striking, and the book reveals how this is endemic and harmful,” O’Connor said. “Poor Bloom would have been long-suffering.”

She added that the “idea” of a Jewish homeland, about which Bloom read, “has actualized through history since, and what would be his thoughts, particularly if he lived to see the aftermath of the Shoah?” O’Connor wondered whether Bloom, 120 years later, would “immerse himself in acquiring greater affiliation and faith to cope with a disenfranchised world,” or would “his reputation and history simply vanish under pressure and ignorance.”

“Readers should have some challenge considering this question,” she said.

Writing in the introduction to his 2022 book An Irish-Jewish Politician, Joyce’s Dublin and Ulysses: The Life and Times of Albert L. Altman, Neil Davison, professor of English at Oregon State University and author of the 1998 book James Joyce, Ulysses, and the Construction of Jewish Identity, notes that Ulysses explores Jew-hatred, assimilation and Jewish concepts and lore.

Jews Drawn To Bloom

“It is unsurprising that a century after the novel’s appearance, the number of Jewish Joyceans remains high,” he writes. “Jewish readers at large have been drawn to Ulysses from the outset—the first discussion of Bloom as an Irish-Jew was published by the Irish-Jewish Trinity scholar A.J. ‘Con’ Leventhal in 1924.”

Over the years, there has been a “rift in perceptions” about how much—if at all—to emphasize the novel’s Jewish content and themes.

“Is Ulysses, on some essential level, a ‘Jewish novel?’ Or is it rather an ‘Irish novel’ that employs the Jewish position in a colonial setting to wedge open the intricacies of that political landscape,” Davison writes.

“Taking the full measure of Leopold Bloom’s social and psychological profile, however, Ulysses seems finally a novel ‘about’ Irish nationalism with a focus on how an Irish-Jew functioned in that world and—by way of this—is simultaneously a sustained case study of one of the most volatile and longest-running racial fault lines of the west,” he adds.