Ulysses is now one hundred years old. James Joyce’s novel was published in its original full text in Paris on February 2, 1922. Leopold Bloom is one of the two main characters of the book. Fans of Joyce’s cult novel have never ceased to speculate about the identity and personality of this son of a Hungarian emigrant, converted to Catholicism and baptized three times. Jewish or not Jewish, Leopold Bloom? Or rather what kind of Jew? Mitchell Abidor investigates the biography and beliefs of one of Ulysses‘ heroes.
On February 2 James Joyce’s Ulysses turned 100. Few centenarians have remained so far ahead of their time as Joyce’s novel, still unarguably the most difficult in the English language (Finnegans Wake can be excluded, since it is not just difficult but unreadable). The number of admirers of Ulysses almost certainly far exceeds the number of those who have actually read it. There are annual celebrations of Bloomsday, the day the novel takes place, June 16, 1904, the day Joyce met his wife, Nora Barnacle. In Dublin on that date people dress in period costumes. In pre-COVID New York admirers attended readings of Molly Bloom’s celebrated soliloquy that ends the book. Say “and yes I said yes I will yes” and your bona fides as a Joycean are guaranteed.
Among the things that even those who have never opened the book know is that Leopold Bloom, one of its two main characters, a sad sack advertising salesman and the cuckolded spouse of Molly, is a Jew. That this is a central topic is borne out by statistical analysis: the word “Jew” or its cognates, appears 70 times in Ulysses, “Hebrew” six times, “sheeny” three times, and “Israelite” one over the course of its 785 pages (in my old Vintage edition).
While writing Ulysses Joyce was careful to gather information on Jews and Judaism, and among his main sources for Jewish matters was the Triestine Jew Ettore Schmitz, later famous as Italo Svevo, author of, among others novels, of the great modernist novel, Zeno’s Conscience. According to Richard Ellman’s definitive biography of Joyce, Schmitz, who took English lessons with the Irishman while Joyce was living in Trieste, was a major source for Bloom, Ellman’s conjecture is based on the fact that Schmitz and Bloom both had mustaches and a wife and a daughter, fairly slim threads upon which to hang an identification. Ellman omits another important similarity: both Leopold Bloom and Schmitz converted to Catholicism to marry their wives.
But there is a serious problem with defining Bloom as a Jew: though even as thorough a scholar as Ellman believed Bloom was a Jew, Ulysses is full of evidence, indeed proof, that he was not one. He was, instead, a man with a complex family and ethnic history.
Bloom, with its Jewish assonance, was not the original name of his ancestors. His father was named Rudolph Virag, and when he immigrated from Hungary to Ireland he translated the family name into English, which, while literally “flower”, can also more poetically be “blossom” or “bloom.” Leopold knows this, since the pseudonym he uses in a secret correspondence with a woman not his wife is Henry Flowers. Even Virag is in all probability not the family’s original name. After the revolution of 1848 it was not rare for patriotic Hungarian Jews to Hungarianize their German names, so it’s entirely possible that the name was originally Blum, translated into Hungarian as Virag and finally into English as Bloom.
Rudolph Virag converted to Protestantism in 1865, a fact clearly stated in Ulysses: Rudolph Bloom “had been converted from the Israelitic faith and communion in 1865 by the Society for promoting Christianity among the jews”. He did so in order to marry Ellen Higgins, the woman who would be Leopold’s mother. That Joyce chose to have Rudolph marry into and convert to Protestantism – the Church of Ireland – in largely Catholic Ireland is an interesting one. In doing so Rudolph left behind his minority religion to join another minority in Catholic Ireland. Rudolph and his family thus remained outsiders, and in keeping the name Bloom he did little to hide his non-Irishness, which was clearly Joyce’s design.
Leopold’s mother’s family has a similar history. His mother, Ellen Higgins, was the daughter of a Hungarian immigrant who might have been a Jew (it’s never specified) who had changed his name from Karoly to Higgins, completely obscuring his foreign origins. But Ellen’s mother was a native-born Protestant Irishwoman. When Leopold was born in 1866, he was not circumcised. Halakhically speaking, Leopold was in no way a Jew.
More conclusively, the book relates that Leopold was baptized three times, making his Jewishness even more a thing of his family’s past than a reality in his life. “Had Bloom and Stephen been baptised, and where and by whom, cleric or layman? Bloom (three times), by the reverend Mr Gilmer Johnston M. A., alone, in the protestant church of Saint Nicholas Without, Coombe, by James O’Connor, Philip Gilligan and James Fitzpatrick, together, under a pump in the village of Swords, and by the reverend Charles Malone C. C., in the church of the Three Patrons…”
His distance from Judaism grew even greater as he matured. Leopold was an agnostic, a member of the Freemasons, and when he married Marion Tweedy, better known as Molly, on October 8, 1888, he, like Ettore Schmitz/Italo Svevo, converted to Catholicism. Unlike Bloom, though, Schmitz had been raised a Jew. Bloom is described as a “recreant”, i.e., an apostate. This is not strictly true, since it was his father who apostatized.
One occasionally comes across articles speculating that Molly Bloom was Jewish. Molly was from Gibraltar, the daughter of an army officer (though there is some doubt expressed in the novel about his actual rank) and a Spanish woman, Lunita Laredo. This latter name has led some to speculate that Molly was of Sephardic background, but the claim is groundless. Laredo is, to be sure a Spanish name, but given Gibraltar’s location off the coast of Spain it’s hardly surprising she should have it. Molly mentions Jews and a Jewish cemetery in Gibraltar, but that’s the extent of her relationship to Judaism.
Leopold Bloom never claimed to be a Jew, except when he did. As he walks the streets with Joyce’s stand-in, Stephen Dedalus, this though on the question of his religion runs through Bloom’s mind: “What, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, were Bloom’s thoughts about Stephen’s thoughts about Bloom and about Stephen’s thoughts about Bloom’s thoughts about Stephen? He thought that he thought that he was a jew whereas he knew that he knew that he knew that he was not”.
Yet elsewhere, when hearing an anti-Semitic song Bloom takes paradoxical pride in the Jew about whom the song is sung:
“How did the son of Rudolph receive this first part [of the song]?
“With unmixed feeling. Smiling, a jew, he heard with pleasure”.
Though not a Jew, Leopold grew up on Dublin’s Clanbrassil Street, in the heart of the city’s small immigrant Jewish community of Dolphin’s Barn. Though later in their marriage he and Molly moved frequently, their first apartments as a married couple were in that same Jewish neighborhood, where many if not most of their friends and neighbors were Jewish.
Among the Jews named in Ulysses were Bloom’s schoolmate Owen Goldberg and Leopold and Molly’s former neighbors, Israel Citron, Ethan Mastiansky, and Nisan Moisel. They, along with other of Bloom’s old Jewish neighbors would cross paths with Bloom in the Nighttown episode of Ulysses, much of which takes place in and around Bella Cohen’s brothel: “Darkshawled figures of the circumcised, in sackcloth and ashes, stand by the wailing wall. M.Shulomowitz, Joseph Goldwater, Moses Herzog, Harris Rosenberg, M.Moisel, J. Citron, Minnie Watchman, P. Mastiansky, The Reverend Leopold Abramovitz, Chazen”.
Bloom expresses pride in the Jews several times in the course of Ulysses, and in an especially perspicacious remark tells Stephen of the impact the expulsion of the Jews had had on countries throughout history:
—Jews, he softly imparted in an aside in Stephen’s ear, are accused of ruining. Not a vestige of truth in it, I can safely say. History, would you be surprised to learn, proves up to the hilt Spain decayed when the inquisition hounded the jews out and England prospered when Cromwell, an uncommonly able ruffian who in other respects has much to answer for, imported them. Why? Because they are imbued with the proper spirit. They are practical and are proved to be so.”
Brought up far from the ancestral faith, it is clear throughout Ulysses that Leopold nevertheless had more than passing contact with the religion and its great figures. In a discussion with Stephen Dedalus of great Jews Leopold is asked to name eminent Jews and names “[t]hree seekers of the pure truth, Moses of Egypt, Moses Maimonides, author of More Nebukim (Guide of the Perplexed) and Moses Mendelssohn of such eminence that from Moses (of Egypt) to Moses (Mendelssohn)there arose none like Moses (Maimonides).”
Bloom even goes so far as to claim Aristotle studied under a rabbi, though he is corrected by Stephen, and then continues his catalog of great Jews: “Felix Bartholdy Mendelssohn (composer), Baruch Spinoza (philosopher), Mendoza (pugilist), Ferdinand Lassalle (reformer, duellist).”
Few characters in Ulysses are as willing as Stephen Dedalus to listen to Bloom expatiate on Jewish greatness. His Irish companions, on the other hand, explode when Bloom makes further claims about great Jews, including the one dearest to the heart of the average Irishman:
“… And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.
—He had no father, says Martin. That’ll do now. Drive ahead.
—Whose God? says the citizen.
—Well, his uncle was a jew, says he. Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.
Gob, the citizen made a plunge back into the shop.
—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.
Again, despite his lack of a Jewish education, Leopold, in response to Stephen’s citing a phrase in Gaelic, is able to reply with one in Hebrew, while also nodding to the Jewish taste for numerology: Kifeloch, harimon rakatejch m’baad l’zamatejch_ (thy temple amid thy hair is as a slice of pomegranate).” Bloom goes further, spelling out words in Hebrew: “Bloom in turn wrote the Hebrew characters ghimel, aleph, daleth and (in the absence of mem) a substituted qoph, explaining their arithmetical values as ordinal and cardinal numbers, videlicet 3, 1, 4, and 100.
Bloom, despite his alienation from Judaism regretted his deracination. His apostate father committed suicide, and after his death Leopold preserved some of his father’s possessions, among them, we are told, was “An ancient haggadah book in which a pair of hornrimmed convex spectacles inserted marked the passage of thanksgiving in the ritual prayers for Pessach (Passover)”.
We’re told Bloom experienced remorse “Because in immature impatience he had treated with disrespect certain beliefs and practices”, among them the prohibition of the use of fleshmeat and milk at one meal: the hebdomadary symposium of incoordinately abstract, perfervidly concrete mercantile coexreligionist excompatriots: the circumcision of male infants: the supernatural character of Judaic scripture: the ineffability of the tetragrammaton: the sanctity of the sabbath.”
Bloom, then, was not a Jew in the way many readers and non-readers of Ulysses think him to have been. If Isaac Deutcher defined men like Leon Trotsky, as “non-Jewish Jews”, an apt term for Leopold might be a “Jewish non-Jew”. But he can perhaps best be understood as the rare case of someone who fits the definition of a proposed by Sartre in Réflexions sur la question juive: “the ‘Jew’ is a creature of anti-Semitism.” For there is no question that despite his multiple baptisms and his conversion to the Catholic faith, Bloom was viewed by all around him as a Jew, and that the comments and tone of the references to Bloom and to Jews in general in Ulysses are almost uniformly anti-Semitic. It is almost always in that form that the characters in Ulysses express their distaste for Bloom. And the Catholic convert Bloom responds to this hatred by feeling himself a Jew.
Ireland is not a country known for its Jew-hatred, the explanation for this given by Mr. Deasy, the headmaster at the school where Stephen Dedalus teaches. After claiming that “England is in the hands of the jews,” and expounded on how “[w]herever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength”, and how they “sinned against the light…. [a]nd you can see the darkness in their eyes”, he goes on to reject the notion that Ireland is anti-Semitic. “—I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
“He frowned sternly on the bright air.
“—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
“—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.”
There is something to Mr. Deasy’s final claim: The Jewish population of Dublin, a city of almost 250,000 in 1904, was only 2200, more than half the Jewish population of the entire country, at 3771.
But Deasy’s absolving of the Irish of the sentiment of Jew-hatred is only partially true, for though it’s not mentioned in Ulysses, 1904 was a dark year for the small Jewish community in Ireland. In January 1904 a Redemptorist priest in Limerick, a city with a Jewish population of 120, launched a boycott of Jewish merchants in the town, accusing them of the blood libel. The boycott impelled eighty of the city’s Jews to abandon their homes. Though this event is sometimes known as the Limerick Pogrom, it was far from that. But it nevertheless revealed a seamy underside to Irish Catholicism and the Irish population. In support of this, Ulysses is littered with anti-Semitic remarks and innuendos.
Buck Mulligan, Stephen Dedalus’ medical student friend who appears with him in the first scenes of the book, refers to Bloom as a “sheeny,” and even Stephen employs the epithet in a discussion of Shakespeare and Shylock: “Stephen said. He [Shakespeare] drew Shylock out of his own long pocket… Shylock chimes with the jewbaiting that followed the hanging and quartering of the queen’s leech Lopez, his jew’s heart being plucked forth while the sheeny was yet alive…”
But that is far from all. Blooms pedantry is often mocked, and it is usually tied to his being a Jew: “So they started talking about capital punishment and of course Bloom comes out with the why and the wherefore and all the codology of the business and the old dog smelling him all the time I’m told those jewies does have a sort of a queer odour coming off them for dogs about I don’t know what all deterrent effect and so forth and so on”
And there is this description of Bloom given by an Irish character: “He’s a perverted jew, says Martin, from a place in Hungary”.
Despite the ambient Jew-hatred Stephen and Bloom stress the similarities between Jews and Irishmen, between Hebrew and Irish Gaelic. Or, as the book asks, “What points of contact existed between these languages and between the peoples who spoke them?”
The answer given is extensive, making clear Joyce’s attraction to Jews as well as how alien Jew-hatred is to Stephen Dedalus. The similarities between Jew and Irish were many, and spelled out in dizzying detail:
“The presence of guttural sounds, diacritic aspirations, epenthetic and servile letters in both languages: their antiquity, both having been taught on the plain of Shinar 242 years after the deluge in the seminary instituted by Fenius Farsaigh, descendant of Noah, progenitor of Israel, and ascendant of Heber and Heremon, progenitors of Ireland: their archaeological, genealogical, hagiographical, exegetical, homiletic, toponomastic, historical and religious literatures comprising the works of rabbis and culdees, Torah, Talmud (Mischna and Ghemara), Massor, Pentateuch, Book of the Dun Cow, Book of Ballymote, Garland of Howth, Book of Kells: their dispersal, persecution, survival and revival: the isolation of their synagogical and ecclesiastical rites in ghetto (S. Mary’s Abbey) and masshouse (Adam and Eve’s tavern): the proscription of their national costumes in penal laws and jewish dress acts: the restoration in Chanah David of Zion and the possibility of Irish political autonomy or devolution.”
Bloom’s support for Irish nationalism, at least in its Home Rule form, is mentioned several times in Ulysses. Joyce goes even further, granting the fictional Bloom a role in developing the politics of the Irish nationalist movement through his contact with the founder of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith. In a discussion among a group of Irishmen one relates: “So anyhow when I got back they were at it dingdong, John Wyse saying it was Bloom gave the ideas for Sinn Fein to Griffith to put in his paper all kinds of jerrymandering, packed juries and swindling the taxes off of the government and appointing consuls all over the world to walk about selling Irish industries”.
The nationalism of the Jewish part of Bloom’s identity also gets some support in Ulysses, though his knowledge has some gaps:
“What anthem did Bloom chant partially in anticipation of that multiple, ethnically irreducible consummation?
Kolod balejwaw pnimah
Nefesch, jehudi, homijah.
Why was the chant arrested at the conclusion of this first distich?
In consequence of defective mnemotechnic.
How did the chanter compensate for this deficiency?
By a periphrastic version of the general text.”
The temptation to call Leopold Bloom a Jew will always exist, but this Irish nationalist Zionist Roman Catholic freethinking Protestant Jew deserves all these descriptors. Looked on unjustifiably as a Jew by those around him, he accepted that label and lived both within and outside it. It is only by recognizing the ways his identities interacted and enriched his character that he and Joyce’s masterpiece be understood.
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-born writer, translator and historian. He has published over a dozen books and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books and many other publications.