16 June 2023
A Bloomsday odyssey
in Dublin in search of
a synagogue for
the Bloom family
It has been a pleasure to be back in Dublin today (16 June 2023), which is Bloomsday, celebrated throughout Dublin as a major cultural festival, even by people who have never read Ulysses.
Although I have been working most of the day on an historical documentary with a television production company from Montenegro, I could not help revelling in the coincidence that I am back here on Bloomsday.
Leopold Bloom is the most celebrated fictional person in modern Irish literature. Despite many of the claims that he is the most prominent Jewish figure in Irish literature, every critic known that Leopold Bloom is not actually a Jew. Although James Joyce makes Leopold Bloom’s father, Rudolf Bloom, a Hungarian who was born a Jew, the former Rudolf Virah converted to Christianity before he married.
Leopold Bloom’s mother was not Jewish, he was never circumcised not did he ever have a bar mitzvah, he was baptised in the Church of Ireland and was later baptised again and married in the Roman Catholic Church, and his diet is anything but kosher. By any shared standards in Judaism, Leopold Bloom is not Jewish.
On this blog yesterday, I was looking at some of the churches James Joyce refers to in Ulysses. But, on this Friday evening, as this is Bloomsday, I am allowed to amuse myself in wondering this: had Leopold Bloom been brought up a Jew, which would have been his family synagogue?
Joyce refers to at least two synagogues in Ulysses, Mary’s Abbey Synagogue and Adelaide Road Synagogue.
In Episode 10, ‘Wandering Rocks,’ Ned Lambert says heartily: ‘We are standing in the historic council chamber of saint Mary's abbey where silken Thomas proclaimed himself a rebel in 1534. This is the most historic spot in all Dublin. O’Madden Burke is going to write something about it one of these days. The old bank of Ireland was over the way till the time of the union and the original jews’ temple was here too before they built their synagogue over in Adelaide road. You were never here before, Jack, were you?’
Later, in Episode 17, ‘Ithaca,’ during a discussion that involves comparisons of Hebrew and the Irish language and a comparison of the sufferings of Jews and the impact of the Penal Laws on Irish Catholics, we are told: ‘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 Chanan David of Zion and the possibility of Irish political autonomy or devolution.’
Despite his conversion and name change, the widowed Rudolf Bloom returned to some of his Jewish practices before his suicide, including celebrating the seder meal at Pesach. However, had Rudolf Bloom remained a Jew, and had his son Leopold been brought up a Jew, it is unlikely that either father or son would found a home in either of the synagogues named in Ulysses.
When the Stafford Street Synagogue in Dublin was forced to close in 1836, Dublin’s Jewish congregation moved to 12 Mary’s Abbey, off Capel Street, and remained there for almost two generations until 1892.
The new synagogue was Dublin’s fourth, following short-lived synagogues at Crane Lane, off Dame Street; Marlborough Green, off Marlborough Street; and the converted rooms on an upper floor of a private house at 40 Stafford Street, now Wolfe Tone Street.
Like its predecessors, this was not a purpose-built synagogue, but the former chapel of a small Presbyterian group known as the Non-Burghers or Seceders, who later joined similar groups in forming the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
Saint Mary’s Abbey, which gives its name to nearby Abbey Street, was founded by the French Cistercians in 1147 on the site of an older Benedictine foundation. The chapter house was used as the meeting place for the king’s council, and it was there ‘Silken’ Thomas Fitzgerald renounced his allegiance to Henry VIII and started his ill-fated rebellion. The abbey was dissolved at the Reformation in 1539 and its lands were divided.
The former Presbyterian chapel at Mary’s Abbey, which gives its name to Meeting House Lane, was bought on 15 January 1836 to provide a permanent synagogue for Dublin’s Jews, who then numbered about 300 people. A further £500 was spent on providing the new synagogue with a new Aron haKodesh or ark for the Torah Scrolls, a bimah or reading desk seating and flooring.
The Revd Isaac Davidson, who had been the minister in the Stafford Street synagogue, moved with the congregation to Mary’s Abbey. One of the first trustees, Alexander Lazarus Benmohel (1788-1839), travelled to London to ask the elders of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue or Bevis Marks to become trustees for the property, and some time later the congregation asked to be considered a branch of Bevis Marks.
The capacity of the synagogue is disputed by historians. Louis Hyman, in The Jews of Ireland (1972) says at first the synagogue had a seating capacity of about 90 and that the numbers were never greater than 350 at its peak. However, others say even these modest figures may be overstated.
The attendance and membership were drawn mainly from the Anglo-Jewish middle classes in Dublin, and its strict Victorian standards of decorum fostered a formal and stuffy atmosphere that later earned it the nickname of the Englishe shul (‘English synagogue’) among a newer immigrant community.
The congregation was seen as a prosperous community in its early years, and by 1854 it agreed to ‘conform to the form and service of the Great Synagogue, Duke’s Place, London,’ for centuries, the main Ashkenazi synagogue and centre of Ashkenazi life in London.
The congregation began to call itself the Dublin Hebrew Congregation from around 1859. It aligned itself with the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Anyone married to a non-Jew was not allowed to engage a seat or to receive any form of honour. The synagogue committee decided whether Jews who had intermarried or who did not openly profess the religion as a Jew would be allowed a Jewish burial.
By the mid-1870s, the Jewish Chronicle reported that the congregation was ‘respectable but unfortunately dwindling.’ The last Sabbath service was conducted at Mary’s Abbey on 5 December 1892. On the following Saturday, Jews and Christians attended the dedication of an ornate purpose-built synagogue at Adelaide Road, that remained open until 1999.
The synagogue at Adelaide Road, which is also named in Ulysses, was the first purpose-built synagogue in Ireland. It was designed in a vaguely Byzantine style, with seating for a congregation of 300 in the main body, and for another 150 in the galleries, by the Dublin-based architect John Joseph O’Callaghan (1838-1905).
The synagogue on Adelaide Road opened on 4 December 1892, when the Chief Rabbi, Dr Hermann Adler, said in his sermon: ‘Ireland is the only country in the world which cannot be charged with persecuting the Jews.’
The new synagogue was soon dubbed ‘the English shul’ by the Eastern European Jewish families in ‘Little Jerusalem’ because of its tendency to follow the style and custom of synagogues in Britain.
But Adelaide Road synagogue opened six years after Rudolf Bloom died by suicide in 1886 in the Queen’s Hotel in Ennis, Co Clare. So the Bloom family would never have known the inside of this synagogue.
The synagogue celebrated its centenary in 1992, but by the 1990s, the numbers attending on a Saturday morning usually stood at 40 to 50. The Dublin Hebrew Congregation voted to close the synagogue on Adelaide Road and amalgamate with the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, Terenure. The building was sold, most of it was demolished, apart from the façade, and the site was redeveloped as offices. The Dublin Hebrew Congregation formally merged with the Terenure Hebrew Congregation in 2004.
In the 1880s and 1890s, a number of smaller synagogues opened in the area between the South Circular Road and Portobello that became known as ‘Little Jerusalem,’ and by 1890 communal relations were strained in Dublin.
Peter L Fishback on his website ‘Major Tweedy’s Neighborhood’ suggests that one of these small synagogues, the Hebroth at Oakfield Place, is ‘likely the synagogue Leopold Bloom’s father attended when as a widower, he returned to his old faith.’
The new Jewish immigrants fleeing Poland, Russia and the Baltics in the face of rising persecution in the Tsarist empire, found the congregation at Saint Mary’s Abbey too formal, stern, assimilated, middle class and unwelcoming. But these new small synagogues were also established out of necessity: the more orthodox new arrivals needed to be able to walk to their synagogue on Friday nights and Saturday mornings without breaching any of the limitations on distances during the sabbath.
According to Louis Hyman in The Jews of Ireland, the shul founded in Oakfield Place in 1885 was one these many hebroth established in this area by the recent immigrants from Lithuania and Poland.
The Oakfield Place synagogue had 45 seat-holders or subscribing members in 1885, according to the Jewish Year Book, although this number had fallen to 35 by 1897.
Although many of these small synagogues survived after the opening of the new synagogue at Adelaide Road in 1892, some of them survived for only a few short years, and others closed within a few decades.
When the United Hebrew Congregation was proposed in 1909, it had the support of many of these smaller hebroth. A synagogue opened at Greenville Hall on the South Circular Road in 1916, it attracted the members of many of these small synagogues, and a new synagogue built on the site of Greenville Hall opened in 1925. The hebra at Oakfield Place finally closed in the 1930s.
Peter L Fishback points out that Rudolph Bloom would have been out of place in Mary’s Abbey Synagogue as the congregation consisted of fairly prosperous, native-born Dubliners with ancestors from England and Germany. But, as a Hungarian Jew might he not have also felt out of place among the recent immigrants from Lithuania and Poland?
Rudolf Bloom died on 27 June 1886, which means he could never have known the Chevrah Tehillim Synagogue at 46 Lombard Street West. Louis Hyman says this small shul was founded in 1893, although the Jewish Year Books say it dates from 1890.
Joyce in Ulysses has Leopold and Molly Bloom living nearby at 38 Lombard Street West in 1893. In her soliloquy, Molly recalls 1893, the year ‘the canal was frozen’ and how she had too many oranges and too much lemonade at a party in the Comerfords’ home in Clanbrassil Street. She was caught short on the way home to Lombard Street that night, and recalls how she had to use the men’s toilets in a pub, with great personal discomfort.
The small synagogue at 46 Lombard Street West closed in the early 1960s, due to the decline in the Jewish population in the area.
So, while the Blooms lived for a time on Lombard Street West, the widowed Rudolf Bloom could never have known this synagogue as he considered returning to the Judaism of his childhood before he died.