04 February 2022
Was Leopold Bloom, the hero
of ‘Ulysses’, truly a Dublin Jew?
Two days ago (2 February 2022) on this blog, I celebrated the 100th anniversary of the publication of Ulysses and the 140th birthday of James Joyce.
Leopold Bloom is the fictional protagonist and hero of Ulysses. His walks around Dublin on 16 June 1904 mirror those of Ulysses or Odysseus in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. But his character also draws on the popular, yet ironically antisemitic, themes in European literature of the ‘Wandering Jew.’
Why did James Joyce select a Jew as the principal character? ‘Only a foreigner would do,’ he once told the New York Times. ‘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.’
Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, describes Bloom as ‘a nobody’ who ‘has virtually no effect upon the life around him.’ But, on this Friday evening, I am asking whether Leopold Bloom was ever truly a Jew.
Leopold Bloom’s name and some of his personality may have been inspired by Leopoldo Popper, one of Joyce’s Jewish acquaintances in Trieste. Popper was a Jew of Bohemian descent who had hired Joyce as an English tutor for his daughter Amalia. Popper managed the company of Popper and Blum and it is possible that the name Leopold Bloom was invented by taking Popper’s first name and anglicising the name Blum.
Undoubtedly, Joyce intended Bloom to be Jewish. Yet Bloom was never a practicing Jew, he became a Roman Catholic in order to marry Molly Tweedy in 1888, and was baptised on no less than three occasions. He is of partial Jewish descent and is sometimes ridiculed and threatened because of his being perceived as a Jew.
Bloom’s father, Rudolph Virag, is a Hungarian Jew. But Jewish identity is traditionally matrilineal, however, and Bloom’s mother, Ellen Higgins, is not Jewish.
Some Joycean scholars speculate that Ellen’s father, Julius Higgins, was also a Hungarian Jew, and that therefore Leopold is three-quarter Jewish. But her mother was not Jewish, which puts an end to speculation that is not explicitly backed up in the text of Ulysses.
We know little about Julius Higgins other than that he was born Karoly. This is a common Hungarian name, but it does not make him Jewish. Even then, if Julius had been devoutly Jewish, Ellen was not Jewish because her mother was not Jewish.
Another way of being Jewish is to be Jewish by conversion, which, for males includes circumcision, and taking part in Jewish religious rituals, including the bar mitzvah for Jewish boys at the age of 13.
But, Bloom has a foreskin in ‘Nausicaa.’ He thinks: ‘Stuck. Well the foreskin is not back. Better detach.’ The Bloom family is not noted to have discussed having baby Leopold circumcised. Instead, the infant was baptised into the Church of Ireland ‘by the Reverend Mr Gilmer Johnston M.A. alone in the protestant church of Saint Nicholas Without, Coombe.’
This baptism is a literary device, for Johnston is a fictitious character and the church was demolished in 1862. But we can presume too that the teenage Leopold never had a bar mitzvah.
Nor does Bloom keep kosher. He eats pork kidneys, but seems to have only a cursory understanding of many basic aspects of Jewish culture – the mezuzah, the Haggadah, and the Shema.
Nor does Bloom show an intimate knowledge of the Jewish community which is growing at the time in the ‘Little Jerusalem’ area of Dublin, off the South Circular Road and Clanbrassil Street. Although he has memories of some Jewish friends, he is distant from them, we never meet them in Ulysses, and all his friends are Gentiles.
Nor does Bloom foresee being buried as a Jew. In ‘Hades,’ he reflects: ‘Mine over there towards Finglas, the plot I bought. Mamma poor mamma, and little Rudy.’ He has bought a plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, a Catholic burial place, and plans to be buried near his late mother and infant son.
Was Bloom, then, a secular or a cultural Jew? That seems to be stretching the question too. When Bloom recalls his run-in with the Citizen in ‘Cyclops, where he once asserted his Jewish identity, he tells Stephen in ‘Eumaeus’: ‘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.’
Bloom is clearly ambivalent about his Jewish heritage, clinging to his Jewish identity more as a link to his late father than as either a religious or a cultural identity.
It seems Joyce probably knew very little about the Jewish community in Dublin 100 years ago or more. The 1901 census shows more than 2,000 Jewish people living in Dublin, due mainly to a wave of immigration from the Russian Empire of Jews fleeing the pogroms during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. By 1904, the year in which Ulysses is set, there are two main identifiable groups of Jews in Dublin – the so-called ‘English’ Jews or assimilated, English-speaking Jews whose families were living in Ireland for generations, many of Sephardic descent, and the more recently arrived, Yiddish-speaking refugees from the Baltics, all of whom were Ashkenazim.
Bloom does not quite fit in with either group. Although in ‘Calypso’ he recalls his friends Citron, Mastiansky and Moisel, these are Lithuanian family names that Joyce picked from Thom’s Directory in 1904 – incorporating even the misspelling of their names in Thom’s – just as Joyce found the Comerford name and households in Thom’s listing of Clanbrassil Street.
My grandfather’s cousin, James Comerford,and his family lived at 50 Upper Clanbrassil for many generations. In her soliloquy, Molly Bloom 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 that night, and recalls how she had to use the men’s toilets in a pub, with great personal discomfort.
But if Joyce can recall the Grand Canal freezing over in 1893, why does he not recall an event that was so important to the Jewish community in Ireland in 1904. This was an important year in the Jewish community in Ireland, as this was the year of the Limerick Boycott or the ‘Limerick Pogrom,’ only months before Bloomsday. However, this disgraceful series of events is not mentioned in Ulysses.
Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom discuss the similarities between Irish and Jewish culture in ‘Ithaca,’ and discuss the similarities between Hebrew and the Irish language. Although Joyce had many friends among middle-class, agnostic Jews in Trieste, it seems he knew more about them and Biblical Jews than he did about contemporary modern Jews in Dublin. It seems he knew less about Jews and Judaism than he suggests, and assumed all Jews were alike.
Bloom does not fit in with the Jews of Dublin, yet he is not fully accepted by his Gentile peers either. He does not belong anywhere. He is too complex to label and so falls into the ‘other’ category, regardless of what he feels, and regardless of how Joyce portrays him.