February 2 marks the centenary of the publication of the novel “Ulysses” by James Joyce. Critic Sanford Pinsker noted in 1989, “With the exception of Kafka, no modernist author has meant more to American Jewish writers than James Joyce.” the same year, the poet Robert Pinsky called Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of “Ulysses”, the “most famous Jew in modern English literature”.
Padraic Colum, Joyce’s friend Okay that Bloom was “the most remarkable Jew in modern literature”.
So why have some literary scholars voiced their dissent? Substantial studies have been devoted to Joyce and his relationship to Jews and Judaism, by scholars such as ira nadel Neil Davison, Marilyn Reizbaum and Bryan Cheyette.
Arguments revolve around whether Leopold Bloom can truly be called a Jew and whether Joyce reflected the anti-Semitic ideology of his day.
Joyce described “Ulysses” as “the epic of two races (Israel-Ireland)” in a 1920 letter to a friend, and in conversations and correspondence insisted that Bloom was Jewish. But some authors, like Erwin Steinberg, denied that Bloom was Jewish. Joyce gave Bloom partial Hungarian Jewish ancestry through her father, who converted to Protestantism, and Bloom converted three times, twice to Protestantism and once to Catholicism (to marry his wife Molly ).
Bloom avoided having a bris or a bar mitzvah, Joyce implies, and the character’s knowledge of Jewish lore was muddled at best. Non-kosher and otherwise exuberantly inattentive, Bloom chose a burial ground in a Dublin Catholic Cemetery, rather than one of the city’s Jewish resting places.
Various characters from “Ulysses” address him with anti-Semitic remarks, but Bloom confides to his friend Stephen Dedalus that to an interlocutor he replied that “Christ was also a Jew, and all his family, like me, although in reality I am not”. .”
Yet the novelist Wyndham Lewis dismissed Bloom as a “stage Jew…but such a Jew as Bloom, taken as a whole, was never seen outside the pages of Mr. Joyce’s book.” And he’s not even Jewish most of the time, but his talented Irish author.
While Wyndham Lewis had his own problems with the representation of fictional Jewish characters antisemitic, Bloom’s voracious appetites and enthusiasm are energetically theatrical. Representations of Zero Mostel in productions of the 1958 play “Ulysses in Nighttown” and Milo O’Shea in the movie “Ulysses” (1967) had strong allusions to Judaism.
No wonder Gerald Davis, an Irish painter of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, has long entertained pedestrians in Dublin by dressing up as Bloom and leading annual parades on June 16, the day when all of the events take place. “Ulysses”.
As much as Jewish readers savored, or even wished to embody Bloom, there is evidence that Joyce was more steeped in Jewish lore than her invented character. Bloom himself enjoyed reading popular and unscrupulous journalism, but Joyce had higher reading tastes.
Georges Borach, a Jewish student of Joyce when the novelist worked as an English teacher in Trieste, reminded that in 1918 Joyce commented: “The Talmud says at one point: ‘We Jews are like the olive tree: we give our best when we are crushed, when we crumble under the burden of our foliage.’ Material victory is the death of spiritual predominance.
Among the midrashim, “Sefer Pitron Torah” observes that in the Book of Exodus, “The sages drew a comparison between the olive tree and the Jewish people. ‘ Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asked, why is Israel compared to an olive? Just as an olive is first bitter, then sweet, Israel suffers in the present but great good is in store for her in the time to come. And just as the olive yields its oil only when crushed – as it is written, “clear olive oil, crushed for light” – so Israel accomplishes [its full potential in] the Torah only when pressed by suffering.
Bloom, on the other hand, had snippets of Jewish knowledge that he occasionally utters, such as when he spouts every Jewish phrase that comes to mind: “Aleph Beth Ghimel Daleth Hagadah Tephilim Kosher Yom Kippur Hanukah Roschaschana Beni Brith Mitzvah Mazzoth Askenazim Meshuggah Talith (sic).”
Ironically, after the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Joyce’s escape to neutral Switzerland was temporarily hampered because Swiss authorities mistook Joyce for Bloom, suspecting he was Jewish. When documentation proved his Catholicism, Joyce was allowed to leave in safety with most of his family.
The question of whether Joyce transcended the ambient anti-Semitism in “Ulysses” is more troubling. As a young man in Dublin, Joyce knew few Jews, in his day a devout and tight-knit group of Lithuanian descent. His knowledge of Jews extended to Trieste, where several assimilated and highly literate Jewish clients paid for his English expertise.
Among these were insurance director Ottocaro Weiss and Isaiah Sonne, a historian and bibliographer who later taught at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Joyce’s most famous Jewish acquaintance, the novelist Aron Ettore Schmitz, who published under the pen name Italo Svevo, was not a source of Yiddishkeit. And Moses Dlugacz, a rabbi Joyce met in Trieste, inspired a character in “Ulysses” who works as a decidedly treyf butcher.
According to contemporaries, when Dlugacz spoke earnestly about the future of a Jewish state, Joyce was unimpressed, dismissing Dlugacz as an “enthusiast”. Similarly, in “Ulysses,” Bloom expresses doubts about Palestine as a potential Jewish sanctuary.
More damagingly, Joyce was also influenced by the Austrian Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger, whose “Sex and Character” (1903) expresses equal hatred for, and equates to, Jews and women. Weininger’s views are apparently transmuted in a hallucinatory episode “Ulysses”, later the basis of Zero Mostel’s “Nighttown”, in which Bloom changes gender.
Joyce was also impressed by more sensible guides, like Maurice Fishberg, a physical anthropologist whose 1911 book “The Jews: A Study of Race and Environment” is inevitably dated, but infinitely more scientific than the theories of Weininger.
Some insults hurled at Bloom seem closer to Weininger’s mind, such as when a manager informs Stephen Dedalus that Ireland is the “only country that has never persecuted the Jews…because it has never persecuted them. never let in,” a claim refuted by Fishberg, who cites immigration data.
Perhaps most hurtfully, when Bloom sings a few bars of “Hatikvah” to Stephen Dedalus, the latter responds by singing a popular anti-Semitic ballad, “Little Harry Hughes,” in which a Jewish girl reacts to a Christian boy breaking a window in his family’s garden by decapitating him with a penknife.
Such jarring vignettes in “Ulysses” repeatedly remind the reader of Irish anti-Semitism. What Wyndham Lewis called “Joyce’s inability to observe directly, a habit of always looking at people through other people’s eyes and not through his own”, may have led to the vast Jewish hatred expressed in “Ulysses”, but could also hinder the enjoyment of some Jewish readers in the peccadilloes of Leopold Bloom, whether they are Jews or not.