(photo credit: James Joyce Centre Dublin/Leon Farrell))
On the morning of June 16, 1904, Leopold Bloom, the Jewish protagonist of James
Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, sets off into the streets of Dublin on a literary
journey which has cast a spell on readers ever since.
thousands will retrace his steps on “Bloomsday,” an annual event celebrating the
Irish author’s novel and his Jewish hero.
“In Dublin there are lots of
events and a few elsewhere in Ireland,” said Terrence Killeen, a research
scholar at the James Joyce Center last week.
“There’s a breakfast which
starts Bloomsday, as it does in the novel. People then follow the events of the
book around town as it continues, and recite passages. One happening is at Davy
Byre’s Pub and there are lots of musical events. It’s not an academic event but
a public one.”
Over the years, Ireland’s small but remarkably vibrant
Jewish community, population 2,000, has produced many prominent members
including the late president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, and two-time Dublin mayor
Robert Briscoe, to name a few. Still, the fictitious Bloom might be the
country’s most famous Jew – never mind that in the novel he is a convert to
“By 1904 he is nominally a Catholic having converted to
marry his wife, so he’s a rationalist,” said Killeen, who gave a lecture on the
Jewish world of Joyce at the Irish Jewish Museum last Monday. “He seems very
much a part of the Jewish race but not of the Jewish faith. At the same time he
is very conscious of distinct Jewish thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, Mendelsohn –
the composer and philosopher – and Karl Marx.”
Throughout the novel,
Bloom’s Jewish identity is discussed repeatedly, sometimes despite his best
efforts to avoid the subject.
“The most prominent passage is in a pub
where Bloom encounters the Citizen, who is strongly nationalist and strongly
racist, and that is where he takes on the anti- Semitism of this man,” Killeen
said. “In the first chapter he takes on a headmaster who is rather anti-Semitic.
He tries to avoid initially an argument about Judaism and he talks about a race
that is very much at this time persecuted. He strongly identifies with
Christ was a Jew like me, he says. That’s the most emphatically
Jewish statement and near the end of the novel he remembers some verses of
Even Zionism, in its infancy when Joyce wrote the novel
between 1914 and 1921, makes a brief appearance.
“Zionism does get into
the book and there’s an identification between Ireland and the Jews because
Ireland was colonized at the time,” Killeen said.
“There’s a parallel
The origin of Bloom is still a debated topic. Joyce is said to
have known several members of Ireland’s small Jewish community growing up in
Most scholars agree, however, that Joyce’s decision to make Bloom
Jewish was intended as a literary device inspired by his encounter with Jews
when he lived in Trieste.
“Bloom’s Jewishness makes him different than
his fellow citizens,” Killeen said. “He’s seen as different and strange. A much
more rational person than they are. He is a scientific type. That’s the
symbolism, his otherness.”
So how does the Jewish community in Ireland
feel about having the protagonist of the best known work of one the country’s
most famed authors as an honorary member? One rabbi born and bred in Ireland
politely declined to comment because he said he only learned about Bloomsday two
Debbie Briscoe of the Irish Jewish Museum said that no
discontent with Bloom has been registered by local Jews.
“Nobody has ever
complained about the fictitious character Leopold Bloom,” she wrote in an
e-mail. “In fact everyone enjoys it. Jews everywhere have accepted it as a
story. The whole thing is fiction so what is there to complain about?” One Irish
Jew, the late painter Gerald Davis, had a special affection for Bloom, Briscoe
said. Each year he would don a black bowler hat, dark suit and a mustache and
play the role of his co-religionist on Bloomsday. On one occasion he was even
invited to Australia to repeat his role there.
It may be worth noting
that Bloomsday has had at least one unexpected affect on the Jewish community.
Each year it brings an unknown number of Jewish celebrants, temporarily boosting
the number of Jews in the country significantly.
“Many Jews come to
Dublin from other countries specially for James Joyce week of festivities,”