Dublin's imaginary Jew

Literature, history, Guiness and Judaism converge in the mystical Emerald isle.

irish women 521 (photo credit: Arieh O'Sullivan)
irish women 521
(photo credit: Arieh O'Sullivan)
The church has יהוה , the holy name of God in Hebrew, painted on the ceiling. But that isn’t what I find incredulous. The fact that the crypt, the final resting place of generations of priests and notables, has been turned into a dance floor – well now, that was sacrilege to the extreme. This is the moment when I truly fall in love with Dublin.
We are on a Guinness diet, my son and I, and we have already lost four days. I have dragged him along to the ancestral homeland in search of leprechauns and Jewish lore and perhaps the most famous Jewish character in English literature.
But arriving to partake in the annual Bloomsday, I am reluctant to check my mythical images of the Emerald Isle at the door.
And I’m glad I didn’t.
Ireland, once the Celtic tiger, is a shadow of its recent self. There is still swank Grafton Street with shops rivaling Paris and London and the country has greatly shed its pious Catholicism.
But Ireland today is $135 billion in debt, bailed out mostly by the Germans.
“We’re all guilty,” says Peter Graves at the Sinn Fein shop, pushing IRA bumper stickers and T-shirts. “Everyone took advantage of the bubble. Now ‘de whole country’s broke. Berlin’s our new capital.”
But that doesn’t put a dent in the annual celebration of Bloomsday, the annual celebration in memory of Leopold Bloom, the Jewish protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which describes his wanderings through the city, thinking like mad. Joyce’s audacious version of the Homeric legend takes place over a single day, on June 16, 1904, making summertime Dublin a Mecca for English literature fans.
Every year thousands of Joyce diehards flock to the city to reenact Bloom’s journey. Bloom never existed, except in Joyce’s extraordinary imagination, but in a marketing masterpiece, the Irish have turned Bloomsday, a totally fictional event where Jew and Ireland meet, into something approaching a national holiday.
Ulysses is considered one of the most significant literary works of the 20th century – though few have attempted to grapple with its dense and cerebral text, and fewer still have made it through to the end. That hasn’t stopped the Irish. They have highlighted the passages about food and booze and sex and set them up as a template for a perfect midsummer holiday. It’s a hedonists’ paradise where live music seems to burst out of every doorway and liquor consumption keeps the mammoth Guinness brewery struggling to produce two million pints of its trademark black stout a day.
Ulysses is an outrageously funny and bawdy book. Peppered with Latin and Hebrew, it pioneered stream-of-consciousness narrative.
Joyce crammed everything about life – sex, bodily functions, longing and mourning – into that single June day. Joyce’s masterpiece has been consistently voted as one of English literature’s most influential books of all time.
Not bad for a piece of fiction that very few have actually read.
On Bloomsday itself, I drag my boy Yarden, just out of high school, onto the streets and join an international crowd armed with tattered, dog-eared copies of Ulysses and maps of Dublin in 1904, as we begin our Odyssey just as Bloom did from his home at 7 Eccles Street.
Everyone has entered into the holiday spirit.
Straw hats and jaunty bowlers for men, and lacy, bosom-revealing frocks for women are de rigueur. I wear a white linen suit with Panama hat. There are also no small number of cross-gender dressers, which helps transform the atmosphere as we retrace Bloom’s mythical steps from literary Via Dolorosa to licentious, Guinness-fueled Mardi Gras.
Most of the landmarks Joyce described in Ulysses are still there and the increasingly inebriated procession flows like a human wave across the city. At stops along the way, enthusiasts, who can still read and are not yet splayed out across the nearest bar, recite passages from the book.
Gorgonzola and Burgundy
Outside Davy Byrne’s pub at 21 Duke Street, Gorgonzola cheese sandwiches and a glass of Burgundy, just like Mr. Bloom tasted, are going fast for 10 euros. Across the River Liffey at the Ormond Hotel, there is little oxygen left in the lounge: everyone has sucked it out singing ballads and reciting poetry. In any other country it would seem pretentious.
A pack of children dressed in Edwardianera costumes stroll by in celebration. For a novel banned from American shelves as obscene until 1933, the scene raises the interesting question of just how much of the book can be read to the children.
In his depiction of sex, as in much else, Joyce was ahead of his time. In the final chapter, Leopold’s unfaithful wife Molly Bloom brings herself to an unfiltered, unforgettable orgasm (“Yes, I said, Yes I will, Yes”) nearly a century before Meg Ryan’s signature restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally.
”Oh, forget the fugghan text. Ulysses is best exposed by listening to it,” says Irishman James Scully in a pinstripe suit. “Dis is me 25th year!”
The diehards continue toward Barney Kiernan’s pub. My prodigal son drops out, but I soldier on, recalling my Irish grandfather who used to say, “I only drink when I’m alone or with somebody.”
The pub itself no longer exists, so the pack darkens the doors of The Green Street Pub to reenact the famous “Cyclops” scene where a “broadshouldered, deepchested, stronglimbed, frankeyed, redhaired, freely freckled, shaggy bearded, widemouthed, largenosed, longheaded, deepvoiced, barekneed, brawnyhanded, hairlylegged, ruddyfaced, sinewyarmed” bigot confronts our Jewish hero.
“What is your nation?” he asks Bloom, threatening later to “brain that bloody jewman.”
“I belong to a race too,” says Bloom, “that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment.”
Within and without
Earlier in the novel a Mr. Deasy says Ireland has the honor of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews – “Because she never let them in.”
“One of the central reasons for giving Bloom a Jewish identity was because it allowed Bloom to be both within and without Irish society,” says Mark Traynor, manager of the James Joyce Center. “Joyce was extremely attracted to the idea of Bloom the Jew and to Jewishness in general, the idea of a wandering race and, of course, he, as an Irishman in exile, could identify with that.”
According to Traynor, Bloomsday 2012 is expected to be an even bigger event since the copyright of the book is due to expire, allowing for a new wave of artistic interpretations of the 800-page novel.
Senator David Norris, the on-off Irish presidential candidate and Ireland’s most flamboyant politician, is a leading Joyce scholar and a fair-weather friend of Israel.
“This was Joyce striking out for diversity and supporting the underdog,” says Norris. “Both the Irish and the Jews have tragic history. The Jews had the awful unparalleled tragedy of the Holocaust and we also lost half our population during the famine. There’s the Jewish mother and the Irish mammy, the sense of humor and the curiosity about everything that happens in the world and just as the Jewish people have their Diaspora, the Irish people have a diaspora and even President Barack Obama is delighted to trace his Irish roots.”
“And you know,” adds Norris with a wink, “the Irish people were the lost tribe of Israel.”
That may explain the plethora of Cohan and Levi families in Ireland. But what about Murphy, the most common family name here? The story goes that many of the ship surgeons from the wrecked Armada that washed up on Irish shores after the defeat by Sir Francis Drake were Jews. They likely went by the name Mar’peh (“healer” in Hebrew), which later became Murphy. Could the common Irish name Hennessey be derived from the Hebrew hanasi (“president”)? Was McCabe originally Maccabi? Was Brennan originally Ben-Nun? Perhaps I should change my own name back to the original O’Solomon.
Dublin’s Jewish community today is minuscule, numbering only about 1,000 people. The bulk trace their roots to ancestors arriving at the turn of the 19th century from Eastern Europe, most of them from Lithuania. Some were disembarked by shady ship captains who told them they had already reached New York. Joyce was generally correct that the Irish did not persecute their Jews, notwithstanding bubbles of general folk, Catholic Church type of anti-Semitism that permeated European society. An infamous “pogrom” in Limerick in 1904 was considered a blip in the otherwise cordial relationship with the Jews.
The Jewish population peaked shortly after World War II at about 5,500 and has been on the decline ever since, a process hastened by a combination of emigration, intermarriage and a low birthrate. In contrast, Islam is Dublin’s fastest-growing community. Ireland looks like it might be the first Western European country to lose its Jewish community altogether.
This year, for the first time, Judaism wasn’t listed in the religion category on the annual census, says Traynor.
“I’m proud of the fact that I am an Irish Jew,” says Joe Briscoe, whose father and brother both served as lord mayor of Dublin.
“Now that the Jewish population is shrinking, the Irish people suddenly realize that they had a wonderful exotic people among them whom they have totally ignored,” says Briscoe. “I find it ironic that Ireland is the only country in the world, which celebrates the wanderings of a Jew who never existed."
It is one of the surprises of Modernism that James Joyce, in rewriting Homer’s Odyssey as the great contemporary epic, chose for his hero not a Greek, or a European, or an American or Irishman, but a Jew: Leopold Bloom. Not that modernists were notorious philo- Semites. On the contrary, some of the bestknown writers of the movement were explicitly anti-Semitic: Pound, Eliot, Yeats. It is an irony of Modernism that its writers hated modernity. They longed for lost traditions, which they felt were betrayed by the bourgeois world of materialism and unforgivably bad taste. Materialism, not least in the traditions that were unraveling, was always closely associated with the J word. “The jew squats on the window sill, the owner,” Eliot intones in his poem “Gerontion,” picturing Europe as a dying old man. “With Usura sin against nature,” writes Pound in his Cantos, meaning Jews.
Not so James Joyce. Ulysses pictures anti- Semites as stuff-shirted, self-righteous hypocrites or worse. It is the hypocritical and obnoxious headmaster who says, “England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay… As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying.” To which Stephen Daedalus, Joyce’s own alter-ego, replies: A merchant is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not? In the Cyclops chapter, the One-Eyed Cyclops is a drunk Jew-hater (“—By Jesus, says he, I’ll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name.”)
There Bloom addresses the age-old conundrum that Zionism has only partly solved. Commenting that “Persecution, all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations,” Bloom is asked:
—But do you know what a nation means?
—Yes, says Bloom.
—What is it? —A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
—By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had the laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it: —Or also living in different places.
—That covers my case, says Joe.
—What is your nation if I may ask? says the citizen.
—Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here.
During his expulsion from the bar that follows, Bloom cries to his assailants: “the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God. . . .Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.”
As an epic hero, Bloom is in exclusive company.
All told, Western literature knows only a handful of epics: two by Homer, one each by Virgil and Dante, with possible contenders from Spenser or Milton. An epic requires a kind of comprehensive summing up of a whole culture, a whole era. With Bloom as unlikely epic hero, Joyce sets out to redefine just what epic heroism is. Bloom, to say the least, is not athletic. He does not have Achilles’s prowess; Aeneus’s stoic soldiering, is not struggling with, and finally affirming, Christian faith as are both Dante and Milton. How does he represent some sort of modern heroism, and also modern culture and its values – at least according to Joyce? One answer is suggested by the anti- Semitic Cyclops, who stands for all the One- Eyed people absolutely certain about what they think they know, and who therefore see narrowly, reductively, and aggressively.
Bloom as Jew stands for a pluralist position, as Jews in fact have done throughout history, since they are not reducible only to religion, or nationality, or profession, or geographical location. This is one reason they have always attracted the ire of certainty: of people who want one answer to questions which require multiple ones. Joyce’s Bloom is definingly undogmatic. He represents the possibility of cultural conjunctions that expand references, open horizons, and support and increase toleration. Jews challenge the image of European toleration – in 1906, Jews were still the only Others around – a test case that Europe hasn’t passed with such flying colors.
What, then, makes Bloom heroic? His equanimity, his kindness; above all his uncertainty, his knowledge that his own answers are partial. He carries himself with a humility that religions and cultures often preach and impose, but rarely themselves follow or embody.
Shira Wolosky contributed to this article.