‘Bloomsday’ tour celebrates Jewish protagonist of 'Ulysses'

Thousands to set off through the streets of Dublin in celebration of James Joyce's masterpiece.

Bloomsday 311 (photo credit: James Joyce Centre Dublin/Leon Farrell))
Bloomsday 311
(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.
On Thursday, 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 Catholicism.
“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 Jews.
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 Jewish songs.”
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 there.”
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 Dublin.
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 years ago.
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,” Briscoe said.