He was a jew

He was a jew

In Brief

Is Leopold Bloom Jewish? Ulysses makes this question surprisingly difficult to answer, toying with the reader by throwing out seemingly contradictory evidence. The effect is to raise questions about the essential nature of Jewishness, and about human cultural identities in general.

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Jewish identity can be defined in many different ways, crossing boundaries of race, religion, nationality, family, and culture. The most emotionally compelling of those categories is the first. Seen by some as a constitutive biological condition imparting important physical and psychological characteristics to individuals, race is dismissed by others as an invidious abstraction. Certainly the ability of all human beings to procreate with others of their species, and the rapidly dilutive effects of intermarriage, suggest that races (i.e., distinct subspecies of Homo sapiens) are at most temporary states in an evolutionary continuum, maintained only by physical isolation or by ideals and taboos promoting cultural exclusivity. But some racial differences can hardly be denied.

Joyce's thoughts reflect these ambiguities. Although he was well aware of the many successive waves of invasion and intermarriage that had produced his own people, and thus skeptical of all claims of ethnic purity, he did not hesitate to use the word "race" to name the Irish—as for example at the end of A Portrait of the Artist, when Stephen famously declares his intention to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." In Aeolus Professor MacHugh uses the same terminology to demean the English: "I speak the tongue of a race the acme of whose mentality is the maxim: time is money." And Ithaca describes the Jews as "a selected or rejected race," pairing their divine nomination and their diasporic suffering. Joyce uses such language loosely—Ulysses frequently refers to the entire human "race"—but he seems to have placed some credence in racial characteristics. Turn-of-the-century theories about Jewish capacities and proclivities do show up in the novel.

Bloom himself does not hesitate to invoke race in identifying himself as Jewish. In Cyclops he compares the Irish and the Jews: "And I belong to a race too...that is hated and persecuted." But his family tree offers contradictory evidence for whether or not he in fact belongs to that race, and raises questions (familiar to Americans from discourses about Blacks and Indians) about how great a blood quantum may be necessary to warrant a label. On his father's side he is descended from three generations (and probably many more) of central European Jews, but the hypothesis offered in Ithaca for Milly's blond hair raises questions of intermarriage all the way down the line: "blond, born of two dark, she had blond ancestry, remote, a violation, Herr Hauptmann Hainau, Austrian army." And, more importantly, Bloom is at most half Jewish, because his mother, Ellen Higgins, was an Irish Catholic.

Indeed, by one traditional definition he is not Jewish at all. That definition is matriarchal: the son or daughter of a Jewish woman is a Jew. In Eumaeus, Bloom tells Stephen that the Citizen "called me a jew, and in a heated fashion, offensively. 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 "in reality" not a Jew because Ellen was a Gentile. But the contradictory way in which he asserts this categorization (Christ was a jew, like me) indicates that he nevertheless thinks of himself as Jewish.

Why should he do so? One obvious answer is that the Gentile culture of Dublin, which carries strong strains of antisemitism, tells him every day that he is a Jew. Nor does this acculturation depend solely on overt and hostile messages like those of the Citizen. For every aggressive bigot there are more than a few Dubliners who quietly accept Bloom into their society, allowing him to pass as one of them, while indicating in subtle but unmistakable ways that he is racially Other. Reuben J. Dodd comes in for verbal abuse in Hades while Bloom does not, but everyone in the carriage, Bloom included, knows what links the two men. (Except that, in real life, Dodd may not have been Jewish at all....) Lenehan's ellipsis in Wandering Rocks, refusing to attach the ugly name of Jew to Bloom, says it all: "He's not one of your common or garden... you know..."

But Bloom has also been acculturated to think of himself as Jewish in a more loving way, by the father whom he thinks about far more often than he thinks of his mother. Rudolph himself sought to pass in Irish society, legally changing his name from Virag to Bloom and converting to Catholicism when he married Ellen. He had his son Leopold baptized in the Christian faith, and Nausicaa reveals that he did not have him circumcised: "This wet is very unpleasant. Stuck. Well the foreskin is not back. Better detach." But at home Rudolph instructed his son in Jewish religious traditions, taught him some Hebrew, and clearly raised him to think of himself as a Jew. When Bloom reached young manhood he rebelled against his father's religious teachings, dismissing them as irrational and backward. But in middle age he regrets the uncompromising zeal of that rebellion, and is eager to teach Stephen some of the wealth of his cultural inheritance.

Calypso wastes no time in demonstrating Bloom's lack of interest in orthodox observance. Deciding against a mutton kidney, he thinks, "Better a pork kidney at Dlugacz's." His thoughts about his cat later in the chapter confirm that he is perfectly well aware of his transgression: "Give her too much meat she won't mouse. Say they won't eat pork. Kosher." But the secularist implications of eating non-kosher food, bought from a Jewish butcher no less, are somewhat muted when Bloom leaves the house several paragraphs later and assures himself "On the doorstep" that he has his potato with him, practicing an improvised version of the talismanic touching of a mezuzah that he learned from his father. He rejects the Citizen's simpleminded conflation of ethnic and national identity (he sees no contradiction between being Jewish and being Irish), but he energetically defends international Jewry and shows some interest in the Zionist program of building a Jewish proto-state in Palestine.

Perhaps the lesson to draw from such antitheses is that all of us are mongrels, defined by a host of biological and cultural conditions that do not cohere in an essential Jewishness, Irishness, or any other Whatness. Dublin's provincial and xenophobic culture clings to such anti-cosmopolitan essentialism. By making his protagonist ambiguously "Jewish" Joyce did not simply offer resistance to the ideology of antisemitism that was gaining strength in the early 20th century. He created someone who is simultaneously inside Dublin and outside it. Bloom's exotic provenance and his experiences of prejudice help him to see through the myths of belonging that are a poor substitute for true individuality.

JH 2017
Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878 oil on canvas painting of Ashkenazi Jews of late 19th century Eastern Europe by Maurycy Gottlieb held in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Rosh Hashana offset color lithograph postcard from the early 1900s showing Russian Jews gazing, packs in hand, at American Jews beckoning them to the United States. The eagle of the Russian empire has condoned pogroms. The American eagle holds a banner with the legend "Shelter us in the shadow of your wings" (Psalms 17:8). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
WWI-era British recruiting poster from Canada showing a Jewish man eager to join the war effort who says, "You have cut my bonds and set me free - now let me help you set others free!" At the top are three Jewish members of the British parliament. Source: Wikimedia Commons.