For enthusiasts of James Joyce, yesterday, June 16, was Bloomsday—that is, the day on which the entirety of his Ulysses takes place. This experimental novel, based on Homer’s Odyssey, has a Jew as its main character, and has as a central plot device an advertisement for a Jewish planters’ society near Jaffa. Noga Emanuel explores the book’s almost classically Zionist message:
Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s Odysseus, is Jewish. Although he was born to a Catholic mother and a Jewish Hungarian convert, and was baptized at birth, so is not a Jew in any formal Jewish or Irish-Catholic sense, he is known throughout Dublin as a Jew and is treated like one, enduring anti-Semitic jeers and humiliations, the butt of Jew-baiting jokes, wherever he goes. There are explicitly 25 direct mentions of “Jews” in the entire text, and many other implied references, most of them conveying classically crude antisemitic slanders, fewer samples of modern anti-Semitic conspiracies, and fewer still neutral mentions.
When Bloom tries to avow himself a bona-fide Irishman, neither his compatriots nor his author allow him to be one. Indeed, one could argue that had Bloom been an Irishman, fully assimilated, no longer Jewish in any formal or cultural sense of that identity, his author would have had no use for him. No, Bloom is still a Jew. Neither the jeering Dubliners, nor Joyce misread his identity. Perhaps most clueless is Bloom, who longs to belong organically to the Irish nation while being literally incapable of wresting himself from his deeply felt Jewish awareness.
Bloom is invariably perceived as meek and unmanly by his fellow Dubliners. When he rues the injustice inflicted upon Jews, Bloom is pleading for something that no one around him can understand or respect. The answer he gets is: stand up to it with force, “like men.” All this pleading and speaking of universal love as the corrective for the injustice to Jews and Irish alike is deemed “unmanly” and wins him even more violent vituperation. The “love” Bloom prescribes cannot cure anti-Semitism or gain him one iota of respect from his fellow Dubliners. But . . . it is not Jewish laws or customs that have depleted Bloom’s spirits but rather his disinclination to accept himself as a Jew. The only time we see him animated is when he responds to [one character’s] taunts by shaking his fist and speaking for the Jewish people, as a collective.