Tuesday, June 19, 2007


June 16 was "Bloom's Day," the day on which the events take place in James Joyce's epic novel "Ulysses," which is arguably the greatest novel ever written. To celebrate Bloom's Day in Israel there were several events organized by the Israel-Irish Friendship League, that also organizes the annual St. Patrick's Day get-together.
This year for the first time they held a symposium on "James Joyce and Dublin" at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva. We went to another meeting Sunday night at the Open University at its brand new Dorothy de Rothschild campus near Ra'anana. It was our first visit there and it was impressive, large and ultra-modern. The small auditorium where the event took place was very Scandinavian in design, with blond laminated wood. The event was held in collaboration with the English Dept. and consisted of a reception, a musical interlude (Irish and Mediterranean music) and then a lecture entitled: "Jewish Ireland in the Age of James Joyce," by Prof. Cormac O'Grada, University College, Dublin.
This was based on a book of the same name that he has recently published. He admitted that his publisher suggested that he put James Joyce's name in the title "in order to sell a few more books," because actually there was no connection between Joyce and the small Jewish community in Dublin. Although Leopold Bloom, one of the two main characters in "Ulysses" is (half) Jewish (the other main character, Stephan Daedalus, is supposed to be based on Joyce himself), there is no evidence that Joyce ever met a Jew in Dublin. So it is a matter of constant literary speculation why he chose a "Jewish" main character and it's a bit of a mystery. But, Joyce did meet several Jews during his long stay in Trieste, where he worked as an English teacher and wrote Ulysses. There is evidence that he learnt a lot there about Jews there that he didn't know before and he put some of this into his fictional character, Bloom.
But, Prof. O'Grada entertained us with stories about the Jewish community of Ireland, and particularly several possible candidates for Bloom's character that Joyce might have heard about. There was a Jewish immigrant named Bloom who was a photographer and travelling salesman in the late-1890's, who was self-educated and who had a one-sided love affair with his Irish assistant and then murdered her. At trial in Wexford he was found guilty but insane and was sent to an asylum, which he left after 5 years and travelled to Chicago. One of the researchers traced his family there, but they were most upset to hear that their ancestor was a mad murderer, and notwithstanding the possible literary significance, did not wish to be contacted. Note that Molly Bloom, Leopold's wife, was a photographer's assistant in "Ulysses."
Another possible contemporary candidate was Joseph Edelstein, who was a well-known character in the Jewish community. He was born in Dublin and like other Irishmen he liked his liquor and was often drunk and disorderly. He tried his hand unsuccessfully at politics and writing and was convicted several times of embezzlement. It is very likely that Joyce read about these two Jewish characters in the Dublin newspapers of the time.
However, given Joyce's proclivity for accuracy, it is surprising that he made several mistakes in relation to Bloom's Jewishness. Since Bloom's father was Jewish but his mother was Protestant, he himself was not really Jewish and certainly neither he nor Molly Bloom were portrayed as either knowledgeable about Judaism nor were they at all observant. However, the Dublin Jewish community was primarily derived from a small region of Latvia, and was very orthodox. Therefore, it is unlikely that some of the interactions of the Blooms with other members of the Jewish community mentioned by Joyce could ever have happened. So Bloom would have been even more of an outsider than Joyce portrayed him, although that is probably why he chose a half-Jewish "hero," because Bloom was neither Christian (Joyce was notably anti-Catholic) nor Jew, and represented "everyman."
It should be noted that Bloom's name was actually a translation of the word for bloom in Hungarian, his father's name, so looking for a real-life person named Bloom is probably a waste of time anyway. Nevertheless, it is one of the favorite pastimes of Irish and Jewish literati. By the way, why did Joyce choose June 16 for Bloomsday? It is speculated that it was the day he met his future wife Nora Barnacle on a tram in Dublin.


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