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100 years later, is this flawed man really ‘the most outstanding Jew in modern literature?’

Frank O’Connor once asserted that James Joyce was ‘the greatest Jew of all’

Feb. 2 marks the centennial of the publication of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses.” Critic Sanford Pinsker noted in 1989, “With the exception of Kafka, no modernist author has meant more to Jewish-American writers than James Joyce.” The same year, the poet Robertf Pinsky called Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of “Ulysses,” the “most famous Jew in modern English literature.”

Joyce’s friend Padraic Colum concurred that Bloom was the “most outstanding Jew in modern literature.”

So why have some literary scholars dissented? Substantial studies have been devoted to Joyce and his rapport with Jews and Judaism, by researchers such as Ira Nadel, Neil Davison, Marilyn Reizbaum and Bryan Cheyette.

Arguments center around whether Leopold Bloom can really be called Jewish and if Joyce reflected antisemitic ideology of his era.

Joyce described “Ulysses” as the “epic of two races (Israel-Ireland)” in a 1920 letter to a friend, and in conversations and correspondence, insisted that Bloom was a Jew. But some writers, like Erwin Steinberg, denied that Bloom was Jewish. Joyce gave Bloom partial Hungarian Jewish ancestry through his father, who converted to Protestantism, and Bloom converted three times, twice to Protestantism and once to Catholicism (to marry his bride Molly).

James Joyce

Dubliner: As much as Jewish readers have relished, or even wished to incarnate, Bloom, there is evidence that James Joyce was more imbued with Jewish lore than his invented character. Bloom By Getty Images

Bloom avoided having a bris or bar mitzvah, Joyce implies, and the character’s knowledge of Jewish tradition was befuddled at best. Unkosher and otherwise exuberantly unobservant, Bloom chose a burial plot in a Catholic cemetery of Dublin, rather than one of the city’s Jewish resting places.

Different characters in “Ulysses” address him with antisemitic remarks, but Bloom confides in his friend Stephen Dedalus that to one interlocutor, he replied that “Christ was a Jew too, and all his family, like me, though in reality I’m not.”

Admirers of “Ulysses” revel in the endearingly flawed humanity of Bloom, likening him to characters from Dickens’ Mr. Pickwick to Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman in “The Counterlife.”

Yet the novelist Wyndham Lewis dismissed Bloom as a “stage Jew… but such a Jew as Bloom, taken altogether, has never been seen outside the pages of Mr. Joyce’s book. And he is not even a Jew most of the time, but his talented Irish author.”

While Wyndham Lewis had his own issues with portraying fictional Jewish characters antisemitically, Bloom’s voracious appetites and gusto are energetically theatrical. Performances by Zero Mostel in productions of the 1958 play “Ulysses in Nighttown” and Milo O’Shea in the film “Ulysses” (1967) had strong allusions to Judaism.

Small wonder that Gerald Davis, an Irish painter of Lithuanian Jewish origin, long entertained Dublin pedestrians by dressing up as Bloom and leading annual parades June 16, the day on which all the events in “Ulysses” occur.

As much as Jewish readers have relished, or even wished to incarnate, Bloom, there is evidence that Joyce was more imbued with Jewish lore than his invented character. Bloom himself enjoyed reading popular, low-brow journalism, but Joyce had more elevated reading tastes.

Georges Borach, a Jewish student of Joyce when the novelist worked as an English language tutor in Trieste, recalled that in 1918, Joyce commented: “The Talmud says at one point, ‘We Jews are like the olive: we give our best when we are being crushed, when we are collapsing under the burden of our foliage.’ Material victory is the death of spiritual predominance.”

Among midrashim, “Sefer Pitron Torah” observes that in the Book of Exodus, “The sages drew a comparison between the olive and the Jewish people. ‘Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asked, why is Israel compared to an olive? Just as an olive is first bitter, then sweet, so Israel suffers in the present but great good is stored up for them in the time to come. And just as the olive only yields its oil by being crushed –­ as it is written, ‘clear olive oil, crushed for the light’ – so Israel fulfils [its full potential in] the Torah only when it is pressed by suffering.”

By contrast, Bloom possessed scraps of Jewish knowledge which he emits occasionally, as when he rattles off all the Jewish expressions that come to mind: “Aleph Beth Ghimel Daleth Hagadah Tephilim Kosher Yom Kippur Hanukah Roschaschana Beni Brith Mitzvah Mazzoth Askenazim Meshuggah Talith (sic).”

So it was a trifle more than hyperbole when Joyce’s compatriot Frank O’Connor asserted in 1967 that “Jewish literature is the literature of townsmen, and the greatest Jew of all was James Joyce.”

Ironically, after the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Joyce’s escape to neutral Switzerland was temporarily impeded because Swiss authorities confused Joyce with Bloom, suspecting that he was Jewish. When documentation proved his Catholicism, Joyce was allowed to depart to safety with most of his family.

The issue of whether Joyce transcended ambient antisemitism in “Ulysses” is more troubled. As a young man in Dublin, Joyce knew few Jews, in his day a pious, tight-knit group of Lithuanian origin. His acquaintance with Jews expanded in Trieste, where several assimilated, highly literate Jewish customers paid for his English expertise.

These included the insurance executive Ottocaro Weiss and Isaiah Sonne, a historian and bibliographer who later taught at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Joyce’s most famous acquaintance of Jewish origin, the novelist Aron Ettore Schmitz, who published under the pen name Italo Svevo, was no fount of Yiddishkeit. And Moses Dlugacz, a rabbi whom Joyce met in Trieste, inspired a character in “Ulysses” who works as a decidedly treyf pork butcher.

According to contemporaries, when Dlugacz spoke with ardor about the future of a Jewish state, Joyce was unimpressed, dismissing Dlugacz as an “enthusiast.” Likewise, in “Ulysses,” Bloom expresses doubt about Palestine as a potential Jewish sanctuary.

More damagingly, Joyce was also influenced by the Austrian Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger, whose “Sex and Character” (1903) expresses equal loathing for, and equates, Jews and women. Weininger’s views are apparently transmuted in a hallucinatory “Ulysses” episode, later the basis for Zero Mostel’s “Nighttown,” in which Bloom changes gender.

Joyce was also impressed by saner guides, such as Maurice Fishberg, a physical anthropologist whose 1911 “The Jews: A Study of Race and Environment” is inevitably dated, but infinitely more scientific than Weininger’s theories.

Some insults flung at Bloom seem closer to the spirit of Weininger, such as when a headmaster informs Stephen Dedalus that Ireland is the “only country which never persecuted the Jews… because she never let them in,” an assertion disproven by Fishberg, who cites immigration data.

Perhaps most woundingly, when Bloom intones a few bars of “Hatikvah” to Stephen Dedalus, the latter responds by singing an anti-Semitic popular ballad, “Little Harry Hughes,” in which a Jewish girl reacts to a Christian boy’s breaking a window in her family’s garden by beheading him with a penknife.

Such jarring vignettes in “Ulysses” repeatedly remind the reader of Irish antisemitism. What Wyndham Lewis called Joyce’s “inability to observe directly, a habit of always looking at people through other people’s eyes and not through his own,” may have led to the extensive Jew hatred expressed in “Ulysses,” but also might impede the enjoyment of some Jewish readers in the peccadillos of Leopold Bloom, whether Jewish or not.

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