Sometimes what’s good for the Jews might not be obvious. That’s the case with the global, centennial celebrations for James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses, which features an odd and eccentric Dubliner named Leopold Bloom who has often been described as the “best” Jew in literature, though there are other candidates.
After a recent screening in the San Francisco public library of the documentary Shalom Ireland, which traces the centurieslong rise and fall of the Jewish community in Ireland, filmmaker Valerie Lapin Ganley, and UC Berkeley professor of English Dr. Joshua Gang, both of them California Jews and fans of Ulysses, talked about Joyce’s novel and Mr. Bloom, who doesn’t keep kosher and whose favorite thing to eat is pork kidneys.
Married to a non-Jew named Molly and uncircumcised, Bloom is an advertising salesman and a cuckold, too, who has lost his own son and who behaves in a fatherly way toward Stephen Dedalus, a stand-in for Joyce himself. “For me, Bloom is definitely in the running for the greatest Jewish character in all literature,” Gang said. “In part because of its ambiguities, Ulysses is the most rewarding book I teach. I really connect with Joyce, though I write mostly about Samuel Beckett.” He added that Joyce didn’t learn about Irish Jews until after he left Ireland and went into exile. “Curiously, during World War II, the Swiss denied him entry because they thought that he was Jewish,” Gang said. Sometimes, Joyce himself seemed to think he was Jewish. Bloom was a brother under the skin.
Valerie Lapin Ganley explained that she grew up in a Jewish family in LA and didn’t know that there were Jews in Ireland until she traveled there in the 1990s. She learned about her own Jewish ancestors and was “blown away by the music” she heard, including Irish music performed by Jews. (Another California Jew, and a lover of rock ‘n’ roll named Riggy Rackin, maintains an informative and curious blog for Jews in Irish music.)
When Ganley made her film 20 years ago, Jews were leaving Ireland. Long established synagogues closed and the Jewish community went into decline. In 1990, the Jewish population was 2,500. Since then, it has doubled. “Now Jews are moving to Ireland,” Ganley said. “So maybe there is a future for Jews in Ireland.”
Laura Sheppard has been the events director for the past 21 years at the famed Mechanics Institute, a private library on Post Street in San Francisco. Is she Irish? “No, I’m Jewish,” she says. “We’re all ishs of one kind or another.” That was Joyce’s idea, too. Sheppard has celebrated the publication of Ulysses every year for the past 21 years, and, while she doesn’t call herself a “Joycean,” she does see herself as an “appreciator” of the novel, which she describes as “epic, intimate, bawdy, intellectual, funny, satirical, lyrical and musical.” At more than 700-densely packed pages, Joyce had ample room to explore, exaggerate, expand the English language, and depict ordinary Dubliners going about their daily lives on June 16, 1904, a day long known as Bloomsday.”
Sheppard and her team at the Mechanics assembled not one but two programs for the newly renamed “Bloomsbay.” For the main attraction, she explained, the library would offer Irish music, wine and whiskey. “People will be able to eat some of the food that’s described in the novel,” she said. “They can also hang out and schmooze.”
Of course, fans of Ulysses come in all shapes and sizes. Adam Harvey grew up in Lubbock, Texas, hardly Joyce territory. In high school he tried to read Finnegans Wake, but gave up after only a few pages. Years later, he returned to it and went on to study Joyce’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Now, he runs a weekly James Joyce reading group in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and publishes his views on JoyceBlog.
Harvey Smith, a Joycean and Jewish, majored in English literature at UC Berkeley, though he didn’t plunge into Ulysses until he attended a 10-week course taught by John Reid. “It opened up a whole new world and changed my life,” Smith tells me. “It introduced me not only to Joyce’s novel, Irish history, Irish literature, but also especially to Irish theater and specifically to Wilde Irish Productions. I made friends in the class who are still friends.” (That’s Wilde, as in Oscar Wilde.) Smith still has his dog-eared copy of Joyce’s novel. On the flyleaf he wrote, “Berkeley Ulysses.”
Of course, not all Joyceans are Jewish. Professor Catherine Flynn, a native of Dublin and the director of Irish studies at UC Berkeley, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Ulysses, which Joyce himself described as “an epic of two races (Israelite-Irish).” Flynn, who speaks with an Irish accent, is the author of James Joyce and the Matter of Paris, published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. She is also the co-host of the podcast U22 The Centenary Ulysses, available on iTunes and Spotify. She has assembled a mammoth of a book titled The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses: The 1922 Text with Essays and Notes.
Professor Flynn urges readers of Joyce’s novel to become literary detectives and “embrace its complexities.” She’s bemused and mildly surprised that some of the male students in her Ulysses course at Berkeley are shocked when “irrepressible” Leopold Bloom, (known as “Poldy” to his wife), masturbates in public while he observes Gerty MacDowell, a young woman who leans back seductively and invites Bloom to look up her skirt. Inspired by that memorable scene, the American lawyer Edward de Grazia wrote a classic titled Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius.
Lawyers, judges, publishers, readers, and especially publishers like Bennett Cerf, a New York-born Jew and a co-founder of Random House, broke the ban on the censorship of Ulysses. Still, it took more than a decade, and a crucial ruling by Judge John M. Woolsey who insisted that the novel was a work of art and not pornographic. In the end, genius defeated the Philistines.
So yes, Ulysses has been good for Jews, including Jewish lovers of literature, among them librarians, publishers, and lawyers, whose deeds we also celebrate on Bloomday, especially this year on the 100th anniversary of Joyce’s modernist masterpiece. Leopold Bloom may not keep kosher or attend a synagogue, but he’s Jewish to the core of his unorthodox soul.
Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman.