Opening James Joyce’s Ulysses is like opening a prayer book in a language you learned long ago but lost: its 930-some pages, largely without paragraph breaks, run in great long printed blocks like a river. Here and there they are interrupted by combative, cajoling Irish voices, set off, not like usual dialogue with quotation marks, but with the hard printer’s dash, as a sign of an opening in the talk.
The novel’s action takes place on one day – June 16, 1904 – in Dublin, whose streets are explored by Joyce’s iconic figure Leopold Bloom. We meet him first in the kitchen, where he thinks of the things he likes to eat: “thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes.” Not too much later we find him in “the jakes,” the most famous outhouse in literature.
Joyce’s book sits astride the momentous political and literary events of Dublin’s early 20th century, but an element of its genius, and its universal influence, comes of Joyce’s portrait of Bloom, the son of a Hungarian-born Jewish convert to Protestantism and then Catholicism.
A large part of the novel’s fame today resides in Bloomsday, a celebration that takes place around the world on June 16, and includes readings of the novel, alongside events and presentations related to all things Bloomian and Joycean.
In Montreal, the Jewish Public Library assumes the role of lone Jewish outpost among the many city-wide venues for Bloomsday. Its contribution to these events in 2016 is a talk by Abby Bender, a scholar at New York University, based in part on her new book, Israelites in Erin: Exodus, Revolution, and the Irish Revival.
There are many ways to pitch Bloomsday as a Jewish kind of carnival: in New York, one might have encountered Jerry Stiller in Bryant Park, with the none-too-easy task of reading the Hebrewish (Hebraish?) hodgepodge that runs through Bloom’s head: “Aleph Beth Ghimel Daleth Hagadah Tephilim Kosher Yom Kippur HanukahRoschaschanaBeniBrithBarMitzvahMazzothAshkenazim Meshuggah Talith.”
Bender is interested in the weird Jewishisms of Bloom’s day in Dublin, but more so, she examines the attraction felt during the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries by Irish nationalist writers, political and religious leaders to the Bible’s Exodus story. Political manifestos, Sunday sermons, and influential plays like Lady Gregory’s The Deliverer, explored the idea of the Irish as a chosen people oppressed by a wicked power, whose leaders were flawed and great like Moses, and whose “promised land” was just out of reach.
Bender traces the fall-off of this intrigue with Jewish stories when actual Jews arrived in large numbers from Lithuania at the end of the 19th century. By the time of the Easter Rising in 1916, the ethos of rebellion had become suitably sacrificial, making use of Christian rather than Jewish narratives.
Although Joyce composed Ulysses in the years in which this shift was sweeping Irish national culture, his vision resists the nation’s newly chosen “purifying” and insular themes. The novel’s daylong journey around Dublin presents an idiosyncratic view; one that counters the Jew-baiting of Irish nativists with Bloom’s wandering thoughts.
Mystified by his own ambiguous identity, he watches as a typesetter proofs type, thinking: “Reads it backwards first. Quickly he does it. Must require some practice that. . . . Poor papa with his haggadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me. Pesach. Next year in Jerusalem. Dear, O dear!”
Stiller is nearly 90, so he may have had his share of Bloomsday shenanigans. New Yorkers will fill the gap somehow, and the show will go on in far-flung locales like Trieste, Szombathely, Hungary and Prague. Montrealers will hear of Israel in Erin and try to make meaning from the riverrush of Joycean prose.
Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal.