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Heller: The biscuit tin is still being aimed at us

Barney Kiernan's pub in Dublin (now boarded up): the scene of one of the most infamous anti-Semitic incidents in literature. (Charles Heller photo)

On June 16, 1904, a young James Joyce went on his first date in Dublin with Nora Barnacle, a hotel chambermaid whom he later married. Joyce was so devoted to her that he spent years perfecting a novel set on that one magical Dublin day, frozen forever in his masterpiece Ulysses. June 16 is now celebrated in Dublin and throughout the world as Bloomsday, a Joyce festival, named after the novel’s Jewish hero, Leopold Bloom.

At the climax of the novel, Bloom comes across Stephen Dedalus, a young aspiring writer who has been beaten up in a brawl. Bloom cleans him up and takes him to his house – just as Joyce himself, when a young writer, was in a fight and was cleaned up by a passerby, a Jew named Alfred Hunter.

This chance encounter inspired Joyce to intertwine the histories and aspirations of the Jews and the Irish, creating what Joyce himself described as “an epic of two races.” There is indeed a common thread running through Jewish and Irish history, involving the maintenance of a strong religious and national identity in the face of relentless persecution.

Bloom is a Jew who has abandoned his faith, but is forced by the world to confront it, so this novel forces us to confront what being Jewish means. Despite all obstacles, he maintains his Jewish nature, engagement with the world and menschlikhkeit. Halfway through the novel, Bloom finds himself in Barney Kiernan’s pub and is reluctantly drawn into a conversation about Jews.

Anthony Julius (the British lawyer portrayed in the movie Denial) has described how Bloom’s conversation in the pub represents an effort to be fair,  but he is mocked and is out of his depth among shallower, destructive people, anti-Semites who simply refuse to listen to him. In the end, he is chased out of the pub with a dog barking at him and a biscuit tin thrown at him.

Ireland today is no more Jew-friendly than it was in 1904. It routinely promotes the Palestinian cause and attacks Israel. A graduate student explained to me that today, nationalists perceive the Palestinian cause as a worthy struggle against colonialism, a struggle that has caused so much suffering to the Irish through the centuries and is now blamed on the Zionists.


On Bloomsday, I attended a sold-out performance in the heart of Dublin of Bloominauschwitz by the English playwright Richard Fredman. The play imagines what would have happened to Bloom and his Jewish family if they had lived on till today. As the play works its way through Auschwitz, the founding of the State of Israel and the creation of West Bank settlements, familiar anti-Semitic slurs are trotted out: the Jews were willing kapos in the concentration camps, Israel was only settled as a reaction to the Holocaust, etc.

After the performance, I had a chance to talk to the author, who defended his position by attacking “the Israelis.” I pointed out that the problem is not “Israelis,” but specific policies decided by particular Israeli politicians. Plays like this are always depressing, giving a misleading, simplistic picture of Jewish history to an audience ignorant of the facts, and reinforcing their prejudices.

That biscuit tin is still being aimed at us.


Charles Heller’s book, Shul Going: 2500 Years of Impressions and Reflections on Visits to the Synagogue, will be published by Wipf and Stock.

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