Why Jews should celebrate ‘Ulysses’ every Bloomsday
“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
This bizarre menu introduces us to the main character of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the greatest novel in the history of the English language. Ulysses is not simply a great work of literature; it is a great Jewish book as well– one that modern Jews should celebrate and make part of the liturgical year, in the early summer now approaching.
Begin with the obvious. The novel’s protagonist, Bloom, is Jewish (as is his wife, Molly). He is not religious – his Jewish father converted to Protestantism upon marrying his (Catholic) mother . But Jewish themes suffuse Ulysses. As Bloom walks through the offices of a Dublin newspaper, he notices a typesetter “neatly distributing type. Reads it backwards first.” This makes him recall “[p]oor papa with his hagadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me. Pesach. Next year in Jerusalem.” He does not remember it well: “All that long business about that brought us out of the land of Egypt and into the house of bondage alleluia. Shema Israel Adonai Elohenu. No that’s the other…” But Bloom does know Chad Gadya by heart.
When confronted by “the Citizen,” a virulent anti-Semitic Irish nationalist, Bloom patiently makes the case for an open, tolerant Irish nationalism, but when rebuffed and threatened, he fights back, telling the Citizen, “Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God….Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.”
The dream-hallucination sequence that climaxes the book, known to scholars as “Circe,” is filled with images of Judaism. Bloom sees his late father, Virag, who (as noted above) converted to Christianity, chastise him for giving up Jewish tradition. Contemporary Jews will get the shock of recognition: an older Jew who abandons Judaism lectures his child whom he failed to properly educate. The whole series of hallucinations occurs in a brothel, whose proprietor is named Bella Cohen. In a later hallucination, Bloom imagines himself crowned King of Ireland, with a banner reading “Mah Tob Melek Israel”: Joyce’s “stage directions” state that “a fife and drum band is heard in the distance playing the Kol Nidre.” King “Leopold the First” calls for a “New Bloomusalem”, a sort of social democratic paradise. His “coronation speech” reads: “Aleph Beth Gimel Daleth Hagadah Tephilim Kosher Yom Kippur Hanukah Roschaschana Beni Brith Bar Mitzvah Mazzoth Ashkenazim Meshuggah Talith.” Joyce’s “stage directions” note that “an official translation is read by Jimmy Henry, assistant town clerk”, who then refers to Bloom as “His Most Catholic Majesty.”
At the chapter’s finale, Bloom has a vision of his beloved son, Rudy, who died as an infant, as an 11-year-old. But not just any 11-year-old: as Joyce presents the vision, “He reads from right to left inaudibly, smiling, kissing the page.” When Bloom dreams of his family and his legacy, he sees a yeshiva bocher.
Why all this Judaism? Joyce knew few Jews, and Dublin is hardly known as a Jewish city. Apart from the Jewish specifics, however, the book’s central conceit reveals a fundamentally Jewish philosophy. The book title obviously constructs it as some sort of modern day analog to The Odyssey. Yet if this is an epic, it is an unlikely one. Odysseus is a great warrior king who goes from triumph to triumph for more than a decade, conquering monsters, other heroes, even gods. Bloom, his reincarnation, is a mild-mannered man whose Jewishness sends him from humiliation to humiliation, and instead of great battles over several years, Ulysses records his mundane and often embarrassing activities over the span of a single day.
Yet that is the point. Joyce’s analogy between Odysseus and Bloom divulges his powerful contention: everyday life is heroic. Every event, every action, even every thought or impulse is potentially world-shattering. Leopold Bloom’s daily travails are no less important than those of an ancient warrior king.
Indeed, they are even more heroic precisely because Bloom, unlike Odysseus, does not have gods ensuring his victories. It’s easy to keep going when you always triumph. Bloom has to persevere in the face of failure. The Odyssey ends in its hero victoriously returning to his kingdom, his adoring loyal son, and to his wife who has remained true to him for nearly two decades (even as Odysseus himself has slept with all manner of women, goddesses, and nymphs). Ulysses ends with Bloom returning to a wounded marriage, and a (somewhat justifiably) unfaithful wife – and he has no son because that son died a decade earlier at the age of 11 days.
Such a philosophy would have been heretical to the traditional Roman Catholicism of Joyce’s time, where daily existence was subordinated spiritually to the realm of the afterlife. But it serves as the very basis of the Jewish worldview. It is why the rabbis could command us to say 100 blessings a day. Joyce agreed, commenting wryly that he sought to “trans-substantiate the everyday.” Every day, every act, and every thought is a potentially sacred experience if we choose to make it so. The early Chasidic masters made it the touchstone of their philosophy. Even lust, they argued, can be recognized and turned into love of Ha’Shem. The goal is to see the divine sparks in the klipot (vessels) of the everyday and elevate them by turning them into mitzvot.
Thus, consider one of the more infamous episodes of Ulysses, where Joyce – perhaps for the first time in literature – details the act of defecating. Bloom reads the newspaper in the outhouse, and:
Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently, that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it's not too big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive one tabloid of cascara sagrada. Life might be so. It did not move or touch him but it was something quick and neat. Print anything now. Silly season. He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell.
Joyce then tells us that Bloom wipes himself with a piece of the newspaper. Who in God’s name would think something like this important to share? Well, Jews would. And in God’s name:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe
Who Has Created Humanity in Wisdom
And Created in Him Orifices and Piercings…
It is Known and Revealed before the throne of Your glory
That if even one were ruptured or blocked,
It would be impossible to survive and stand before You.
Blessed are You, Yah,
Who heals all flesh and does wondrous deeds.
Yes, that’s right: Jews say this prayer after relieving themselves. And they – we – should. After all, what indicates more profoundly life’s miracles than the constant and effective workings of all our organs? The Baal Shem Tov understood this: in his classic work Tzvaat Ha-rivash, he remarked, “Through everything you see, become aware of the divine. If you encounter love, remember the love of God. If you experience fear, think of the fear of God. Even when in the toilet you should think: “here I run separating bad from good, and the good will remain for His servicel”
When a few years ago, my mother lay on her deathbed, nearly immovable from multiple strokes, this prayer assumed new and profound meaning for me. (Little wonder that if anything, Joyce’s description here tracks the episode in 1 Samuel 24:3, where King Saul does the same act as Bloom).
The sacredness of every moment enables Bloom’s greatest character trait: his kindness. Early on in Ulysses, Bloom walks through Dublin streets, and comes across a blind stripling, whom everyone else ignores or jostles. Bloom helps him across the street. Midday, Bloom attends a funeral for Paddy Dignam, a man he does not seem to have known well. But upon learning that Dignam has left a widow and several young children, Bloom takes it upon himself to arrange a subscription for Dignam’s family. Later that evening, Bloom goes to the maternity hospital because he is concerned about the condition of Mrs. Purefiy, who has been in labor for three days (only because of this he does he encounter Stephen Dedalus, the young writer whose character is based on Joyce himself). Even his social democracy comes from concern for people, not theories of history. Bloom senses the moment.
Bloom very sensing of moments reveals a seam at the heart of modern Jewish consciousness: contemplation and sacralization of the everyday also at times undermines the very tradition that creates this sacralization. At a late-night coffee shop, Bloom hears from a sailor that the great Irish nationalist hero, Charles Stewart Parnell, said to have died thirteen years beforehand, was actually alive and in hiding. Bloom (like Joyce himself) deeply admires Parnell, and fondly recalls his political movement. But he does not indulge in nostalgia:
Looking back now in a retrospective kind of arrangement, all seemed a kind of dream. And the coming back was the worst thing you ever did because it went without saying you would feel out of place as things always moved with the times.
All seemed a kind of dream. Bloom’s realism thus provides a sharp critique of the tradition. In Psalm 126, we read:
When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing; then said they among the nations: 'The LORD hath done great things with these.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.
Jews recite this psalm on Friday night. But should we? Do intense, messianic expectations of a return doom us to disappointment and Pyrrhic victories? Like many Jews of his time, Bloom has an equivocal relationship to Zionism: he ponders and is attracted to an investment solicitation for “Agendath Netaim” – a proposed Jewish colony on the shores of Lake Kinneret. He won’t subscribe himself, perhaps due to lack of funds, but “still. An idea behind it.” A good idea, an attractive idea, an important idea. A recipe for eternal joy? Hardly. Late at night, Stephen Daedalus reflects on the struggle for life, points to his head, and says “in here it is I must kill the priest and the king” – the same way that the ancient rabbis did, replacing them with the “crown of Torah” and the “crown of a good name” (Avot 4:17).
Not surprisingly, then, there is really no end to Ulysses. Nothing gets resolved, for Ulysses stands for an endless remaking of the tradition from within itself. Bloom comes home, in the same way that modern Jews do. But he and his wife Molly are still estranged, she unable to comprehend his life, and he hers. The last chapter is not dialogue, but Molly’s famous interior monologue. She affirms her existence with Bloom: “yes I said yes I will yes” is the novel’s closing line. But what she is saying yes to is not clear. Perhaps it is just a yes to yesness. And this, too, is Jewish: “choose life,” God commands the children of Israel. No matter what that life brings. For it will be worth it, even if we do not know why. Even if its worth is something we create from our own interior lives.
Seeing Ulysses as a Jewish book implies a powerful addition to modern Jewish spiritual practices. The novel takes place on one day: June 16, 1904 (a day that also was Joyce’s first date with his future wife and muse, Nora Barnacle). Since Ulysses’ appearance in the 1920’s, Joyce fans have celebrated “Bloomsday” each year on June 16th. It’s easiest in Dublin, as Joyceans literally re-enact Bloom’s peregrinations through the Irish capital. But in cities all over the world, cultural institutions proudly sponsor public readings of the work.
It is time for Jews must enthusiastically accept our role in Ulysses and adopt Bloomsday as part of the Jewish calendar. Jews should mark the 16th of June in the same way that we mark the 5th of Iyar, or for that matter, the 14th of Adar – a holiday in which God is not named, and the name of its heroine, Esther, is not in any Jewish language. But the embrace of Joyce’s masterwork must deepen the work, as Joyce deepened life itself. How can this be done?
Our tradition tells us not only to read a text, but to drash on it. This drashing, the essential Jewish cultural activity, ranges from the sublime (Rambam turning the Tanach into Aristotelian philosophy) to the ridiculous (the most popular melody for Adon Olam is an old German drinking song). And it has already started with Ulysses: it is surely no accident that the hero of Mel Brooks’ The Producers is named Leo Bloom, and that he meets Max Bialystock on June 16.
Future drashing on Ulysses (Ulysses Rabbah?) will mean more than simply public reading: it will require the panoply of Jewish creative expression, be it musical, poetic, scholarly, artistic, or any other expressive form. We will not know what it will look like – in the same way that at the end of Ulysses we will not know Leopold Bloom’s future. But it will be worth it. It will be life itself.
Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches, among other things, property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.