Leopold Bloom and the Judaic Other: Zionism and the Dilemma of National Identity in Ulysses

It took James Joyce seven years to write the heroic Gordian burlesque of a novel he called Ulysses. From its inception in Paris in 1914 to its publishing in Paris on Joyce’s fortieth birthday in 1922, powerful currents of change had swept across the world. The book’s composition spanned the duration of the First World War, saw the collapse of Eurasia’s three great remaining land empires, and was witness to the birth of modern advertising and consumer culture. Joyce employed the setting of his book – the day of June 16, 1904 – to identify and elucidate the staggering shifts that had occurred in the first two decades of the new century. The political, social and technological transformations of this era forever transmuted how people understood themselves and their identity. These years saw the birth of the modern world, and the stretch marks of this sometimes-painful delivery are visible throughout the pages of Ulysses.

Between the date on which the book is meant to take place and its release in 1922, a rising tide of nationalism and anti-colonialism had swept the world, ushered in by Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of the self-determination of nations and the disillusionment brought on by the horrors of the war’s trench warfare. The campaign for Irish independence had been all but accomplished, and the Zionist plan to create a Jewish state in Palestine had gone from an implausible fantastic dream to being the official policy of the British Empire. The question of national identity, intrinsic in these historical developments, is a central theme of Ulysses, and was obviously an issue to which Joyce ascribed great importance and devoted careful consideration. This question forms the crux of the central psychological struggle of the novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, and manifests itself in his attempts to reconcile his construal of his Jewish identity with the bitter anti-Semitism of his Irish countrymen. Joyce ties Bloom’s psychological conflict with the wider debate among European Jews between assimilation and segregation, and the relationship of this problem to the development of nationalist identities and the maturation of Zionism in the early twentieth century. This conflict between assimilation and aliyah – the Hebrew term for Jewish return to Zion meaning literally ‘ascent’ – is played out in the development of Bloom’s relationship with his Jewish identity and in the evolution of his opinions on Zionism, as represented by the colony of Agendath Netaim.

The identity of members of the Jewish Diaspora had always been a singular case, even before the shifted perceptions of self-identity brought on by the diffusion of nationalist ideologies around the turn of the twentieth century. Since the exodus of the Hebrews from the Holy Land after the Roman sack of Jerusalem in CE 70, the Jewish people had struggled with the identity of ‘the other’ they assumed in the diverse new lands they settled in. The very word ‘Hebrew,’ meaning literally “one from the other side (of the river),” suggests their essential detachment from other peoples. For most of their history the Jews lived in self-segregated communities – the ghettos and shtetls – and maintained cultural, religious and financial autonomy within countries where they were often less than welcome. The tradition of the Jew in Renaissance literature, such as in The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, capture the dynamics of Jewish-Gentile relations during this period. By the 19th century however, some Jews began to assimilate within the increasingly liberalized societies of Western Europe. Leopold Bloom’s father was one of these Jews. Born Rudolph Virag, he emigrated from Hungary and then drifted from Vienna to Milan to London before settling in Dublin, where he changed his name to the more inconspicuous Bloom and married an Irish Gentile. In many ways Bloom’s family history is quintessential of many European Jews who sought to dissociate themselves from their Jewishness and thus overcome their historical isolation through integration.

When we encounter Leopold Bloom in 1904 he hardly seems Jewish at all. Indeed, a lively debate has simmered at the center of Joycean scholarship on the question of whether Bloom is even actually a Jew. Strictly speaking, he is not. According to Jewish law, Jewish identity is only passed down through the woman, so since Bloom’s mother was not a Jew, neither technically is he. Bloom is uncircumcised as well, and so does not bear the distinctive physical characteristic of Jewish identity. Within three pages of being introduced to him, we find Bloom breaking kosher by buying pork from a butcher, and we later discover that he has been baptized: not once, not twice, but three times. As is obvious from his failure to pass these litmus tests of Jewishness, Bloom does not conform to the conventional definition of what a Jew should be and, at least at first, seems wholly disinterested in engaging with his Jewish heritage.

“Kidneys were in his mind,” as Bloom makes his entrance at the beginning of chapter four. We see from his preoccupation with the imagined tactile enjoyment of gizzards, roes and roast heart that Bloom’s concerns are somatic rather than spiritual; we see from his speculation on the conductivity of heat as he walks to purchase a kidney for breakfast that he seeks salvation through reason rather than through dogma. Bloom is the embodiment of the modern man, which is to say that, despite his multiple baptisms, he is an avowed agnostic. Jewishness, however, is an identity that goes far deeper than religious belief. At the butcher shop Bloom thumbs the scrap newspaper and finds an ad inside for a Zionist colony in Palestine. Returning home with kidney in pocket, he reads “gravely” the promotion inside advertising:

“Agendath Netaim: planters’ company. To purchase waste sandy tracts from Turkish government and plant with eucalyptus trees. Excellent for shade, fuel and construction. Orangegroves and immense melonfields north of Jaffa.” Goes on to detail a scheme by which “You pay eighty marks and they plant a dunam of land for you with olives, oranges, almonds or citrons.

Bloom thinks to himself “Nothing doing. Still an idea behind it.” He imagines the scent of the citrons, “Nice to hold, cool waxen fruit, hold in the hand, lift it to the nostrils and smell the perfume. Like that, heavy, sweet, wild perfume.” Bloom imagines, “Crates lined up on the quayside at Jaffa, chap ticking them off in a book, navies handling them barefoot in soiled dungarees,” but a cloud pulls over this vision, “to cover the sun slowly, wholly. Grey. Far,” and his daydream metamorphoses into a nightmare, “No, not like that. A barren land. Bare waste.” His vision turns apocalyptic, appropriately Biblical in evocation:

Vulcanic lake, the dead see: no fish, weedless, sunk deep in the earth. No wind could lift those waves, grey metal, poisonous foggy mountains. Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom. All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest, the first race.

Bloom now notices a bent old hag crossing the street, and “the Promised Land” itself is revealed as a barren wrinkled old woman. He continues in kind:

The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere. It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman’s: the grey sunken cunt of the world.

Finally he is left finally with the solitary word, “Desolation.” The vision shakes Bloom. His flesh is seared with “Grey horror,” and “Cold oils slid along his veins, chilling his blood: age crusting him with a salt cloak.” This is no idle disinterest or deliberate dismissal, but rather an overpowering nausea of aversion, the stuff of nightmares. The reader hardly has a chance to consider the cause of this harrowing vision before Bloom sets his mind to anticipating the “gentle smoke of tea, fume of a pan, sizzling butter. Be near her bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.”

Bloom may quickly push this agitation from his mind, but for the reader who pauses to contemplate, this episode and Bloom’s odd reaction to the ad, are deeply puzzling. Perhaps it is related to the awkwardness with which he broke the gaze of Dlugacz, the Jewish butcher who he has just identified as a Zionist. Bloom sees that the butcher recognizes a bond of kinship between them, “A speck of eager fire from foxeyes thanked him,” and this seems to make Bloom anxious, “He withdrew his gaze after an instant. No: better not: another time,” as if Bloom fears being seen and thus associated with a more recognizably Jewish Jew than himself. These two incidents, especially occurring in such immediate proximity to each other, suggest the anxiety and unease with which Bloom interacts with Jewishness and reveal the extent to which Bloom is distressed and unsettled by his own Jewish identity.

According to Ira Nadel’s study of Joyce and the Jews, the author was probably acquainted with Zionism through his friendship with Moses Dlugacz. Dlugacz was a Hungarian Jew who became Joyce’s English student in Trieste in 1912, the son and grandson of Rabbis, who was ordained himself at the age of fifteen. He was also a devoted Zionist who zealously promoted the cause to all who would listen, including, presumably, Joyce. In an act of self-referential allusion Joyce inserts a Dlugacz into Ulysses and has him (indirectly) introduce the concept of Zionism into the narrative. From this point on the ad for Agendath Netaim becomes a point of reference that Bloom may refer back to and collate further experiences with. It is perhaps worth suggesting here how the appearance of the Zionist advertisement in Bloom’s day seems to come to pass as a result of some kind of unconscious predestination. Bloom’s first thought in the novel, of kidneys, leads him directly to the shop of his fellow Hungarian Jew, where the ad presents itself just before Bloom is unnerved by the a curious glint in the butcher’s “fox-eyes.” On his walk home Agendath Netaim asserts itself within Bloom’s consciousness and introduces the essential conundrum posed by Zionism into Bloom’s thoughts for the remainder of the day.

While Bloom tries to play the role of assimilated everyman, it becomes clear as we see Bloom interact with other Dubliners that he is still ostracized and considered “other” by the Irish. This imposed segregation is evident from the first scene where Bloom interacts in a public setting, when he shares a carriage on the way to Paddy Dignam’s funeral. When the carriage passes the (Catholic) moneylender Reuben Dodd in the street Bloom’s companions mock and disparage him as “of the tribe of Reuben” and, as Bloom sits silently on, joke about how they all owe him money, “Well, nearly all of us.” Bloom, obviously used to this sort of treatment yet still desperate for inclusion, offers his own mildly anti-Semitic story about Dodd’s miserliness. Somewhat pathetically he asks at the end, “isn’t it awfully good?” Several references are made to Wought v Zaretsky, a notorious then-ongoing case that contributed to reinforced stereotypes of Jews as dishonest swindlers. Later, in the trial fantasy of the “Circe” episode, Bloom is tried by the notorious anti-Semitic magistrate Sir Frederick R. Falkiner. Even Stephen, who Bloom has come to think of as a son, sings the flagrantly anti-Semitic “Ballad of Harry Hughes” to Bloom, proving that anti-Semitism is pervasive and unavoidable, even amongst friends. Despite his self-identification and his efforts to be treated as a peer, Bloom is unavoidably conscious of the chasm that separates him from acceptance as an Irishman. A single baptism is generally sufficient to make one a Christian, but Bloom found it necessary to have three. Taken as a whole, these incidents emphasize the difficulties Jews faced in assimilating, with cultural stereotypes and institutional prejudice stacked against them.

Though Joyce opposed the English occupation of Ireland, he spends much more space in Ulysses heaping contempt and sarcasm on the ideology and pretensions of Irish nationalists. The growth of nationalism and the clarification of national identity are necessarily linked with the foundation of a dichotomy of those who conform to the vision of what the nationality consists of and those who do not. An explicit vocabulary of racial purity arises, founded upon the notion of the exclusivity and exceptionality of one’s own nationality and the necessity of excluding others who might taint it. In Ireland as in much of Europe Jews became a particular target of exclusion. Joyce is unsparing in his mockery of the Irish nationalists’ espousal of linguistic, cultural and racial purity, portraying their project as foolhardy and based upon idealized visions of a racially homogenous past that were misinformed and impossible to reconcile with reality.
Joyce translates the “Cyclops” episode of the Odyssey into a public house encounter between Bloom and a bellicose lampoon of a jingoistic Irish nationalist known simply as, “the citizen.” This unnamed citizen and his compatriots malign Bloom in the new language of exclusionist nationalism in between self-important speeches on the revival of ancient Irish sports, the history hegemony of Irish culture, and the iniquities of the British. As before, Bloom attempts to include himself in their conversation, putting forward his opinions on effective advertising and the death penalty, but he is each time interrupted, the citizen apparently unwilling to share even his topics of conversation with an outsider. Bloom is implicitly, then explicitly denied entrance into their club, as they talk about him behind his back: “We don’t want him…He’s a perverted jew, says Martin, from a place in Hungary.” “God save Ireland,” another says, “Mr Bloom with his argol bargol. And his old fellow before him perpetuating frauds, old Methusalem Bloom, the robbing bagman…swamping the country with his baubles and his penny diamonds.”

Since Bloom’s earlier strategy of self-deprecation brought him no closer to inclusion and his attempts at casual conversation here in the pub are even more strongly rebuked, the persistent and pointed disrespect of the citizen and his peers eventually causes Bloom to change tack. Chiming in on their extended denunciation of the British Empire, Bloom insinuates at their hypocrisy, “Persecution…all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.” “But do you know what a nation means,” asks one of the men and Bloom replies, “Yes…A nation is the same people living in the same place.” Bloom reveals himself as a realist in a room full of vacuous idealogues. When the citizen asks Bloom what he thinks his nation is, he replies, “Ireland…I was born here. Ireland.” To this the “citizen said nothing only cleared the spit out of his gullet and, gob, he spat a Red bank oyster out of him right in the corner.” This marks a crucial turning point for Bloom, the moment when he chooses to combat narrow-minded chauvinism. He asserts himself with a fervency we have not yet seen in him, “I belong to a race too…that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant…Plundered. Insulted. Persecuted. Taking what belongs to us by right. At this very moment, says he, putting up a fist, sold by auction in Morocco like slaves or cattle.” This is the first time Bloom himself draws attention to his Jewishness. Trapped in the limbo between assimilation and segregation and pushed into a corner by bigotry, Bloom finally assumes and asserts his Jewish identity and stands up fighting for it.

This is the point when Bloom comes closest to becoming a Zionist. The scene probably represents Joyce’s dramatization of the moment when Jewry reached its collective crisis point, when a long history of persecution and derogation met the relatively new concept of nationalism and the very old religious tradition of Zionism, which held that the Jews would eventually return to Zion at the appearance of the Messiah. The founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, also a Hungarian Jew who grew up in a secular household endeavoring toward assimilation, Herzl too had a change of heart when the notorious Dreyfus affair, in which a French Jewish officer was falsely accused and convicted of treason, convinced him of the impossibility of assimilation and the inescapability of prejudice without the creation of a Jewish state. Herzl presented this argument in his 1896 book Der Judenstaat, of which Joyce had a copy in his library in Trieste. As Bloom departs the pub – leaving it the insular racially homogenous community desired by his assailers – the citizen follows him out and yells, “Three cheers for Israel!” This is the moment at which the Jewish state is born, when Joyce demonstrates how and why nations are brought into being. The citizen throws a biscuit tin at Bloom’s car, as he becomes “ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels” ascending to heaven.

When Jacques Mercanton, the Swiss writer and friend and protégé of Joyce, questioned the author on his choice for protagonist of Ulysses, Joyce replied, “Bloom Jewish? Yes because only a foreigner would do.” It is one of the great ironies of James Joyce’s novel – a book intended by Joyce to be Irish national epic, encyclopedia, and lexical cartography neatly rolled into one – that its hero, Leopold Bloom, spends most of the book being ostracized by the Irish for his otherness. Joyce chose Bloom precisely because of his foreignness, for the illuminative “contempt people always show for the unknown,” because he thought the true character of a place could only be revealed through the way its people treated its outsiders. Bloom is the agonist necessary for Joyce to expose the repugnance of the Irish nationalists, who hold the moral high ground in the struggle for an independent Ireland, but lose it through their hypocrisy.

If the “Cyclops” episode is the point at which Bloom accepts the rationale of Zionism, it is also where he identifies its fatal flaw. Injustice provokes Bloom to take a stand and step into his Jewish identity, but the new role of Jewish partisan is not one that Bloom seems to feel entirely comfortable with. It is not a cause that he will “Stand up to with force like men” in support of. He admits instead, “it’s no use…Force hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred.” He goes on into an empathetic case for love, “I mean the opposite of hatred.” Bloom suggests the realization that the segregation of the Jews in their own nation-state will only perpetuate the cycle of prejudiced nationalism that Bloom, and Joyce, scorn the Irish nationalists for espousing. Indeed, Bloom’s subsequent reflections on Zionism all suggest the view of it as a misguided and ill-fated enterprise. Two chapters later the Zionist dream is already dead for Bloom: “Agendath is a waste land, a home of screechowls and the sandblind upupa. Netaim, the golden, is no more.” When the name of the colony reappears in the “Circe” episode it is as the “faraway” investment that has swallowed Bloom’s money, the reason why “He is down on his luck.” Finally, when Bloom returns home in the penultimate chapter and finds the Agendath ad still in his pocket, he examines “it superficially, rolled it into a thin cylinder, [and] ignited it in the candleflame.”

However, Bloom has gained from his flirtation with Zionism. He has accepted and asserted his Jewish identity in a way that it seems he has not done before. When in “Circe” Bloom fantasizes about becoming a Messiah, it is as an explicitly Jewish but fundamentally all-inclusive savior. The accoutrements of Judaism are present: “rams’ horns sound for silence [and] The standard of Zion is hoisted,” He solemnly unrolls a scroll and reads a meaningless string of Hebrew, likely the only words Bloom knows in the Jewish tongue, “Aleph Beth Ghimel Daleth Hagadah Tephilim Yom Kippur Hanukah Roschaschana Beni Brith Bar Mitzvah Mazzoth Ashkenazim Meshuggah Talith,” but in a revealing contrast he is then called “His Most Catholic Majesty.” Bloom, now “the world’s greatest reformer,” proclaims “year I of the Paradisiacal Era” and calls for:

The reform of the plain ten commandments…Union of all, jew, muslim and gentile…esperanto the universal language with universal brotherhood. No more patriotism of barspongers and dropsical imposters. Free money, free rent, free love and a free lay church in a free lay state.

In another bar scene, much later in the night, Bloom appears to disavow this newfound acceptance, telling Stephen, “in reality I’m not [a Jew].” This statement is not though as it might superficially appear. After the “Cyclops” episode, in which Bloom defiantly proclaimed his Jewishness for all to hear, it can no longer be said that he is afraid to admit his Jewish identity. He has engaged with the issue on a personal level as well, emphasizing his Jewish heritage in the fantasy sequences of “Circe,” and, just before he falls asleep in “Ithaca,” sifting through his memories of his father and what he taught him of Judaic scripture. Rather it seems to be more a product of Bloom’s dawning repudiation of delimited and restricting theories of national identity. This interpretation is underpinned by the fact that this declaration is immediately followed by a reaffirmation of Bloom’s empathetic humanist worldview, his alternative to the schismatic doctrine of national segregation:

…a little goodwill all around. It’s all very fine to boast of mutual superiority but what about mutual equality. I resent violence and intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything. A revolution must come on the due installments plan. It’s a patent absurdity on the face of it to hate people because they live round the corner and speak another vernacular, in the next house so to speak.

In this declaration we can hear a clear reverberation of Joyce’s own sentiments on the subject, delivered in a 1907 lecture delivered in his adopted city of Trieste. In a speech entitled “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages” Joyce argued that “Nationalism…must find its reason for being rooted in something that surpasses and transcends and informs changing things like blood and the human world.”
On this subject Joyce appears to be expressing his own views through Bloom. In Bloom’s realization that his momentarily inflamed enthusiasm for Zionism is made from the same stuff as the Irish nationalists’ obnoxious exclusionism and prejudice, we can discover Joyce’s own compassionate and percipient forewarning: that the only thing that can come from the relentless segregation of peoples into disparate ‘nations,’ is greater misunderstanding, suspicion, and strife. The emancipation of the world’s abiding wandering minority to their own nation has the effect only of endowing them with their own version of xenophobic superiority over their neighbors. This is the principle upon which Bloom’s rejection of Zionism is based, and the rationale behind the disavowal of his Jewishness in “Eumaeus.”
On “Bloomsday,” Bloom has been confronted with the pervasive and humiliating realities of anti-Semitism and the difficultires of f assimilation, and he has been presented as well with the possibility of escape, to join the Zionist project currently underway in Palestine to help to build a Jewish nation where Jews need no longer be the “other.” Bloom rejects both paths. Despite the attempts of the jingoistic nationalists in Barney Kiernan’s pub, Bloom refuses to be bullied into abetting their homogenization of Ireland, and leaving the land he considers his own (“Ireland…I was born here. Ireland.”) Bloom alludes here to Daniel Mendoza, an English Jewish boxer of the previous century, who proved that assimilation was possible by achieving enormous fame and popularity while wearing his Jewishnes proudly and calling himself “the star of Israel.” In the end Bloom recognized that by leaving Ireland he would only be contributing to the trend toward, “that multiple, ethnically irreducible consummation,” which he, and Joyce, believe is counterproductive to the true universal objective of mutual equality and universal brotherhood. Prejudice can never be overcome by separating out all that is different, and so, as he lays in bed at the end of the day, Bloom has made his choice: to live on in Ireland, hoping and sustaining one modest ambition, “to purchase by private treaty in fee simple a thatched bungalowshaped 2 storey dwellinghouse of southerly aspect.”

Works Cited

“Hebrew” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University
Press. 4 Apr. 2000 .

Joyce, James. “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages.”

Joyce, James. Ulysses: The Corrected Text. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York:
Vintage/Random House, 1986.

Nadel, Ira B. Joyce and the Jews: Culture and Texts. Gainesville: University Press of Florida,

Reizbaum, Marilyn. James Joyce’s Judaic Other. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,

Siegman, Joseph. “Daniel Mendoza.” Jewish Sports Legends. 3rd ed. Dulles, VA:
International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, 2000.