I used to worry about Jewish identity. It can't be based on religion, because I am not religious yet feel Jewish. It isn't race, because I know I am not different in appearance from other dark-haired ethnic-looking white people, such as Greeks, Italians, and Arabs. The best answer I ever heard was to a slightly different question: Why be a Jew? The answer: what choice do you have? The world won't let you be anything else. People reminding you unexpectedly and negatively that you are Jewish help to glue your identity in place.
As a human being, an American, a college-educated lover of literature, I have been reminded of my Jewish identity unexpectedly, and unpleasantly, many times. You can be tooling along in Dostoyevsky or Balzac, admiring the deft construction or psychological depth of the work, and suddenly hit an appalling stereotype in a skullcap and kaftan, or find a gratuitous phrase like "the submissive leer worn by every member of the Jewish race without exception." Even in Jane Eyre there is an obnoxious metaphorical reference to a Jewish moneylender. Behind all this biased nineteenth century literature, of course, hovers Shakespeare's Shylock, another repellent stereotype, almost but not quite redeemed by a single transcending speech ("If you prick me, do I not bleed?")
Such experiences undoubtedly make many Jews wish that gentiles never wrote about us at all.
In the twentieth century, Jewish characters began to play a more respectable role. In some novels, such as Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, a Jew turns up who is not particularly described as Jewish in any respect save his name. On the other hand, in novels by Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton, Jews are emblematic of American social mobility, rising as the protagonist sinks. Very similar characters turn up episodically, better dressed and softer spoken on each occasion, becoming the new nobility as the main character slides into poverty. In such cases, the Jew is the Other or stranger. He may be friendly or even altruistic, attempting to rescue the protagonist, but he is still an alien being. Also, he does not exist in the story for himself; he is there on the other side of the seesaw from the protagonist, a counterbalance and a symbol of his decline.
Joyce's Leopold Bloom is a remarkable exception. Since Ulysses itself is inaccessible, little read or understood, I'm not aware of any Jewish discussion of whether Bloom is an antisemitic portrayal. But the first thing one notices is that Joyce has his details right. Whether he is quoting Hebrew words, naming holidays, or remembering details from a popular Passover song, Had Gadyo, Joyce has gone to the trouble of learning about his subject.
Leopold Bloom is the Jew as Everyman. Unlike the alien, talented Jews in Wharton and Fitzgerald, who are skilled businessmen and richer every time we meet them, Bloom is a screw-up who has lost several jobs and who spends most of the day covered by the novel wandering around Dublin and daydreaming. He is a secular Jew--in fact, he is nominally a Catholic, whose father had himself converted to Protestantism. His Jewish identity is like mine: partly based on pride in Jewish figures like Mendelsohn and Spinoza, and partly on the fact that (though Bloom says and thinks several times that he is not Jewish) everyone around him, sympathetic and hateful, identifies him as a Jew.
Most of the antisemitism recounted in Ulysses is in other people's thoughts, but there is one confrontation where a man screams at Bloom, who responds by telling him his (Catholic) God was Jewish. Bloom is proud of this response and keeps returning to it in his thoughts the rest of the day.
Jews can be very touchy when reading about antisemitism. For us, the line is not always clear between reportage and advocacy. When in Karamazov the father recalls that he associated in Odessa with a "lot of low Jews, Jewesses and Jewkins," I know on the one hand that the words are those of a horrendous, drunken lout. On the other hand, I suspect strongly that they also reflect Dostoyevsky's own bigotry, because nowhere does he show me a Jewish character who contradicts them. Some of the time, even self-proclaimed friends make us highly uneasy (like the newspaper columnist who said, "I am an unabashed Jew-lover").
Joyce seems to me to go a long way to prove himself. Bloom is not a well-educated man, but he believes in learning and culture and is amusingly didactic on every issue. His wife Molly regards him as a failure because of his job history, but they have a stable home, have raised a daughter who is doing well, and live in comfort, while another character, Simon Dedalus, also portrayed as a friendly and kind man, sees his belongings auctioned off and cannot support his children. When Simon's son Stephen is in trouble at the end of the book, Bloom rescues him from the police, takes him home, and serves him cocoa, all the time identifying Stephen with his own dead son, Rudy. In the penultimate q&a section, Simon Dedalus is possibly identified as being one of the men who has slept with Bloom's unfaithful wife Molly. (Some critics say this is a list of men who have made Bloom jealous, and not a list of Molly's lovers.) Whenever Joyce is comparing Bloom with other people, Bloom seems to come off as a better man. Not a hero, just a man who is slightly better than those around him: a little more cultured, a little more compassionate.
Bloom is also a flawed and somewhat perverse human being. He has himself been unfaithful to Molly, mainly with prostitutes, likes pornography, and in Molly's sololiquy, sexual behavior of his is described or hinted at which she herself regards as not normal. After exchanging passionate glances with a stranger on the beach, Bloom apparently masturbates (Joyce's prose is more suggestive than clear.) Unflattering elements in the portrayal of a Jewish character by a gentile author inevitably give rise to concerns about bias, due to the fuzziness of that reportage/advocacy line. Since Bloom in toto is a familiar, friendly and good human being, it is likely that he is also perverse by virtue of being human and not by virtue of being Jewish.
An essay on Joyce I consulted suggested that the model for Bloom was a man who once rescued Joyce from a confrontation, much as Bloom rescues Stephen. I know nothing else about Joyce's Jewish friends, or his exposure to Jewish culture, but Ulysses contains its own explanation for Joyce's interest. There is a pronounced trend in our century to look for truth on the margins. We evaluate a law by applying it to extreme cases, test cars or other material things by subjecting them to destructive stresses, and appreciate views of our own society through the eyes of outsiders or people on the border. If the Jew in Wharton or Fitzgerald is himself the borderline of society, defining the protagonist's own status and identity, Joyce ups the ante by switching the viewpoint to the character on the margin. In other words, Wharton and Fitzgerald give us a view of the border; Joyce gives us the view from the border.
Joyce details the good and bad about Bloom very lovingly. He may actually envy the character on the outside, even as Bloom's own concern is to become an insider and to assimilate himself entirely into Dublin society. Joyce certainly spends enough time recounting the madness and nightmares of the Irish; in the first few pages of the book, he has Stephen describe history "as a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." By the end, it is abundantly clear that Bloom's history, and his nightmare, are not Stephen's. But Bloom compassionately enters Stephen's nightmare of alcoholism and violence to rescue him for a moment. There is little evidence that Stephen can be saved; his course is likely to be as self-destructive as his father's. Nonetheless, Bloom the dreamer concocts a whole plan, of continued contacts with Stephen, the exchange of Italian lessons for singing lessons, cultured company for Molly, etc. He even daydreams of asking Stephen to live in his house.
On the other hand, there is little evidence that Stephen comprehends Bloom's nightmare of loneliness, rejection, and physical decline. He is of course very young and immature, and preoccupied with his own problems. But while the men sit in Bloom's kitchen and drink cocoa, Stephen strangely recites an antisemitic song and Bloom becomes silent, as he almost always does in the face of bias. Is Stephen recalling this song sympathetically? Is he being a blockhead and insulting his host? Joyce does not make this clear.
During the various descriptions of Bloom, we sense that he is unprepossessing, heavyset, pasty-faced. He is almost forty. We know that Molly married him in part because he was exotic and foreign-looking, but we do not have the sense that he cuts a noble figure today. Then, in one of the great passages of the novel, Gerty MacDowell sees Bloom on the beach. Gerty is described (or describes herself) as a classic Irish beauty; she sees Bloom as "the quiet gravefaced gentleman, selfcontrol expressed in every line of his distinguishedlooking figure." In her thoughts, Bloom becomes a dream lover, and there is a wonderfully erotic yet nonexplicit description of Gerty leaning back to look at fireworks, showing off her body for Bloom and knowing he is looking at her with desire.
The passage also contains a double trick on the reader. We do not know that the stranger on the beach is Bloom until the end, though Joyce has dropped hints (he is wearing black and Bloom has just come from Paddy Dignam's funeral.) Bloom feels remorse that he has looked on Gerty with desire because he thinks a "fair unsullied soul had called to him" (though the reader knows Gerty's thoughts are of physical as well as romantic love). During the entire scene, Gerty has not moved from a reclining position. When she finally stands to leave the beach, Joyce drops the other shoe: "She walked with a certain quiet dignity characteristic of her but with care and very slowly because Gerty MacDowell was...Tight boots? No. She's lame! O!"
This doubles the poignancy in the scene. Gerty until now has been described, through her own thoughts, as the most mainstream flower of Irish womanhood. Suddenly she is more marginal even than Bloom. Our discovery that she is lame does not somehow undercut the perception that Bloom is attractive, though the entire passage underscores the truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Joyce has nonetheless paid Bloom a beautiful compliment.
In Leopold Bloom, Joyce has succeeded in putting aside bias, in fact has put himself aside, to inhabit the character of a Jew. He has created Bloom with compassion and understanding (the latter without the former is cruel, while the former without the latter is puerile.) The test of his success is that he has created a character every reader, gentile or Jew, can inhabit, saying, "I too am Bloom: I am didactic, compassionate, amusing, an outsider looking in."