Reflections on Last Fall

With summer as a time for reflection, I find myself thinking about our campus this past November and complex issues of identity. I love being Jewish. I stand in awe of Jewish history, spirituality, ritual, and culture. Yale has been an exciting place for me navigate this love in a wide array of contexts. As I walk through campus with a mini-kippa bouncing on my head, I feel grateful to be a Jew at Yale. As a student attending a university that historically excluded and discriminated against Jews, I do not take this feeling for granted.

At the same time, I know that my experience may be unique. I worry about the current spread of anti-Semitism, both worldwide and on campuses across America. I am concerned that stereotyping, both conscious and unconscious, persists and continues to be projected onto Jewish individuals and their concerns. And this continues to make us vulnerable.

As Social Justice Chair of Yale’s Hillel this year, I find myself recalling the pressure of the moment when a few Jewish students asked me how we might best support the racial justice activism that had electrified the campus. Together, we talked about the campaigns to better support the cultural houses, expand professional staff for students of color, and increase funding for explorations in ethnic studies. We thought about how Jewish students at Yale are fortunate to be sustained by Slifka’s space, staff, and resources, and about the generous alumni who had helped make this possible. We considered how these changes occurred given Yale’s history of Jewish exclusion, and pondered what lessons we could apply to current racial justice struggles.

With this in mind, a few students and I thought to facilitate a discussion about our community’s resources and how they could be understood in relation to the current campus conversation. In the heat of the moment, we framed this reality through the lens of societal privilege. However, this lens was imprecise. While the Jewish community at Yale enjoys different forms of support, Jewish people in our society do not have privilege as Jews (as opposed to, for example, “white privilege,” which comes at the expense of people of color). The language also inadvertently collapsed race, class, and ethnicity into an undifferentiated concept.

Understandably, this unintentional confusion stirred some Jewish students to feel as though their experiences with prejudice, and those of their fellow Jews, were being discounted. In the conversations that ensued, I realized how a desire to focus on the pain of other student groups had clouded awareness of narratives closer to home. Thus the event was reframed as an open conversation about different Jewish experiences at Yale and how they might relate to racial justice efforts. About a hundred students gathered and we organized into small, intimate groups to reflect. A wide spectrum of both positive and negatives experiences relating to Jewish identity at Yale and beyond were shared. The evening closed with words of Torah.

It can be hard to hold multiple truths. But we do. Since November, I have been listening to Jewish students and family members as they recount their unique histories. I continue to struggle with how to think about tensions in coalitional politics, the nuances of intersectional Jewish identities, and the power of language. The learning curve has been painful. But as the school year draws to an end, I am comforted by the words of the fabled mystic Rebbe Nachman: “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?”

No Laughing Matter: Wit and Its Absence in the Oppositional Poetry of Andalusian Jews

Jews throughout history have referred to themselves as “Am Kadosh”, frequently translated into English as “the Holy Nation.” However, the three-letter root K-D-SH (kuf-daled-shin) that the Hebrew word kadosh springs from can be more accurately translated as “set apart.” Thus, the Jewish People are constantly reminding themselves and the world of their identity as the “Nation Set Apart.” Although this identity is traditionally observed through examples of Jews’ disassociation from their Gentile neighbors, feeling separated from others is a primary feature of the total Jewish experience. Isolation is just as often experienced through disconnection from other Jews and disconnection from G-d. During the Golden Age of Jewish Culture in Muslim Spain in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, Jews composed poetry about countless topics for countless reasons. Notably, one common theme of their poetry is feeling apart from others. While this oppositional poetry often separates Jews from non-Jews, a significant cache of Andalusian poetry deals with separations felt completely within the Jewish world. There are three main types of oppositional relationships explored in the poetry of the period. The first kind is the conflicts between a person and fools with behavioral flaws, the second kind is between a person and other Jews who have corrupted proper Judaism, and the third kind is between a person and G-d. While the first two categories are common to Sephardic poets from many different backgrounds, such as Shmu’el HaNagid and Yehuda Al-Harizi, the last exists almost exclusively in the poetry of those with an affinity to Jewish mysticism, like Shelomo Ibn Gabirol. In addition, while the first two types often utilize wit and humor to offer their critiques and distinguish the narrator from the poems’ subjects, Ibn Gabirol’s oppositional poetry addressing G-d never employs wit.

By the medieval era, Jews not only had a long history of feeling separate, but also had a long history of writing poetry about feeling separate. This is apparent just by looking at the oldest extant Jewish poem. The Song of the Sea, found in Exodus 15, is separated physically from the text surrounding it in Torah scrolls so as not to be confused with Biblical prose. (Interestingly, the Hebrew language uses the same word for “song” and “poem.”) That foundational Jewish poem which is still recited daily by a large percentage of Jews during morning prayers is essentially a celebration of the Egyptian enemy’s destruction from the point of view of the Israelites as they watched Pharaoh’s army drown in the Sea of Reeds. Passionate lines like “the best of Pharaoh’s officers are drowned” are as clear of a declaration of “we are better than you” as possible.[1] As shown by the Song of the Sea, even from the inception of Jewish poetry, Jewish poets separated themselves from and elevated themselves above others.

There are also antecedents for the other types of oppositional poetry in early Jewish literature. Jews often used poetry to criticize other Jews for their abandonment of Jewish values and corruption of Jewish practice. According to Harvard Bible Scholar James L. Kugel in his book The Great Poems of the Bible, the rebukes delivered by prophets to the Israelites can be considered poetry.[2] Therefore, Biblical passages like Amos 4:4-5:24 in which Amos rebukes Israel for falling into corruption and committing sins such as “attack[ing] the innocent for the sake of a bribe, and shov[ing] aside the poor in court” can be regarded as more poems helping create a Jewish tradition of competition and opposition.[3] The poems found in the collection of Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran discovered in 1946 are also fixated on feelings of separation. The dominant theory among scholars today to explain their origin is that they were written by a Jewish sect, most likely the Essenes, around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century of the common era. This sect was completely disillusioned with the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem at the time and felt they were witnessing the disappearance of the true values and practices of Judaism. They had such conviction in this belief that they decided to completely separate themselves physically and spiritually from all the other Jews and create their own community in a few caves in the desert near the Dead Sea. There they wrote poetry that was obviously obsessed with separation both explicitly and implicitly. Their poetry included the collection of “Thanksgiving Hymns” that thanked G-d for a number of reasons, including rescuing the narrator from the hands of mighty and corrupt figures and granting protection from those surrounding and planning to attack the community, most likely referring to the mainstream Jewish community. These two examples show how conflicts between Jews over religion were expressed through poetry.

Early Jewish poetry also focused on criticizing social fools as Andalusian poetry would centuries later. The clearest example of this is found in what Kugel labels “Solomon’s Riddles”, namely the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes that were traditionally attributed to Solomon.[4] These books are filled with multi-layered riddles and adages meant to identify bad personality traits, behaviors, and social norms. These short poems (often just single lines) wished to cleverly insult the wicked and the foolish. For example, in Ecclesiastes the narrator muses, “like the sound of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools.”[5] The message of this riddle is that while the laughter and actions of fools might be loud and call attention, they provide no substantial benefit and are only temporary distractions. The verse insults fools and makes a distinction between them and others whose behaviors can be better compared to the quieter yet infinitely more beneficial crackle of logs being burned in a sustained fire. Conflict with fools is another form of oppositional poetry present in the Jewish literary tradition that Andalusian poets would draw from when they crafted their own poems.

The major difference between Andalusian oppositional poetry and the earlier Jewish oppositional poetry traditions is the result of the distancing from purely preaching to others. The primary goal of the prophets of the Bible was clearly to rebuke others, not to write poetry. It is almost through a “happy accident” that their rebukes became considered poetry. The same could be argued for the riddles of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. Their main function was to criticize those behaving improperly and instruct Jews how to become and stay righteous and follow the correct values of Judaism. By the time of the Golden Era in Al-Andalus, Jews had turned crafting poetry into a legitimate profession. They first established their authority as talented poets and later used the medium as a platform to voice their observations and ideologies. This allowed the poets to be more flexible with their literary styles. As opposed to the dogmatic, didactic, and basic style of much of Biblical poetry, Andalusian poetry had an elaborate, ornamental, and open style.

This shift in Jewish literary styles can be attributed to the opening up of the Jewish community in Al-Andalus to external cultural influences. The Muslim Umayyad Caliphate that controlled Spain and had its capital in the cosmopolitan city of Cordoba was uniquely tolerant of its territory’s Jewish inhabitants. This granted the large Jewish population of Cordoba, Granada, and other Andalusian cities the opportunity to explore new forms of cultural expression. Jews had undeniably been creating cultural works throughout their history, but these works were created to fill a precise practical purpose. For example, the liturgical piyuttim of the post-Temple period were written to serve as introductions to specific prayers. These poems had also been created completely within a Jewish literary context. They often conformed to a traditional Jewish line structure and their text was often completely drawn from verses from the Bible. The Jewish poets of Al-Andalus did continue these traditions and frequently wrote their own piyuttim (some still remain in central Jewish prayers like Moshe Ibn Ezra’s “At the Hour of Closing” for the Yom Kippur Ne’ilah prayer service) and practiced the technique of shibbutz, or combination and reshuffling of Biblical verses and Biblical verse fragments. However, for the first time in Jewish history they allowed other cultures to overtly influence their writing. This innovative affinity to non-Jewish cultures was started by Dunash ben Labrat, a Jewish poet born in Fez and trained in Baghdad under Saadia Gaon. He moved to Al-Andalus in the tenth century, served his powerful Jewish patron, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, and instructed his fellow Jewish poets to “let Scripture be your Eden,/ and the Arabs’ books your paradise grove.”[6] He introduced Arabic meters into Jewish poetry and paved the way for others to adopt other aspects of Arabic poetry, like the sensual gazelle and wine poetry genres. As the Jews were experiencing unprecedented toleration from their Muslim neighbors, they had simultaneously become accepting of their neighbors’ cultural practices for the first time and sought to join together their historical traditions and the dominant culture surrounding them.

This acceptance of Muslim literary culture gave Jewish Andalusian poets the freedom to experiment with wit. It is almost impossible to have a conversation about Jewish culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries without mentioning Jewish humor, the Borscht Belt, Woody Allen, Larry David, and the like. However, during the medieval period, comedy and wit had not yet swept through the Jewish community. Besides for a few stories in the Talmud, humor had largely been missing from the Jewish literary tradition. Jews were probably funny, but until the tenth century it is hard to prove just by looking at their writings. Even the Jewish literature filled with clever examples of word play, like Proverbs, wasted no time trying to be humorous. These books needed to stay primarily serious because their purpose was entirely didactic. They were meant to teach their readers to live their life a certain way and change their behavior if necessary. Therefore, provoking laughter could instead make the reader doubt a proverb’s ultimate truth and get in the way of its original objective. Andalusian Jewish poets, though, were able to embrace humor and wit because of the new roles they had in Jewish life. The poets were never concerned with cracking into the Hebrew Bible canon. The poets were not concerned with demanding ultimate authority to determine the correct Jewish lifestyle. Instead, many of them were concerned with being read and pleasing their patrons. This shift in goals created a competitive environment in Al-Andalus where poets welcomed innovative poetic techniques like wit.

Wit was the perfect feature to give new life to oppositional poetry and insult fools. Yehuda Al-Harizi wrote a surprising amount of witty oppositional poetry for a noted Torah scholar and translator of rabbinic works. Al-Harizi was born in Spain in the twelfth century, but travelled throughout the Muslim world visiting many Jewish communities, and reflected the mixing of cultures that marked the Golden Age. In his Sefer Tahkemoni, a collection of short stories and poems broken up into fifty maqamot, or chapters, Al-Harizi addresses a number of topics, but frequently relies on silliness and humor to criticize others. In “A Miser in Mosul”, Al-Harizi is able to successfully combine scathing criticism, knowledge of religious Jewish texts, and humor. The narrator complains that “from Baghdad to Spain, I’ve never known/ an oath even half as vain” than the oath his stingy patron in Mosul who refuses to pay the narrator for his services.[7] Al-Harizi tactfully elevates this mundane situation by using verses from Psalms, Song of Songs, and Exodus. He cleverly transforms the commandment from Exodus ensuring a female slave’s food, clothing, and conjugal rights into the stingy patron’s excuse for withholding payment by complaining “and so, it seems, I’m stuck… I’m obliged by law to provide him clothing, food, and a fuck.”[8] It is a witty turn of phrase only a Torah scholar could be capable of, yet seems completely uncharacteristic of such a righteous person. However, Al-Harizi shows that wit is one of the most rhetorical and most entertaining ways to insult opponents.

Al-Harizi is not the only Jewish Andalusian poet to use this method to insult fools. Shmu’el HaNagid is also a surprising champion of the adoption of wit. As a powerful leader of the Jewish community and individual in the local Muslim government, it would be understandable if he acted like a traditional politician and chose not to alienate anyone. Instead he wrote poems like “I’d Suck Bitter Poison”, one that remains as scathing and as smart a criticism one can pack into only four lines. HaNagid, like Al-Harizi, employs shibbutz and borrows entirely from verses scattered throughout the Bible. The narrator asserts that death by bitter poison is preferable to “suffer[ing] through evenings with boors.”[9] HaNagid’s poem is uniquely insulting because although the language is taken from the Bible, it would never be found strung together like this in oppositional poetry and proverbs of the Bible.

Both Al-Harizi and HaNagid also used wit to revolutionize how Jews combat other Jews over religious matters. Prayer was an important issue for both of the poets as evident in Al-Harizi’s “the Hypocrite” and HaNagid’s “House of Prayer.” They both took offense with the hypocritical nature of many Jews. Service to G-d had become a competitive performance to look as pious as possible without actually being pious. Their criticisms are both damning and humorously ironic. For example, HaNagid complains that “one needs, it seems, only fringes, a turban, and beard/ to head the Academy now.”[10] Later, when the narrator confuses the sounds coming from a synagogue for the groaning of animals, he is reassured “there are no fatlings or mules/ in the house of the Lord; they’re studying Talmud.”[11] Al-Harizi also cleverly attacks hypocritical piety by criticizing someone praying who is “wrapped in white, like a cote for pigeons/ spotless without and filthy within.”[12] The use of ironic humor in both of the poems effectively illustrates the wrongdoing of those who believe that bobbing back and forth is the primary component of prayer. It clearly shows the reader what misdeed is being committed and is an urgent call to action to change behavior, but still maintains a grounded human tone. Thanks to the use of wit, these poems are not Amos-like divine rebukes, but critiques from one man to another.

The adoption of wit by both HaNagid and Al-Harizi illustrate the extent to which wit and other nontraditional literary techniques were finding their way into Jewish literature of Andalusian Spain. These two poets had wildly different lives. HaNagid was extremely wealthy and secure. He served as military commander and prime minister of the Muslim state of Granada and was the undisputed leader of the Spanish Jewish community. He lived during the height of the Golden Age, when the treatment of Jews by the Muslim caliphate was as favorable and tolerant as it might ever be. On the other hand, Al-Harizi was a nomad. He travelled the Muslim world and was at the whims of patrons and other benevolent figures. He lived long after the Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown and Al-Andalus was under the control of the more intolerant and religiously fanatical Almohads. Even though the two poets had very different levels of personal wealth and security, lived under very different regimes, and were separated by two centuries, they both capitalized on innovations presented by Muslim culture, including wit specifically, to create untraditional but enhanced poetry.

These poets, though, did not use wit or humor when writing about the third oppositional relationship found in Andalusian Jewish poetry, the conflict between man and G-d. To these religious scholars, it seemed improper to talk about G-d in any critical way. For example, similar to the Song of the Sea, HaNagid’s poem “the War with Yaddayir” is focused on praising G-d’s greatness and commitment to protect His servants following the author’s victory in battle. HaNagid confidently remarks “my refuge and hope… is in G-d” and that he pledged “to worship Him day by day in my labor.”[13] Al-Harizi also does not use his poetry as an outlet to question or criticize G-d. He is more concerned with criticizing his interpersonal relationships with people who have spited him or otherwise act improperly than calling out G-d. Neither of these poets, even though they came from different backgrounds, found it proper to question G-d.

The Jewish Andalusian poet who is singular in his critical treatment of G-d is Shelomo Ibn Gabirol. He is apparently unafraid to firmly stand in opposition to G-d. This is clear in his poem “Before My Being.” The narrator in this poem offers complete gratitude to the Creator for bringing him into existence. However, he quickly criticizes the Creator for failing in His act of creation. He offers a backhanded compliment to G-d for “bringing existence to nothing to shape me.”[14] He claims that G-d is ultimately to blame for all of the failings of the narrator. In the final two lines of the poem, the narrator ironically wonders “how could I hide my error from you when/ before my being your mercy came through me?”[15] This was not meant to be read simply as a statement of humility before an omniscient Creator, but as a taunt to G-d for creating the narrator with the innate tendency to sin. It is worthwhile to note that it is likely that “Before My Being” was written to serve as a sort of piyyut to lead into the Nishmat prayer on Sabbath mornings. Ibn Gabirol surprisingly felt that it was fitting to include this critique of G-d during a holy service. To Ibn Gabirol, even G-d is a deserving target for irony and is not impervious to criticism.

The reason why Ibn Gabirol felt uniquely able to criticize G-d is because of his affinity to mysticism. More than any other great Jewish Andalusian poet, Ibn Gabirol focused on the metaphysical and can be considered a forerunner to Kabbalah. He, like Al-Harizi, did not have an easy life and travelled frequently. He spent a lot of time brooding in isolation just as Kabbalists would later practice hitbodedut, and meditate by staring at a wall for hours on end until they received some divine revelation. Ibn Gabirol was knowledgeable of the mystical writings existing at the time of both Jews and Muslims, such as Merkavah literature and Sufist writings. As evident in his other works like Kingdom’s Crown, Ibn Gabirol believed in some form of Neo-Platonism and was obsessed with discovering metaphysical truth. These experiences gave Ibn Gabirol a unique perspective about and a unique relationship with G-d. To him, being critical was not being blasphemous. Instead, his criticism was just a way to gain more wisdom about G-d and the nature of the Universe.

Although Ibn Gabirol found justification to voice criticisms of G-d, he did not find justification to joke about these criticisms. He maintained a serious manner in his poetry because humor would only be a distraction in discovering ultimate Truth. He did use irony to criticize G-d, but did so subtly, not to elicit laughter. Perhaps, he did this to help the poem become accepted as part of the liturgy. The average Jew might not read as carefully into the poem’s deeper meanings. Still, Ibn Gabirol felt that overt uses of wit or humor were too inappropriate for serious contemplation about the nature of G-d.

The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry revolutionized Jewish culture in many ways. Significantly, it allowed Jewish poets the opportunity to adopt untraditional features into their poetry and open themselves to external Muslim influences. Even traditional genres like oppositional poetry were transformed by this cultural shift. In two of the major types of oppositional poetry, those separating one from social fools and a Jew from other Jews doing wrong, Andalusian poets of all backgrounds, like Shmu’el HaNagid and Yehuda Al-Harizi, used wit and humor as a successful literary and rhetorical device. They did not, though, extend the adoption of wit to criticize G-d. Only Shelomo Ibn Gabirol, thanks to his affinity to mysticism, used poetry as an outlet to criticize G-d. However, even Ibn Gabirol did not view the use of wit acceptable when exploring the mysterious nature of G-d. Andalusian Jews paved the way for subsequent generations of Jews to experiment with other cultures, question tradition, question G-d, and learn to be funny.

[1] Exodus 15:14
[2] Kugel, James L. The Great Poems of the Bible. New York: Free Press, 1999. 9.
[3] Amos 5:12
[4] ibid., 159.
[5] Eccles. 7:4
[6] Ben Labrat, Dunash. “Fragment.” The Dream of the Poem. Ed. Peter Cole. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 24.
[7] Al-Harizi, Yehuda. “A Miser in Mosul.” The Dream of the Poem. Ed. Peter Cole. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 210.
[8] ibid., 211.
[9] HaNagid, Shmu’el. “I’d Suck Bitter Poison.” The Dream of the Poem. Ed. Peter Cole. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 59.
[10] HaNagid, Shmu’el. “The House of Prayer.” The Dream of the Poem. Ed. Peter Cole. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 47
[11] ibid.
[12] Al-Harizi, Yehuda. “The Hypocrite.” The Dream of the Poem. Ed. Peter Cole. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 210
[13] HaNagid, Shmu’el. “The War with Yaddayir.” The Dream of the Poem. Ed. Peter Cole. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 51-53.
[14] Ibn Gabirol, Shelomo. “Before My Being.” The Dream of the Poem. Ed. Peter Cole. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 90.
[15] ibid.

Nostos and the Wandering Jew: The Significance of Judaic Themes in Ulysses

Prominent in James Joyce’s Ulysses are Judaic themes. These themes are not peripheral—as are, say, themes of music, Shakespeare, distorted language, all of which come and go within the stream-of-consciousness narrative—but feature centrally at the heart of the novel. Bloom, of course, is a Jew, and, as the novel’s main character, injects within Ulysses a strong Judaic sensibility. Indeed, the sheer bulk of Judaic imagery within the novel is staggering: we have allusions to kosher and to Passover, to Torah and to Hebrew, to Moses and to King David, to the three forefathers and to Elijah, to the Promised Land and to Zion, and, even, to the coming of Joseph ben David, the Messiah. This strong Jewish presence is not accidental, nor is it merely one of the many minor themes with which Joyce shapes certain chapters. Rather, this presence is deliberate, and one with a wide-ranging impact on the novel. We see its effect on Bloom’s subconscious—our narrative guide for a great deal of the novel—which views the world through the lens of a deeply Jewish spectrum: “Aleph Beth Ghimel Daleth Hagadah Tephilim Kosher Yom Kippur Hanukah Roschaschana Beni Brith Bar Mitzvah Mazzoth Askenazim Meshuggah Talith”(15.1629). We see its effect, too, not just on Bloom’s internal world, but on the world in which he lives: the place of the Irish-Jew—and, really, of the Jew, in general—engulfs much of the novel, climaxing in Cyclops, in which Bloom, in fighting anti-Semitism, struggles, as he does throughout the whole of Ulysses, to find his own place.

James Joyce, 1926
James Joyce, 1926

The function of these Judaic themes is interesting to consider. That Joyce did not make the main character of his novel Irish is puzzling; more puzzling, though, is that this character—who, in theory, is Joyce’s modernized Odysseus—is Jewish. That Joyce chose specifically to make Bloom Jewish, to overload Ulysses with uniquely Jewish images—more so than with Christian images, or, for that matter, with Odyssean images—cannot be insignificant.

Perhaps the function of these Judaic themes is satiric. If Joyce is highlighting the difference between the Homeric and the modern, if he is building the anti-Odysseus, the anti-hero, then he is belittling Bloom by making him Jewish. Should this be true, Ulysses takes on a sharp-edged anti-Semitism, and the preponderance of Judaic imagery becomes disparaging: if Joyce is rendering Bloom a comic hero, then he is rendering Judaism shameful and lowly, incompatible with the beauty of the Homeric. Such a reading explains the strong presence of anti-Semitism with which Bloom is faced: Judaism, for Joyce, is to be mocked, is to be persecuted, is to be stripped of all sacredness and meaning.

Yet, to view Ulysses in this way—that is, to read Joyce as anti-Semitic, and the inclusion of Judaism in the novel as but a comic device—would be a severe misreading. That Joyce is mocking Judaism is rather unlikely: Joyce was known to be a friend of the Jews—Frank O’Connor, Irish writer and literary historian, called him “the greatest Jew of all”—and it seems rather far-fetched that Bloom, though certainly flawed, is intended to be dismissed on the basis of his Judaism, and not taken seriously as the main character. The question, then, remains: why make Bloom Jewish?

Joyce’s decision makes sense on a literary level: how better to recast Odysseus—“man of twists and turns”(1.1), “long an exile”(7.1)”—than as the Wandering Jew, the archetypal exile? Who better to appreciate Odysseus’ loneliness, his ethos of suffering, than Bloom, who, as a Jew, endures a timeless persecution, carries an ancient tradition as a burden? Indeed, many of the descriptions of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey resound with Judaic ideals. Like the Jew, Odysseus, “more than all other men,” was “born for pain”(3.106), for exile: “how far away I’ve been/ From all my loved ones—how long I’ve suffered!”(7.180). This Odyssean theme of suffering tethered to the divine—“Whom do you know most saddled with sorrow?/ They are the ones I’d equal, grief for grief./ And I could tell a tale of still more hardship,/ All I’ve suffered, thanks to the gods’ will”(7.246-9)—is strikingly Jewish. The nostos of Odysseus’ journey—“it is not his fate to die here, far from his own people./Destiny still ordains that he shall see his loved ones,/ Reach his high-roofed house, his native land at last”(5. 127-9)—rings with a profoundly Judaic quality, too: the yearning for Zion, for the end of exile, for the rebuilding of the Temple, for, as Bloom would say, “Moses and the promised land”(7. 1061).

Why, exactly, Joyce deems it important for his modern hero to bear the Judaic heritage—wandering, suffering, enduring persecution—is critical to consider. The answer, it seems, is a matter of scale: by making Bloom the modernized Odysseus, Joyce exchanges the unattainable Homeric for modern realism. As opposed to the grandeur of the Homeric hero, Bloom is flawed, but is, in a way, heroic precisely because of, and not in spite of, such flaws. Reading Joyce’s decision to make Bloom Jewish in this way does not degrade modernity—that is, to view, rather nihilistically, the death of the Homeric as the death of heroism, to believe that Joyce seeks only to demonstrate just how much Bloom pales in comparison to Odysseus—but embraces it. Joyce, it seems, wants the modern reader not to merely accept that which makes a modern man “heroic,” but to appreciate and identify with such characteristics. Indeed, Joyce demands a comparison between Odysseus and Bloom not to disparage Bloom—or, for that matter, to disparage Judaism or the modern condition—but to ask of the modern reader whom it is we most appreciate: a Bloom, or an Odysseus? This question, itself, is markedly Jewish: Nahmanides, in his commentary on the twelfth chapter of Genesis, famously depicts Abraham not as perfect, but as flawed. For Nahmanides—and, really, for Joyce, in his effort to pull Bloom from the ashes of Odysseus—it is important that Abraham be humanized, that he emerge not as an unattainable figure, a Homeric Odysseus, but as a man relatable in his flaws, as a Bloom.

The Return of Odysseus
The Return of Odysseus

Making Bloom a Jew also affords Joyce the ability to link Bloom to Charles Parnell, and, more broadly, to the Irish cause. Indeed, the Bloom-Parnell allusion is widespread throughout Ulysses; take, for instance, the mob’s complaint against Bloom:

THE MOB: Lynch him! Roast him! He’s as bad as Parnell was! (15.1762)

In Bloom—and, really, in the Jews, as a nation—Joyce sees deep political parallels with Parnell and with the Irish plight: who better to understand an intensely nationalistic people’s yearnings for liberation from enslavement than the Jews, whose own enslavement in Egypt and yearning for a Promised Land so frames the focus of their religion? Intensifying this connection are the allusions to the Bloom-Moses link— “What’s his name? Ikey Moses? Bloom”(9.607)—which allow Joyce the ability to render Parnell a Moses, leading the Irish from British bondage, the ability to tether the fate of the Irish to that of the Jews, and the ability to inject within Ulysses a strong Messianic quality. That Joyce, in forging the Judaic theme within Ulysses, lends a Mosaic stature to Parnell and aligns the Irish cause with the cause of the Israelites—giving his people hope, a savior and, perhaps, eventual redemption—is well-documented. Less obvious, however, is the importance of the Messianic in Ulysses. Joyce presents us with a number of clear-cut Messianic figures: Parnell, as a Messiah to the Irish; Moses—who, in wandering the desert for forty years, is a modernized Odysseus of his own—as a Messiah to the Jews; Odysseus, as a Messiah to Ithaca in his return. In Bloom, though, the Messianic connection is more muddled: Bloom is, at once, a redemptive figure—“A VOICE: Bloom, are you the Messiah ben Joseph or ben David?”—and a figure in need of redemption. Layering Ulysses with obvious Messianic overtones and figures, and then providing us with Bloom, it seems, is Joyce’s way of testing the reader: does Bloom ultimately attain some nostos, some sense of redemption through his wanderings, or, in the end, in failing to find a surrogate son in Stephen, in losing his grip on Molly, in the wanderings of his day, does his nostos remain unrealized?

That this idea of nostos may be the essential question of Ulysses is, perhaps, the most important reason for making Bloom Jewish: the value Judaism places in nostos. Nostos may be fundamentally Greek, but it is a concept central to the Judaic tradition. Indeed, deep-rooted within Judaism is a fervent, constant yearning: for closeness with God, for the Promised Land, for the end of exile and suffering and persecution, for the rebuilding of the Temple, for the Messiah, for a final redemption. If Ulysses is Joyce synthesizing that which is Homeric with that which is of the modern man, then Joyce’s decision to make Bloom Jewish is fitting. For Joyce—an Irishman with a deep sense of nostos, and someone within whom exists a nationalistic appreciation for the Judaic heritage—a Judaic ethos is the ideal correspondence for the Odyssean vision of nostos and the blueprint for modern man, who, like the Jew, should have a moral genome ingrained with nostos. Nostos, then, is not a lost ideal, confined to Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, but an ideal very much alive within the modern man, just as nostos, for the Jews, is not confined to the Biblical, but vivid in daily ritual. Joyce, it seems, sees within nostos deep value, less for the actualization of such nostos, and more for the yearning it engenders. That Bloom emerges from Ulysses in ambiguity—are we to embrace him as a modern hero, heroic in his non-heroism, or are we to reject him for his many flaws, to be disgusted by the precipitous plunge that is the fall from Odysseus to Bloom?—does not tear down Joyce’s vision of Bloom, but affirms it. Here is a man who is, perhaps, just as uncertain of his nostos as are we: is he broken by Rudy’s death, by Molly’s infidelity, by Stephen’s rejection, by his sexual urges, by the persecution of his religion, by his suffocating monotony, or are his wanderings just as beautiful as those of Odysseus, even with the dramatic shift in scale? Our final image of Bloom—and his lonely, harrowing “where?”(17. 2331)—resounds with our most poignant image of Odysseus, unable to recognize Ithaca after his long return:


I wandered on,

my heart forever torn to pieces inside my chest

till the god released me from my miseries at last…

Tell me the truth now,

have I really reached the land I love? (13. 363-373)


This is a question Judaic by nature—a question Jews have asked exile after exile, in Egypt, in Babylon, in Rome, in Syria, in Spain, in Europe—and the question Joyce, a Dubliner in exile, wants his modern hero to ask. It is the question Bloom, as a Jew, as Joyce’s modern heir to Odysseus, essentially asks at the conclusion of the Ithaca episode:   “have I really reached the land I love?” This nostos, this constant, Judaic sense of yearning, is, for Joyce, the ideal for modern man. For Joyce, ours is not an era in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca in unblemished Homeric glory, but an era in which Bloom, humanized in his flaws, wanders Dublin, yearning for home.


Works Cited:

Homer. The Odyssey. Ed. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1997

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Vintage Books, 1986

O’Connor, Frank. A Short History of Irish Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1967

Complaint, Response, and Leadership in Numbers 11-12

As the Israelites wandered, they whined. In the wake of a series of complaints raised by Israelites and Moses himself in the course of their travels after the Exodus, Numbers 12 relates the story of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint against Moses, and Yahweh’s response. Following the complaint, Yahweh variously punishes the three siblings to suggest their proper relationships to one another, to him, and to the Israelites at-large. The complaint against Moses, voiced in Numbers 12:1-2 can sustain multiple interpretations. However, a careful reading of Numbers 11 suggests how best to interpret the complaints that follow it. Finally, the remainder of Numbers 12 clarifies the ambiguities in the text, imparting an object lesson that is directed not only at Miriam and Aaron, but Moses as well.

The opening of Numbers 12 presents ambiguities as to who is complaining, and about what. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married” (Num 12:1) [Unless otherwise specified, all Biblical quotations are from Jewish Publication Society, The Bible, ed. by Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael A. Fishbane (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)]. The verb for “spoke” appears in the feminine singular. This, along with the initial placement of her name, suggests that Miriam, not Aaron may be the main instigator. Furthermore, the identity of the Cushite woman is unclear; it may be Zipporah, Moses’s original wife and a Midianite, or it may be another, unnamed woman. Though Cushan is at times referred to in conjunction with Midian (Hab 3:7), which makes the former interpretation plausible, the latter one seems more likely. The text’s identification of the woman only as a Cushite (and repetition of that fact later in the verse) suggests that her ethnicity is the reason for outrage. This makes the most sense if she were a (non-Midianite) Cushite, who would have been not just a non-Israelite but a descendant of Cush, brother of the cursed Canaan as well as Mizraim, the namesake of the land from which Israel had fled (Gen 10:6; 9:25-27). Continue reading “Complaint, Response, and Leadership in Numbers 11-12”

“If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”: The evolution of the Jewish identity in the films of Ernst Lubitsch

Clara--Alexander_Binder_-_Ernst_Lubitsch_um_1920  “Ernst Lubitsch, Deutsches Theater, Berlin.” The title card striates to the point of near-illegibility. “Der Darsteller der Titelrolle.” It’s 1914, and the star of Der Stolz der Firma (The Pride of the Firm) is only 22 years old. The camera catches him smiling, stage left. As the opening credits roll, he turns gives the audience a long, toothy grin. With his thin face and large, intense eyes, the effect is mildly alarming—a nebbish, Semitic B-movie vampire. The film was a smash hit, though it hasn’t aged as gracefully as his more mature work. The vaudevillian humor and close, choppy cinematography seem out of place in a Lubitsch picture. That’s understandable, for such an early film. What’s more surprising is its overt Jewishness.

Lubitsch plays a stock character from his time at the Deutsches Theater: a promising young employee at a women’s clothing concern. Most of his early films are set in the world of garment manufacturing in early 20th century Germany, an industry dominated by Jews. It’s a career path that, as the son of a Berlin tailor, he had only recently abandoned for the stage. There’s a clear semi-autobiographical element to characters with names like Abramowsky, Rosenthal, Pinkus, and Katz—clever, womanizing social climbers so steeped in stereotype that the films have been accused of anti-Semitism. In keeping with Weimar-era fears of ‘perverse’ Jewish male sexuality, his Abies and Sallys pursue gentile women. Most of them rise in social class, and all of them use cunning to get ahead. It’s never enough to hide their origins completely—not that it would have been possible for Lubitsch, whose face was featured on a series 1935 propaganda posters bearing the legend “The Archetypal Jew”. As for any ambitious Jew in Weimar Berlin, the odds are against them, and success requires a certain facility for acting. Continue reading ““If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”: The evolution of the Jewish identity in the films of Ernst Lubitsch”

Review: “All Who Go Do Not Return,” by Shulem Deen

Shulem Deen can remember the moment he finally lost his faith. He was at home, wrapped in his prayer shawl, saying the morning prayers. This alone was a sign of his waning devotion. Deen lived in New Square, an all-Hasidic village in New York, and in New Square, men were expected to pray at the synagogue. But by this point in his life Deen was praying mainly out of habit and to avoid angering his wife, and, as he stands in his dining room, listening to the sounds of his five children getting ready for school, a thought comes to him, the conclusion to years of questions and doubt: “I no longer believe in any of this.”

All Who Go Do Not Return is the story of how Deen lost his faith and what happened afterward. The journey to this point is long, because for Deen, a Skverer Hasid, belief in God was not a matter of private opinion, but the foundation of every aspect of life. Continue reading “Review: “All Who Go Do Not Return,” by Shulem Deen”

“Fawdah”, the Show the American Jewish Community Needs

Early in October 2015, a video emerged showing Israeli soldiers, disguised as Arabs, infiltrating a Palestinian protest and shooting an unarmed protester in the leg. The Israeli army sends undercover units like this one to many Palestinian protests. The units are known as mistarvim, and they have been seen throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who respond to the protests. In this case, the Israeli army claimed that the soldiers shot the protestor in order to “disable the central suspect”.

This phenomenon is not well known in America, but it is familiar to Palestinians who have had experiences with the disguised soldiers, and to Israelis who have served in the occupied territories or heard stories about them. Recently, these units have become a popular topic of discussion because of a new television drama, Fawdah, which is about an elite unit of mistarvim. (Fawda is the Arabic word for chaos or disorder, and is also a code word used by the Israeli army when an operation is compromised). The show centers on Doron, who has retired from the unit but is dragged back in to serving in order to hunt down a legendary terrorist named Abu Ahmed, or “The Panther.” Abu Ahmed was previously thought to be dead, and Doron feels a personal responsibility to hunt him down. Continue reading ““Fawdah”, the Show the American Jewish Community Needs”