Irish Jews: Between Joyce’s Dublin and Immigrant America

As a Jew raised in Upstate New York, St. Patricks Day meant a lot of drinking games, parties, and merrymaking. There is nothing Jewish about these activities. Nonetheless, writers like James Joyce made the main character of his epic novel, Ulysses, an Irish Jew. Bloom, the main character, demonstrates the flow of consciousness. In a fascinating scene in the novel, Joyce has Bloom follow a blind man through the streets of Dublin and Bloom’s descriptions of the way a blind man relates to Dublin, via touch, makes for a fascinating scene of tactile consciousness.

“Mr Bloom walked behind the eyeless feet, a flatcut suit of herringbone tweed. Poor young fellow! How on earth did he know the van was there? Must have felt it. See things in their foreheads perhaps. Kind of sense of volume. Weight. Would he feel it if something was removed? Feel a gap. Queer idea of Dublin he must have, tapping his way round by the stones. Could he walk in a beeline if he hadn’t that cane?”

This passage gives birth to a question which preoccupies the novel. How does Bloom, an Irish Jew, bodily relate to things around him and how is this different from the Irishman? The Irish Jew can do things that neither a Jew nor an Irishman can do. He is a modern figure because he integrates abstract thought and aesthetic perception. He is ragtag and relentless, in an Irish sense, but he is also endlessly distracted by the possible meanings of things and their relationships, like a Jew. He is feminine and masculine.

Published in the same year as Ulysses, but across the Atlantic, in New York City, the Abbie’s Irish Rose (1922) – which was, at the time, the longest running play on Broadway written by Anne Nichols – tells a different story of Jews and Irish. The main character of this play, which was played, originally to Yiddish audiences and in Yiddish, dramatized the desire to assimilate. The marriage of a Jew to an Irish girl is the American symbol of an integration and assimilation. The process of the play is the working out of ethnic differences, but it is more a trajectory away from Jewishness and more towards American-ness. There are winners and losers in this journey.

The ethnic comedy embodied in this production dramatizes the difficulty of assimilation, of becoming American. The insults are central to their relationship and the struggles they face in living an American life. Sacrifices of identity – in this scenario – are found throughout the conflictual drama.

Here’s a summary of the play/movie/radio production:

Abie’s Irish Rose presents a Jewish family living in prosperous circumstances in New York. The father, a widower, is in business as a merchant, in which his son and only child helps him. The boy has philandered with young women, who to his father’s great disgust have always been Gentiles, for he is obsessed with a passion that his daughter-in-law shall be an orthodox Jew. When the play opens the son, who has been courting a young Irish Catholic girl, has already married her secretly before a Protestant minister, and concerned about how to soften the blow for his father securing a favorable reception for his bride, while concealing her faith and race. To accomplish this he introduces her to his father as a Jewish girl in whom he is interested and conceals the fact they are married. The girl somewhat reluctantly agrees to the plan; the father takes the bait, becomes infatuated with the girl, insists that they must marry. He assumes they will because it’s the father’s idea. He calls in a rabbi, and prepares for the wedding according to the Jewish rite.Meanwhile the girl’s father, also a widower who lives in California and is as intense in his own religious antagonism as the Jew, has been called to New York, supposing that his daughter is to marry an Irishman and a Catholic. Accompanied by a priest, he arrives at the house at the moment when the marriage is being celebrated, so too late to prevent it, and the two fathers, each infuriated by the proposed union of his child to a heretic, fall into unseemly and grotesque antics. The priest and the rabbi become friendly, exchange trite sentiments about religion, and agree that the match is good. Apparently out of abundant caution, the priest celebrates the marriage for a third time, while the girl’s father is inveigled away. The second act closes with each father, still outraged, seeking to find some way by which the union, thus trebly insured, may be dissolved.The last act takes place about a year later, the young couple having meanwhile been abjured by each father, and left to their own resources. They have had twins, a boy and a girl, but their fathers know no more than that a child has been born. At Christmas each, led by his craving to see his grandchild, goes separately to the young folks’ home, where they encounter each other, each laden with gifts, one for a boy, the other for a girl. After some slapstick comedy, depending upon the insistence of each that he is right about the sex of the grandchild, they become reconciled when they learn the truth, and that each child is to bear the given name of a grandparent. The curtain falls as the fathers are exchanging amenities, and the Jew giving evidence of an abatement in the strictness of his orthodoxy.

Ultimately, an Irish Jew would, for this generation, seem impossible or more figural of something to come. It is only with Philip Roth’s Swede, in American Pastoral or with Aharon Appelfeld’s, The Retreat, that you see a fusion of the Jew and non-Jew, to such an extent that one swallows the other, and that the Jew nearly forgets what it means to be Jewish. The post-assimilation phase doesn’t have this drama. The Jew and non-Jew in Hollywood films – whether staring schlemiels like Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, or Larry David – put intermarriage or dating between Jews and non-Jews at the center of their plot.

In some senses, Hollywood took over what started in Broadway with Abby’s Irish Rose but gave it, as we see in many Judd Apatow films (like Knocked Up), a happy ending. In the age of post-assimilation, its no longer an issue. It’s a theme. In contrast to Joyce, the theme is not the fusion of Jerusalem and Athens or modern consciousness. It’s identity differences and comical reconciliation. These characters are out of touch with their Jewishness or with the meaning of consciousness and modernity. Those themes are two sophisticated for the melting pot.

With that, I’ll raise my beer and say L’chaim to all the Leprechauns.

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