Joyce and the Khazars

By Steven Weiss

Extract from a paper presented to the International Congress on Asian and North African Studies. (Budapest, July 1997.)

James Joyce's Ulysses can be easily read as a modern bible. Its hero, an Irishman whose father was a Jew from Szombathely, Hungary, is worshipped with a fervor found in many Christians. Bloomsday is celebrated with as much sacredness as Christmas. On June 16 pilgrims travel to Dublin and walk in the steps of Leopold Bloom stopping at various stations as is done on Good Friday in Israel. Since viewing Bloom as a Christ figure is the most common reading of Joyce's hero, one might want to know why Szombathely, Hungary is cited as the origins of Bloom's maker.
I'd like to propose that the history of Hungarian settlement may perhaps be a clue to Bloom's character. A common portrayal of Bloom is that he is a modern nomad, a flaneur, walking around modern Dublin, cut off from his origins. These origins are most commonly portrayed as biblical. Is it possible that another form of Oriental nomadism is layered on Bloom? Could Bloom be descended from horsemen, originally from Mongolia, that converted to Judaism and then promptly disappeared only to emerge as Ashkenazic Jews?
James Joyce knew of the Khazars from Maurice Fishberg's anthropological study of Jews published in 1911, titled The Jews: A study of Race and Environment (it is still in print in the United States). It's been established that Joyce relied heavily on Fishberg for some of Bloom's characteristics. Fishberg argues against theories of Jewish race and ethnicity. Fishberg's book includes many photographs of Jews with Mongolian features and claims that 23 percent of Jewish children in New York City have a Mongolian face. At one point in Ulysses Bloom is said to be suffering from a delusion that he is Mongolian.
Fishberg's book also discusses the Khazars at some length. Hungary is not mentioned as the area where Khazars fled to after the collapse of their empire, but Joyce had Hungarian friends and may have known of the Khazar presence in Hungary through them.
Leopold Bloom recounts his own version of himself on June 16, 1904. There is some regret that Bloom feels for not practicing his father's religion. Perhaps Bloom is truer to his origins than he knows. Walking in an urban setting, fending off those that would destroy him, gathering what he needs for that Thursday in 1904, riding in a horse drawn carriage to a funeral, Bloom is the Greek hero but perhaps he is an ancient Hebrew and an Asian warrior. Met-him-pike-hoses as Molly says. . . .

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