Israel Zangwill (1864-1926): English Novelist of the Ghetto and Early Zionist

By Bloom, Cecil | Midstream, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Israel Zangwill (1864-1926): English Novelist of the Ghetto and Early Zionist


Bloom, Cecil, Midstream


Jews as fictional characters have been featured in English literature from as early as the 14th Century when they appeared in one of the great works of literature--The Prioress Tale in Chaucer s The Canterbury Tales--and, of course, the most famous Jew in all literature of all languages must be William Shakespeare's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Early in the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe appeared with its sympathetic portraits of Isaac of York and his beautiful daughter Rebecca to be followed by the vile and notorious Fagin in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. But later that century, George Eliot's Daniel Deronda appeared, again showing an understanding of aspects of Jewish life. English Jews themselves such as Benjamin Disraeli (whose father converted him to Christianity), Grace Aguilar, and Amy Levy wrote novels of stature depicting aspects of Jewish life, but it was Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) who was the first Jew to emerge as a significant writer in English of the life of working-class Jews. He still remains the outstanding British Jew to write in English of Jewish immigrant life. Zangwill was ahead of Abraham Cahan whose first novel in English Yekl was written in 1896. On his death, he was acknowledged as a writer with "profound and original thought" and a "master painter of words." He was a prolific writer of novels, short stories, plays, poetry and essays. Not all his output was based on Jewish themes, but it is for his Jewish' works that he is remembered. Zangwill was also deeply involved in the Zionist politics of his time, playing a key but controversial role. He also translated items, especially religious prayers, from Hebrew into English.

Israel Zangwill was born in London of immigrant parents, but his family spent part of his childhood in the west of England before returning to the East End of London. He was a pupil at the Jews' Free School in London and later taught there. His great masterpiece Children of the Ghetto appeared in 1892, but he had been prominent before that as a member of the so-called "New Humour" group of writers led by Jerome K Jerome. He edited a humorous periodical Ariel and he also wrote items dealing with local communal events for the London Jewish Standard, a newspaper that reappeared in his great novel as The Flag of Judah. He wrote two full-length books (later combined into one) that were full of humor before he began writing stories on Jewish subjects in the 1880s. The first of these Motsa Kleis (Matzoh Balls) is a short flippant satire on London East End Jewry and it was later incorporated into Children of the Ghetto. Another story, Satan Mekatrig (The Evil Advocate) is a sort of Jewish Faust. Judge Mayer Sulzberger, one of the founders of the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPSA) and the chairman of its Publication Committee, can claim some responsibility for Children of the Ghetto.

The Society was founded in Philadelphia in 1888, and its principal objective was to create a Jewish literature in English. In the following year, Zangwill wrote a sociological study of Anglo-Jewry for the newly established Jewish Quarterly Review, then published in England. This was an analysis of modern English Judaism, and in it, he argued that there were major differences in the Jewish community in terms of class and religious beliefs. This impressed Sulzberger who decided that Zangwill was a writer who could meet his Society's criteria. He visited London in September 1890, and he paid Zangwill two hundred pounds sterling (Zangwill had initially pressed for three hundred pounds) to write a novel based on Jewish life in Western society. Sulzberger was actually criticised by some of his colleagues for offering a commission to a 'foreigner'. He suggested that Zangwill write 'the Jewish Robert Elsmere'. Robert Elsmere was written in 1888 by Mrs Humphry Ward, daughter of a headmaster of one of England's great public schools, and is the story of the spiritual crisis of a young clergyman. …

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