Israel Zangwill: Stories of the Ghetto

Zangwill wrote four volumes of ghetto stories: Children of the Ghetto (1892), Ghetto Tragedies (1893), Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898) and Ghetto Comedies (1907).

The settings range from the ghettos of London and Venice to Grand Island, New York to the Carpathian Mountains. There are apostates, actors, a demon, a schnorrer, a luftmensh, a marriage broker, a waiter, a painter, a pianist, a schoolgirl, a literary critic and more. Most of the stories are realistic; a few are romantic. Many are sad; a few are funny.

Children of the Ghetto, being Pictures of a Peculiar People (1892)

illustration of Zangwill from 'Vanity Fair'

Based on his previous writings, including "English Judaism" in Jewish Quarterly Review, Zangwill was commissioned by the Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia in 1889 to write a Jewish version of Robert Elsmere. Mrs. Humphrey Ward's best-selling novel dealt with the weakening of religious faith in the modern world.1

The extraordinary novel that resulted from the commission -- Children of the Ghetto (1892) -- is composed of tightly integrated vignettes of ghetto life. Some of the chapters are mostly descriptive, others are narrative and some are dramatic. Many can stand alone as short stories.

Volume one focuses on the poor, Jewish immigrants in London's East-End ghetto.2 Volume two, subtitled "The Grandchildren of the Ghetto," moves to the West End where the wealthier Jews live. It then moves back to the East-End ghetto.

There are three interrelated themes: the weakening of religious faith (specifically Orthodox Judaism), assimilation and the conflict between generations.

Some ghetto residents resist assimilation and strive to maintain their way of life to which Orthodox Judaism is central. Others, usually the younger generation, are eager to speak English, wear English clothes and eat English food. They dislike the daily rituals of Judaism, accept "mixed" marriages, forget their parents' language, and embrace the freedoms life in England offers.

If Children of the Ghetto were only about Jewish immigrants in 19th-centrury London, it might be of only historical interest. However, in many ways they are similar to other immigrant groups which struggle to maintain fidelity to their religions, cultures and traditions. To be sure the Jewish experience is historically unique; centuries of discrimination cannot be ignored. But the Jewish children of the ghetto are not unrepresentative.

During the course of the book, as we are introduced to dozens of ghetto residents whose lives intertwine, we repeatedly return to the story of Esther.


Esther Ansell was eight when her mother Gittel died and it fell to her to take care of the family. Her father Moses is devout and spends a lot of time studying and praying. He had been "a glazier, synagogue beadle, picture-frame manufacturer, cantor, peddler, shoemaker in all branches, coat-seller, official executioner of fowls and cattle, Hebrew teacher, fruiterer, circumciser, professional corpse-watcher, and now he was a tailor out of work" (2, 107).3 When both Moses and Gittel were working, they saved enough to bring his mother to American. Now the seven Ansells live in a one-room attic with two beds. They are very poor. The new boots that Esther is given by her school are sold and provide food for a week.

When the book opens eleven-year-old Esther is with a group of people gathered to receive free soup and bread given out three times a week, but they must wait while the "rich people" make speeches about the virtue of charity. When she returns home, she trips crossing the threshold and the pitcher of soup breaks. They have only the bread to eat.

Esther is small, plain and intelligent. She likes school, loves to read and would like to become a teacher. She is devout but like her mother (who believed "the learned Rabbonim ... would be better occupied in supporting their families" (1, 111-112), she is skeptical and asks many questions. She secretly reads the New Testament and finds that "there are more miracles to the page" (1, 258).

Esther befriends Dutch Debby, a young woman rejected by her family for some past transgression and viewed with suspicion by the ghetto residents. Debby refuses all charity and earns her living doing needlework alone in her room with her only friend Bobby, a mongrel dog. While Debby works, Esther reads aloud old issues of the London Journal and they discuss the romantic world of the stories -- so different from the ghetto.

At age thirteen Esther becomes a teacher. She is frequently the only wager-earner in the family. Like many of the men of the ghetto her brother Solomon is unable to find steady work because he refuses to work on Saturday, the Sabbath.

Some time later Esther is "adopted" by the Goldsmiths, an upper-middle-class, Jewish family from the West End of London. They arrange for her family to emigrate to the United States where they prosper. She receives a university education, travels in Europe and is introduced to artists, businessmen, and other prominent people. She has a life of comfort and freedom, but she is not happy.

The Goldsmiths moved from a provincial town to London to find husbands for their daughters and to escape provincial, orthodox Judaism. Ironically, they are too weak to go against their Irish-Catholic servant, who is thoroughly familiar with the rules and rituals and forces them to live more orthodox than they prefer. They and their West-End acquaintances condemn marriage with non-Jews but they Anglicize their names. They avoid certain holiday locations because too many Jews vacation there. Esther is disgusted by the dissemblance and hypocrisy of assimilated Jews.

Esther pseudonymously publishes a novel Mordecai Josephs that is critical of wealthy, assimilated Jews.4 The Goldsmiths and their friends are horrified by the book. Although they haven't read it, they have heard that it gives a distorted view of them as money-grubbing, social climbers.5

"Poor rich Jews!" writes Zangwill. "They knew they were excellent persons, well-educated and well-traveled, interested in charities ... supplementing their duties as Englishmen with a solicitude for the best interests of Judaism; that they left no stone unturned to emancipate themselves from the secular thraldom of prejudice; and they felt it very hard that a little vulgar section should always be chosen by their own novelists, and their efforts to raise the tone of Jewish society passed by" (2, 22). Esther is dispirited; she believes her portrayal was realistic and she had hoped it might cause them to examine their lives and beliefs.

She meets Raphael Leon, a wealthy, Oxford-educated, orthodox Jew, who tells her that she is "ignorant of our ritual while admiring everything non-Jewish"(2, 36). Esther replies that "real Judaism is a religion of pots and pans. It does not call to the soul's depths..." (2, 40). She says "I have lived among the brutal facts. I was born in the Ghetto, and when you talk of the Mission of Israel, silent sardonic laughter goes through me as I think of the squalor and the misery" (2, 43).

Raphael represents one kind of Judaism outside of the ghetto and the Goldsmiths another. Neither satisfies Esther.

She tells Raphael that in the ghetto "[e]verything about me was sordid and unlovely. I yearned for a fuller, wider life, for larger knowledge" (2, 45). Although she has "had many happy moments, realized many childish ambitions, ... happiness is as far away as ever" (2, 46). Escaping the poverty and squalor of the ghetto doesn't necessarily lead to fulfillment: "I used to be a red-hot Socialist once.... To-day I doubt whether too much stress is not laid on material conditions" (2, 189).

Following an encounter with Levi Jacobs (see below), who accuses her of being a schnorrer (beggar), she decides to leave the Goldsmiths. She is upset with herself for accepting their charity and for deceiving them (they don't know she wrote Mordecai Josephs). Her motivation is partly intellectual and partly emotional. Further, "the nostalgia of the Ghetto was still upon her, blent with a passion of martyrdom that made her yearn for a lower social depth than was really necessary" (2, 203).

She returns to the ghetto with no clear idea of what she will do.

At first the ghetto "chilled her; her heart had turned to it as to a haven, and the reality was dismal" (2, 241). Then she meets an old acquaintance, Hannah Jacobs, who has rejected the rigid orthodoxy of her father Reb Shemuel. Hannah once had the opportunity to leave the ghetto with the man she loved, but she stayed. (see below) When Esther meets her, she is collecting money for a family of "greeners" (recently arrived immigrants). Esther realizes that "[h]appiness was not for her; but service remained. Penetrated by the new emotion, she seemed to herself to have found the key to Hannah's holy calm" (2, 241).

Esther is attracted to the ghetto residents and "repulsed by their failings"; they are ignorant and superstitious but resourceful and independent. "She seemed to see them now in their true perspective, correcting the vivid impressions of childhood by the insight born of wider knowledge of life" (2, 250). Her decision to remain in the ghetto is made easier when she learns that Mordecai Josephs has been selling well and substantial royalties have accrued with her publisher.

Esther has repudiated assimilated, West-End Judaism. Intellectually, she has also rejected orthodox Judaism, its laws and rituals, but emotionally she remains attached to its history, culture and traditions -- how it values family, education, charity and continuity. Hannah's example has excited her "with the sense of a mission -- of a niche in the temple of human service which she had been predestined to fill" (2, 241).

At the end of the book Esther is about to sail to the United States to visit her family and attend her sister's wedding. Upon her return to England she will marry Raphael Leon and embark on her new life in the ghetto.


Hannah is the nineteen-year-old, attractive daughter of kindly Reb Shemuel, who literally gave the coat off his back to someone in need. She is a dutiful daughter who loves her father dearly, but she chafes at the rigidity of Judaism, its daily rituals, its subordination of women, and its ancient laws. She tells her parents that she will remain single rather than accept an arranged marriage.

At an engagement party Sam Levine teases his fiancee Leah Solomon by placing a ring on Hannah's finger and saying the words that betroth them. Mendel Hyams points out that Sam and Hannah are now married because he has pledged himself in the presence of two witnesses: "The law takes no account of jokes" (1,102). Everyone finds the mistake amusing and "Hannah laughed too, in contemptuous amusement at the rigidity of Jewish law" (1, 104). Sam and Hannah must and do obtain a divorce.

When Hannah rejects Melchitsedek Pinchas (see below), her father tells her that she can marry anyone she wants -- except a Christian. She then reveals that she and David Brandon are going to marry. Although David is a non-observant Jew, Reb Shemuel warmly accepts him as his future son-in-law, until he learns that David is a Cohen (a hereditary Jewish priest). Leviticus prohibits a Cohen from marrying a divorced woman which Hannah now is.

David is angry. Reb Shemuel understands how much they love each other but he is adamant: "It is the Torah. Am I responsible for that?" (1,422). Hannah tells her father "it is cruel, your religion" (1, 426). Ironically, David is barely a believer but too holy to marry the Reb's daughter, a divorced woman.

The next day when Hannah and David meet, he suggests that they emigrate to America, marry (in a synagogue) and start a business. She asks "why, if we determine to break from it [Judaism], shall we pretend to keep to it?" (1, 437). Hannah suggests a civil ceremony and David agrees. He needs time to arrange his financial affairs, so they agree to meet at nine o'clock and elope. David, who has no family ties, appreciates the sacrifice Hannah is going to make.

During the Seder supper Hannah begins to question her decision to leave. When she opens the door to welcome the prophet Elijah, David is standing there in the rain. She gives him the engagement ring and slams the door shut. The symbolism is obvious. She literally shuts the door on a future with David. To escape the bonds of her current situation (exodus) would require going into exile.

Earlier that day she told David that "I have always been sick to death of this eternal ceremony, this endless coil of laws winding round us and cramping our lives at every turn; and now it has become too oppressive to be borne any longer. Why should we let it ruin our lives?" (1, 437). But now she finds that she is simply unable to abandon her parents, her religion, her community.

Hannah's brother Levi renounced his family, religion and community. He left the ghetto, changed his name to Leonard James and leads a life of dissipation. One Passover when Levi fails to return for Seder (his once-a-year visit), Reb Shemuel goes looking for him and finds him in the theater district about to enter a cab with Gladys, a show girl. Levi rebuffs his father and tells Gladys that he is "only an old Jew who supplies me with cash" (2, 166).

Some time later Reb Shemuel refuses to go to his apostate son who is dying of typhoid; Levi is already dead to him. Despite his objections Hannah and her mother insist that they will visit.

Hannah tells her father that she wishes she had taken another journey he had forbidden ten years ago; she doesn't know why she didn't, "[b]ut thy religion shall not keep me from this journey" (2, 312). He is stunned to learn that she had intended to elope and asks if she still loves David. She replies, "What does it matter? My life is but a shadow" (2, 312).

He believed that God had given her peace. Remorseful, he asks how he can atone for ruining her life. She says there is only one way: forgive Levi. He relents and Levi dies "happy in the consciousness of father's forgiveness" (2, 313). Hannah thinks to herself, "My sacrifice was not in vain after all" (2, 313).

When Esther returns to the ghetto, Hannah is still unmarried, living with her parents. She tells Esther, "I don't know what I believe" (2, 238). She is resigned to a life without love but gives it meaning by helping others: "I do everything a Jewess ought to do, I suppose" (2, 238).


Desperate for money Moses Ansell goes to see Malka, his dead wife's cousin, "a wealthy twig of the family tree, to be approached with awe and trembling" (1, 64). Malka is a prosperous, fifty-year-old woman who runs a second-hand clothing business. She dominates her family, complains all the time and sulks when she doesn't get her way.

Malka tells Moses he shouldn't have brought his mother to America; she is old, sickly and just another mouth to feed. Moses cites scripture regarding mitzvah (commandments/good deeds) to prove it was the right thing to do. She considers Moses to be a schlemihl (unlucky bungler), but admires his piety. She gives him some money and explains how to buy and peddle lemons so he can earn a little until the tailoring business picks up.

Years later Esther visits Malka and finds her unchanged: "Everybody grows old; few people grow. Malka was of the majority" (2, 229). As usual she is full of self-pity and complains about her family and neighbors. Esther explains that she has left the Goldsmiths and returned to the ghetto. Malka says she's Meshuggah (insane): "When a rich family takes in a motherless girl like you and clothes her and feeds her, why it's mocking Heaven to run away and want to earn your own living" (2, 234). She tells Esther that when she is penniless "[t]here's no use coming to me. I'm not a rich woman, far from it; and I have been blessed with Kinder who are helpless without me" (2, 233). But Malka anonymously sends a half-sovereign to Esther.

The Hyams

Mendel and Beenah Hyam hadn't met before the day of their arranged wedding in Poland. They had and still have no affection for each other. Mendel's only wish is to die in Jerusalem and Beenah's is only to die.

Their daughter Miriam contributes to the household expenses, but spends most of her wages on clothing (necessitated by her position as a school teacher) and attending the theater. She forced her father to give up his work as "a wandering metropolitan glazier," because "this open degradation became intolerable as Miriam's prospects improved" (1, 190). Their son Daniel would like to marry, but his warehouse job doesn't pay enough for him to support his parents and his own family. He is unable to find better employment because he will not work on the Sabbath.

"Driven together by common suffering and growing alienation from the children they had begotten," Mendel and Beenah finally find affection and purpose (1, 316). Mendel pretends to receive a letter from his brother in the United States inviting them to join him. They relieve their children of the burden of caring for them and emigrate to America with no certain prospects. David is then able to marry Bessie Sugarman, the marriage-broker's daughter. Miriam's life is unchanged except she now lives with David and Bessie and her "nose seems to have turned up more" (2, 240).

Beenah dies after two years in America. Mendel fulfills "the dream of his life" and travels to Jerusalem, but finds it "scarce more than his London Ghetto transplanted, only grown filthier and narrower and more ragged, with cripples for beggars and lepers in lieu of hawkers" (1, 323-24).


Simon Wolf, "the great Jewish labor leader," has struggled for years to organize the workers of the sweat shops. They know little about politics or economics: to them Socialism meant "shorter hours and higher wages and was obtainable by marching with banners and brass bands" (1, 356). He is mistrusted because he is not Orthodox; he attacks the Rabbis and philanthropists and holds meetings on the Sabbath.

The workers strike; their demands are modest: a workday limited to 12 hours, time off for dinner, and a modest increase in wages. But "various important personages intervened at the eleventh hour, unceremoniously elbowing Simon Wolf out of his central position. A compromise was arranged and jubilance and tranquility reigned for some months, till the corruptions of competitive human nature brought back the old state of things..." (1, 361).

At the end of the book Wolf is reduced to working in Bear Belcovitch's sweat shop.


Melchitsedek Pinchas is a poet, scholar, journalist and moocher. He alternates between obsequiousness and arrogance; believing himself to be superior to almost everyone, he offends both those who can and those who do help him.

Reb Shemuel considers him as a husband for his daughter but Hannah rejects him. He tries but fails to become treasurer of the Holy Land League, an organization begun by Guedalyah the greengrocer, which wants to send small parties of poor, persecuted Jews to Palestine. He writes a play for the Jargon Theater and puts all of his grievances into it; the audience walks out.

He is a realist. He correctly perceives that Simon Wolf's atheism offends many workers, but after making a rousing speech at one of Wolf's labor rallies, Pinchas lights a cigar (on the Sabbath) and outrages the audience. And he is a fantasist. He suggests that he and Wolf should stand for Parliament and that the legislators "will bend before my oratory ... [and] make me Prime Minister" (1, 357).

He seeks the editorship of Flag of Judah, an orthodox newspaper started by the Cooperative Kosher Society, but Raphael Leon gets the position. The paper is later sold to Henry Goldsmith who is more devout than his wife and her West-End circle and he sees it as "a great opportunity to save English Judaism ... [that] is being fritted away" (2, 97). When Leon is fired because he is "not orthodox enough," Pinchas, who has written some "ingenious" and "interesting" articles for the paper, is appointed editor: "Now vill I give it to English Judaism. She is in my power" (2, 287).

Sons of the Covenant

The Sons of the Covenant is one of many small congregations in the ghetto. Their synagogue, "the pivot of their barren lives" (1, 218), is on the ground floor of the building where the Ansells live on the top floor.

The worshipers come "two and often three times a day ... mostly in their work-a-day garments and grime, and rumbled and roared and chorussed prayers with a zeal that shook the window-panes, and there was never lack of minyan [quorum]" (1, 213).

The synagogue is more than a place of worship: "It was their salon and their lecture-hall. It supplied them not only with their religion but their art and letters, their politics and their amusements. It was their home as well as the Almighty's.... They enjoyed themselves in this Shool of theirs" (1, 213-14).

Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage is not only about one young soldier's experiences in the American Civil War but also about all soldiers facing death and fearing cowardice. In the same way the Jewish immigrants in the East Side of London in the 19th century in Children of the Ghetto represent all immigrants -- their dreams and disappointments, joys and pains, triumphs and failures -- some escaping persecution, all seeking a better life.

Some of the problems that confront them are specific to Jewish immigrants, such as maintaining the dietary laws and a pervasive if not virulent anti-Semitism. Others are specific to 19th-century England, such as a general weakening of religious belief, a changing labor market and inadequate housing and sanitation. Many of the problems affect all immigrants, such as the inability to understand the language, a lack of education and job skills and looking "alien."

Parents and their children are often in conflict because they have different beliefs and goals and because the children simply want to be free of the restraints of their parents, to make their own lives in the way they see fit. In the ghetto the "generation gap" is intensified because the families are immigrants.

The first generation of immigrants are often more comfortable living near each other, eating the same foods, dressing the same way, practicing the same religion, speaking their native language, preserving the customs and traditions of their culture. They resist assimilation. Some toil to simply stay alive. Other do better and are able to send money back to the "old country" to help those who remain or to bring them to the new country.

Through the schools their children are exposed to the new culture to a greater degree than their parents. They usually do not resist but actively seek assimilation. They want avoid discrimination. They want to look and sound and act like everyone else. They see the advantages of embracing the new culture, its freedoms and opportunities.

In Children of the Ghetto religion compounds the generational conflict. The daily rituals and adherence to the dietary laws is seen as burdensome by many of the children. The young men find that good jobs require working on the Sabbath. Some of the younger women are rankled by the strict obedience to fathers and subservience to husbands. The children prefer marriage for love to arranged marriages for financial security and do not fear or detest "mixed" marriage.

Zangwill treats his characters sympathetically but not sentimentally; he doesn't fail to show their faults and weaknesses. The well-off ghetto residents flaunt the quality of their possessions at the less well-off. The immigrants are superstitious and spread rumors. They cheat and lie and dissemble. They argue endlessly and hold grudges. The West-End Jews generally disdain lower-class Jews. The ghetto Jews have their prejudices: the Poles and Germans and Russians and Lithuanians despise each other.

For the most part Zangwill avoids stereotypes and shows the children of the ghetto to be decent, hard-working people trying to get by as best they can. However, except for apostates, Zangwill doesn't depict any serious moral transgressors: there are no drunks, wife-beaters, embezzlers, thieves or murderers.

Zangwill was an optimistic realist not a pessimistic naturalist. The ghetto is not only a "long-drawn-out tragi-comedy of sordid and shifty poverty" but also "a region where, amid uncleanness and squalor, the rose of romance blows yet a little longer in the raw air of English reality; a world which hides beneath its stony and unlovely surface an inner world of dreams" (1, 5).

The Jewish immigrants are "rich in their cheerfulness, their industry, and their cleverness" (1, 6). In his panorama of life in the ghetto he shows us the comic and tragic, the beautiful and ugly, the mysterious and mundane, success and failure, the ideal and real, hope and despair, humor and sadness, joy and sorrow.

Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898)

Zangwill calls this book "a Chronicle of Dreamers, who have arisen in the Ghetto from its establishment in the sixteenth century to its slow breaking-up in our own day. Some have become historic in Jewry, others have penetrated to the ken of the greater world and afforded models to illustrious artists in letters."6 Included are short stories and fictionalized portraits of Sabbatai Zevi, Baruch Spinoza, Israel Ball Shem, Salomon Maimon, Moses Mendelssohn, Benjamin Disraeli and Heinrich Heine.

Ghetto Tragedies (1899)

This collection is composed of eleven serious, sometimes ironic, stories of generational conflict, Sabbath-breaking, apostasy, self-sacrifice, redemption and the search for a Jewish homeland.

"They That Walk in Darkness"

For a year pious, childless Zellah fasts twice a week on the days of "the long 'He being merciful'" prayer and she becomes pregnant (2).7 Brum is born sickly and just before his Bar-Mitzvah he goes blind. The doctors say he will never see again. Zillah's Irish-Catholic Sabbath-Fire woman tells her that the Pope can perform miracles. Zellah takes Brum to Rome. They have an audience with the Pope but Brum dies. Ironically, her piety may have contributed to Brum's poor health and blindness, because she continued to fast throughout her pregnancy and her impiety in taking Brum on a long trip to see the Pope may have contributed to the deterioration of his health and death. Pious Zillah, determined but ignorant, loved her God, her husband and her son.


Wealthy Daniel Peyser, a respected member of the Jewish community in Portsmouth, moved his family to London in order to find suitable husbands for his seven daughters. He is not happy but six of his daughters marry. The youngest Schnapsie falls in love with Alfred, a Christian. In order to make her happy, he pretends that he does not disapprove of the marriage. In the end Schnapsie recognizes the sacrifice he was going to make for her and she calls off the wedding.

"The Land of Promise"

Srul immigrates to America because he cannot find a job; he will not work on the Sabbath. After several years he becomes the owner of a clothing store and is able to bring his mother, his fiancee Leah and her sister to America. But Leah is denied entry because of her inflamed eyes. After some time, when she is able to enter the United States through Canada, she finds that selfish, assimilated Srul has married her younger, prettier sister and that he keeps his store open on the Sabbath.

"To Die in Jerusalem"

Isaac Levinsky, son of a Rabbi, is an apostate. When his father, who has emigrated to Palestine, learns that Isaac is dying he returns to London. Isaac who repents his apostasy travels to Jerusalem to be with his father. Although each dies without the other, both die contented.


The narrator travels to the Carpathian mountains where he meets Bethulah, the daughter of a miracle-performing Rabbi who leads a sect which believes that she is destined to give birth to the Messiah. She is a "sacred celibate" (220). The narrator wants to marry her but is rejected by her father. He returns to America, marries and has children. He returns to the mountain village many years later and finds Bethulah, old but still beautiful, believing that like Sarah in Genesis she may still bear a child.

"The Keeper of Conscience"

When her father divorces her mother (taking the furniture with him), Salvina Brell assumes the responsibility of supporting her family. She doesn't see that her brother is feckless, that her sister, a governess, is self-centered and her mother is a shrew. She has a "martyr-complex" and sacrifices her own hopes and dreams to support them. Years pass. She wins the lottery, but dies of heart disease before anyone can tell her. When her father's second wife dies, her mother takes him back. Salvina's family did not appreciate what she did for them; in fact, they despised her because she was too hard-working and conscientious. At her funeral her mother says "she did spoil our lives for years" (342).

"Satan Mekatrig"

Moshé Grinwitz comes under the influence of a mysterious, red-haired hunchback (the Satan Mekatrig Moshé's wife says). Although he does not convert to Christianity for money as the hunchback had, he does stop praying and attending synagogue. Moshé is redeemed on his death bed because of his wife's piety and faithfulness.

"Diary of a Meshummad"

The Russian diarist, a convert to Christianity, raised his son Paul in the Orthodox church. Now older, wealthy and a widower he returns to Judaism. Paul is an anti-Semitic writer and editor and refuses his father's offer to share his wealth. At the end a pogrom is in progress and the diarist hears the mob shouting: "God pity me, it is Paul's words they are shouting..." (454).


This is the story of self-sacrificing Sarah who voluntarily entered the Incurables Ward in order to relieve her husband of the cost of caring for her. She summons him because she has learned that he is living with another woman. But instead of chastising him, she urges him to divorce her so he won't live in sin and she blesses her husband's new woman.

"The Sabbath-Breaker"

A 100-year-old Polish woman on the Incurables Ward tells the story of her trip to see her dying son forty years ago. She set out just as the Sabbath began. Rabbinical law prohibited the journey but she decided that it would be less sinful if she walked instead of getting a ride. The 37-mile journey is difficult. When she arrives the evening of the next day, she learns that her son died the previous day and had been buried quickly because of the Sabbath. Ironically, if she had ridden instead of walking she would have arrived in time to pray with him before he died. Now that she is dying she repeats what she said during that journey: "The little mother is on the way" (486).

"Noah's Ark" is referred to in the discussion of Zionism.

Ghetto Comedies (1907)

Zangwill writes in the introductory Note that in "the old definition a comedy could be distinguished from a tragedy by its happy ending. ... This is a crude conception of the distinction between Tragedy and Comedy, which I have ventured to disregard, particularly in the last ['Samooborona'] of these otherwise unassuming stories" (vii).8

"The Model of Sorrows"

The narrator employs Israel Quarriar, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, as his model for a painting of Christ. At first he portrays him with dignity, but then he learns that Israel is a liar and dishonest; he is both a victim and a victimizer. The artist adds "into that face of sorrows a look of craft and guile." The final painting of the Man of Sorrows embodies "the true tragedy of the people of Christ -- to have persisted sublimely, and to be as sordidly perverted; to be king and knave in one" (55).


The Cohns (Cohens) are eager to be assimilated into English society. Solomon, a clothing merchant, and his wife are observant Jews; their son Simon is not. He fights in the Boer War like a good Englishman. He falls in love with a wealthy, Christian woman. When he presses her to marry, she says she can't because he is a Jew. He is horrified when she suggests that he convert to Christianity. His mother comforts him; "their love the one thing saved from Anglicization" (101).

"The Jewish Trinity"

Leopold Barstein, a nonobservant Jewish sculptor, is inspired by Sir Aaron Aaronsberg's piety. He joins the Zionists and attends a Zionist congress. Ironically, Sir Aaron refuses to allow Berstein to marry his daughter because he is a Zionist. Each man does a good job of laying out the arguments for and against Zionism. At the end Barstein observes that Jews like Sir Aaron are a trinity: "the Briton, the Jew, and the anti-Semite" (135).

"The Sabbath Question in Sudminster"

In this humorous story Simon Samuels, recently arrived in Sudminster, keeps his store open on the Sabbath. The other Jewish merchants are offended and make several attempts to stop him, but he cleverly throws their accusations back against them. Finally, they decide to keep their stores open on the Sabbath to compete with him until they drive him out of business. They succeed, but after he leaves town "the Sudminster congregation ... listening reverentially every Saturday morning to the unchanging principles of its minister-elect, the while its shops are engaged in supplying the wants of Christendom" (196).

"The Red Mark"

This story illustrates the fundamental problem of education in the ghetto: regular attendance. Ten-year-old Bloomah Beckenstein's school awards a banner to the class with the highest average attendance each week, but her class rarely receives it, because duties at home cause Bloomah to be frequently absent.

"The Bearer of Burdens"

Natalya's daughter Fanny marries Henry Elkman and has two children, Becky and Joseph. When Fanny dies, Henry marries Madge, a Christian, who dies giving birth to a daughter Daisy. Henry then marries a (nameless) Jew who drinks and beats the children. When Henry disappears, Natalya takes in all three children and works very hard as an old clo' woman to raise them. Becky and Joseph are ungrateful and leave as soon as they are old enough, but Daisy remains. Years later Daisy's Christian grandmother finds her. Natalya dies reciting the Hebrew prayer welcoming the Sabbath while Daisy repeats a Christian text taught her by her Christian grandmother.


Sculptor Leopold Barstein helps Nehemia Silverman, restauranteur and dentist, impoverished father of eleven -- the Luftmensch ("air man"): "The superficial might call him shiftless, but ... was he not rather an education in the art of living? Did he not incarnate the great Jewish gospel of the improvident lilies?" (275).

"The Tug of Love"

In this humorous story Elias Goldenberg breaks off his engagement to Fanny Fersht when he sees her holding hands with another worker in Belcovitch's sweat shop. When Fanny refuses to return the engagement ring, Elias engages Jonathan Sugarman, the marriage broker, to help him.

"The Yiddish Hamlet"

Melchitsedek Pinchas rewrite's Hamlet and "improves" it by removing the ghost and making Hamlet Jewish. At the premiere he is horrified to see that the producer had restored the ghost, added songs and turned it into a Passover play. He rushes on stage and beats the "Prince of Palestine" with a cane.

"The Converts"

Elkan Mandle leaves his family and runs off to America with beautiful Gittel Goldsten. She leaves Elkan and becomes the famous actor Yvonne Rupert. Years later he tries to reunite with her but she rejects him as does his wife when he seeks reconciliation. Contemplating suicide he realizes that there is "always one last refuge for the failures of the Ghetto": he becomes the successful Rev. Moses Elkan, "the converted Jew" (353).

"Holy Wedlock"

In this humorous story a village is scandalized by the courting of Bube Yenta, 84, by Yossel Mandelstein, 75. Yossel's grandson Schneemann tries to prevent the marriage by giving him money for a trip to Palestine. Ironically, he provides that which had prevented them from marrying. Bube had wanted to "elope" for years, but Yossel said he would not use her money; they would wait until he could afford it.

"Elijah's Goblet"

One night Maimon, an apostate, replaces the consecration wine in the synagogue with bullock's blood. It will be used as proof that the Jews intended to use the blood of a missing child in their service and, thus, a reason for slaughtering them. The next day Cossacks ride into the synagogue but find only wine. The previous night at Aaron ben Amaram's house Maimon drank the wine from Elijah's goblet during the Seder supper and was so moved that he confessed what he had done. With Ben Amaram's help he returned to the synagogue and replaced the wine bottle. Thus, a pogrom was averted.

"The Hireling"

On board a ship the pianist Rozenoffski is returning from an American tour which was unsuccessful, he believes, because "narrow-minded anti-Semites" regard him as a Jew rather than an artist even though he shares their aversion for "the gaberdine [and] the three-brass balls" (402-403).

He meets "a glorious young Jewess" who is working as a maid to wealthy Mrs. Wilhamer who refused to receive him in Chicago. He dismisses the maid as a mere hireling. Later, he learns that she is a doctor and is working her way back to Russia in order to help the victims of the pogroms. She says that Jewish artists are assimilated hirelings.

Rizenoffski recognizes himself in what she says and decides to join her in her mission. He is inspired to compose a medley of synagogue songs. Hearing him play Mrs. Wilhamer invites him to give a recital at her home. Her patronage will provide access to "spacious salons and radiant hostesses and the great free life of art." He believes that he has finally "burst the coils of this narrow tribalism" and escaped "from the fusty conventicles and the sunless Ghettos" (425), but, of course, he is a hireling again.


David Ben Amram of the Jewish Party of Self-Defence travels to Milovka to organize the villagers to defend themselves against the coming pogrom. He is unsuccessful because most of them belong to one of many rival factions: Social Revolutionists, Polish Party of Socialism, Socialistes Sionistes, Socialist Territorialists, Poali Zion, Zioni-Zionists, Monarchists, Republicans, Party of Popular Liberty. A few are unaffiliated and others simply believe that a pogrom is impossible: "Europe would not permit it. America would prohibit it" (464). They refuse to unite for the purpose of common defense.

As the pogrom begins David reminds himself that "there is one form of Samooborona [self-defense] left" and "with an ironic laugh he turned his pistol upon himself." "The same unconditional historic necessity had overtaken them all" (487).

See also

Israel Zangwill and Zangwill's Zones


1Robert Elsmere is an Oxford-educated Anglican minister who marries a woman of rigid orthodoxy. He is influenced by conversations with and the writings of skeptics, rationalists and intellectuals. He leaves the Church and attempts to establish a new religion which involves doing social work among the poor.

2In some places in the world at various times in history the ghetto was a place to which Jews were confined by law. It might be fenced and locked at night. There were restriction regarding who could enter and leave and for what purpose.

London's Jewish ghetto was not a place to which Jews were legally restricted. It was the area of London's East End in which poor Jews (often recently-arrive immigrants) lived. The East End was home to the poor of many nationalities, including Irish, German, Chinese and English. Most cities of Europe and America had voluntary ghettos of different nationalities and religions.

Immigrants usually settle in the less-desirable areas of a city because rents are low. They seek each other out and form neighborhoods where a degree of continuity with their old lives can be maintained, speaking their native languages and practicing the same customs. They face many of the same problems and they learn from and provide support to each other.

3All citations are from Children of the Ghetto, 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1892).

4Esther's rise from the ghetto to published author is not as implausible as it might seem. It was not uncommon for poor children to be taken in ("adopted") by wealthy families, especially relatives, and Zangwill himself grew up in the ghetto, became a teacher, graduated from London University and published his first (satirical) work pseudonymously.

5The reaction to Amy Levy's 1888 novel Ruben Sachs: A Sketch was similar to the reaction to Esther's. Jews condemned it and non-Jewish critics said it confirmed the stereotypes of rich Jews. Levy committed suicide soon after it was published.

6Israel Zangwill, "Preface," Dreamers of the Ghetto (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1898), iii.

7All citations are from Ghetto Tragedies (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1899).

8All citations are from Ghetto Comedies (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1907).