Zangwill, Israel

views updated May 23 2018


ZANGWILL, ISRAEL (1864–1926), English author. Born in London of a poor Russian immigrant family, Zangwill was first raised in Bristol and then educated at the Jews' Free School in the East End of London and at London University, where he graduated with honors in 1884, and became a teacher. He began his literary career with humorous short stories, but his early life had given him material for work of a far more serious kind. Sensing that he would one day wish to record the world of East London Jewry in novel form, he carefully noted down his early observations and any chance incidents or anecdotes that came his way. These notebooks formed the basis of his "ghetto" novels. Underlying Zangwill's work was also a serious intellectual and spiritual concern with Jewish existence in the Diaspora. This was reflected in the essay on Anglo-Jewry which he contributed to the first volume of the Jewish Quarterly Review in 1889. In this article he laid powerful emphasis on the permanent significance of Judaism as a revealed religion; but he also confessed that, in the light of modern skepticism and as a result of the emancipation of the Jews and the breakdown of the ghetto system, Judaism was no longer a viable faith. The Jew, he wrote, was "like a mother who clasps her dead child to her breast and will not let it go." There is a paradox here which indeed runs through Zangwill's life and work. He was passionately devoted to the values of the Jewish past as enshrined in the ghetto, but at the same time he sought to escape from what he felt to be the ghetto's restrictiveness. Like all his major characters, Zangwill was a child of two worlds. The Jewish Quarterly Review article attracted the attention of Judge Mayer *Sulzberger of Philadelphia and, as a result, Zangwill was invited to write a novel for the Jewish Publication Society of America. This was the genesis of his internationally successful Children of the Ghetto (1892), which records the history of the Ansell family – clearly a reflection of the history of his own family, with Zangwill himself projected as Esther Ansell, the heroine. Children of the Ghetto is a mixture of comedy, pathos, trivial episodes, and serious questioning of the nature of Judaism. From a formal and tonal point of view, it is an incompletely unified novel, but it has an epic range and depth and clearly penetrates to the tragedy – as well as the comedy – of Jewish life. All the characters, including the heroine, seek to escape from the ghetto and its religious and social forms, but they nearly all wander back in the end, returning to its spiritual comforts. Among the comic characters is the ghetto poet Melchizedek Pinchas – actually an unflattering pen portrait of Naphtali Herz *Imber, author of Ha-Tikvah. Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898) consists of a series of sketches based on the lives of historical figures, including the author's father, Moses Zangwill (who ended his days in Jerusalem), Benjamin *Disraeli, Heinrich *Heine, Ferdinand *Lassalle, *Shabbetai Zevi, and Baruch *Spinoza. Most of these men were also affected by the tragic duality of Jewish existence and sought to find some way of mediating between the living inheritance of Judaism and the powerful attractions of the world outside; but, in contrast to the main figures in Children of the Ghetto, they nearly all chose the road of apostasy. Other ghetto studies are The King of Schnorrers (1894), a hilarious, if imaginary, account of London Jewry in the 18th century; Ghetto Tragedies (1893); and Ghetto Comedies (1907). Many of these shorter pieces are of only ephemeral significance, but some generate the full power of Zangwill's major work, as for instance "The Diary of a Meshumad" in Ghetto Tragedies. This tells the story of the inner conflicts of a Russian Jew, married to a non-Jewess and living his Judaism secretly within himself. Zangwill also wrote many novels without any Jewish content at all. They include The Master (1895), the story of an immigrant child from Canada who finally succeeds in becoming a famous artist; The Mantle of Elijah (1900), about the events of the Boer War; and Jinny, the Carrier (1919), a novel set in mid-19th-century rural England. These now have only historical interest. He also wrote several plays, including The War God (1911); The Cockpit (1921); and The Forcing House (1922). The Melting Pot (1909), a drama about Jewish settlement in America, had a long run on Broadway, but its theme ("America is God's crucible, the great melting-pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming") was, perhaps, exaggerated. In this work he coined the phrase "the melting pot" to describe America and its immigrants, a phrase which has become proverbial. Zangwill abandoned the idea within a few years. Except for this latter attempt, his plays were not greatly successful on the stage, and his last years were embittered by frustrating struggles with unsympathetic producers. Zangwill also wrote one of the great classics of the "locked room" detective story, The Big Bow Mystery (1891).

Zangwill's interests were by no means confined to literature. He took an active part in public questions, including women's suffrage and, during World War i, pacifism. It was to him that *Herzl came in 1895, introducing himself with the words: "I am Theodor Herzl. Help me to rebuild the Jewish state." A year later Zangwill enabled Herzl to address his first London audience, and to that rally of the Maccabeans in 1896 the beginnings of British Zionism may be traced. Zangwill immediately saw the significance of Zionism and became a follower of Herzl and also became a friend of Max *Nordau, whose Degeneration, when the English version appeared in 1895, had made a deep impression on him. He joined the Maccabeans' pilgrimage to Ereẓ Israel in 1897 and attended the First Zionist Congress as a visitor. More interested in Jewish nationhood than in the Jewish land, he abandoned official Zionism when the Seventh Zionist Congress (1905) rejected the *Uganda offer. He then founded the Jewish Territorial Organization (see *Territorialism), dedicated to the creation of a Jewish territory in some country that need not necessarily be Palestine. He threw himself into this project with characteristic zeal and energy, recruiting for it the support of the first Lord *Rothschild and of the U.S. philanthropist Jacob *Schiff. The movement's only substantial achievement was the settlement of several thousand Jews in *Galveston, Texas, in the years before World War i. With the issue of the *Balfour Declaration in 1917, Zangwill temporarily returned to his Zionist faith. He became disillusioned, however, as a result of the difficulties encountered by the settlers in Palestine and the opposition of the Arabs and, in his final years, returned to his belief in a territorial solution for the Jewish problem outside Palestine. It is possible to discern a connection between Zangwill's Jewish novels and his political efforts for i.t.o. (see Territorialism). In both, the reality of a Jewish organic existence in the Diaspora is central. A self-governing Jewish territory would be a kind of super-ghetto, perpetuating what was presumably best in the ghetto system without the necessity for a radical spiritual readjustment such as a Jewish renaissance in the Holy Land seemed to demand. Yiddish was, for Zangwill, the true repository of Jewish culture. It is interesting that "ITO land" was not Zangwill's only solution for the Jewish problem. Along with it he paradoxically entertained another idea almost its antithesis: the melting away of Jewish separatism and the absorption of Judaism into a new religion of the future, which would embody the best of Hebraism, Hellenism, and Christianity. Such ideas are set out in his plays The Melting Pot and The Next Religion and in a number of occasional essays printed at different times.

Zangwill was a brilliant and witty speaker and could always draw a capacity audience of London's Jews. Some of his best-known aphorisms were: "A chosen people is really a choosing people," "Every dogma has its day, but ideas are eternal," and "The history of the ghetto is from more than one aspect the story of the longest and bravest experiment that has ever been made in practical Christianity." His major essays on the Jewish question are collected in The Voice of Jerusalem (1920), which contained such biting remarks as: "If there were no Jews, they would have to be invented, for the use of politicians – they are indispensable, the antithesis of a panacea; guaranteed to cause all evils." A further collection of Speeches, Articles and Letters was issued in 1937. Zangwill also contributed several verse translations of portions of the liturgy, which ingeniously preserved the original's acrostic and rhyming schemes, to an edition of the Festival Prayer Book (1904, and several editions); and he translated a selection of the poems of Ibn *Gabirol in 1903. But his genius did not lie in poetry: his true bent was for comedy and for eloquent narrative and expository prose. His major works were translated into about 20 languages. In 1903 Zangwill married Edith Ayrton (1875–1945), the daughter of a distinguished physicist and the stepdaughter of a Jewish woman, Phoebe Marks Ayrton, herself a distinguished physicist. Edith Zangwill was a noted novelist in her own right.

His younger brother, louis zangwill (1869–1938), wrote under the pseudonym "Z.Z." and achieved some success with his first novel, A Drama in Dutch (1894). His other works include The Beautiful Miss Brooke (1897), Cleo the Magnificent (1898), and a study of the dramatist Richard *Cumberland (1911). Louis Zangwill was, in his earlier years, a chess champion and a gifted mathematician. Israel Zangwill's son, oliver louis zangwill (1913–1987), was professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge from 1952 until 1991. He wrote several books on psychology, amnesia, and animal behavior.


M. Wohlgelernter, Israel Zangwill: A Study (1964), incl. bibl.; A. Spire, Israël Zangwill (Fr., 1909); J. Leftwich, Israel Zangwill (Eng., 1957); M. Freund, Israel Zangwills Stellung zum Judentum (1927); N. Glazer and D.P. Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), 288f.; H. Fisch, in: Judaism, 13 (1964), 107–21; L. Wolf, in: jhset, 11 (1928), 252–60. add. bibliography: odnb online; E.B. Adams, Israel Zangwill (1971); J.H. Udelson, Dreamer of the Ghetto: The Life and Works of Israel Zangwill (1990).

[Harold Harel Fisch]

Israel Zangwill

views updated May 29 2018

Israel Zangwill

The Jewish author and philosopher Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) was an influential leader of English Jewry and a Zionist activist.

Israel Zangwill was born in London. His family, Russian Jews, lived in London's east side in the Jewish quarter of White-chapel. After receiving both an English and a Jewish education, he studied philosophy, history, and the sciences at the University of London. At the same time he taught at the Free Jewish School of London. Having left teaching for a career in journalism, he generated much popular interest as a writer and a literary editor. Even in his first articles he showed a keen sensitivity to tragic and comic themes alike and succeeded in combining powers of realistic description with a fertile imagination.

Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto was published in 1892. The work had considerable impact in the non-Jewish world, giving the English reader a jarring glimpse of the poverty-stricken life of London's Jewish quarter. His success encouraged him both to continue his literary work and to deal with the themes of ghetto life. Thus he published Ghetto Tragedies in 1894 and Dreams of the Ghetto in 1898. His stories and novels are not merely peopled with Jewish characters but are permeated by a sense of the Jewish life-style and its values. It is in this pervading quality that the uniqueness of Zangwill's contribution to English literature lies.

Zangwill's productivity ranged over many literary genres. He wrote a number of unsuccessful plays. In 1908 he published a volume of poetry, Blind Children, followed by another, Italian Phantasies, in 1910. He translated into English a selection of religious poetry by the Jewish medieval poet Solomon in Cabirol, which he published in Selected Religious Poems (1903).

In the early 1890s Zangwill had joined the Lovers of Zion movement in England. In 1897 he participated in the "pilgrimage" of English Jews to Palestine. That year he also joined Theodor Herzl in founding the World Zionist Organization and later took part in the first seven Zionist congresses. Zangwill was renowned as an orator, and his impassioned speeches made deep impressions upon the delegates to the Zionist congress. He advocated the plan for Jewish settlement in Uganda, and after this plan was rejected by the Seventh Zionist Congress (1905), he with Max Mandelstamm, founded the Jewish Territorial Organization. This organization investigated sites for the establishment of a Jewish nation in Canada, Argentina, Australia, and Africa.

When the prospects of Jewish settlement in Palestine became more clearly defined at the end of World War I, Zangwill returned to the Zionist effort and took active part in soliciting the Balfour Declaration, proclaiming the right of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine.

Further Reading

The most complete study of Zangwill in English is Maurice Wohlgelernter, Israel Zangwill: A Study (1964). Other biographies are Harry Schneiderman's short and laudatory Israel Zangwill (1928) and Joseph Leftwich's largely anecdotal Israel Zangwill (1957).

Additional Sources

Udelson, Joseph H., Dreamer of the ghetto: the life and works of Israel Zangwill, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. □

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Israel Zangwill

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