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Life in the East End: Israel Zangwill’s ‘The Children of the Ghetto’

By Robyn Viney – Learning Intern

When one
thinks of historical research, the image of the novel is perhaps not the most
immediate association that is made. However, being that past generations were
cruelly robbed of the amenities to broadcast their experiences through social
media, or embellish them in a blockbuster film, works of fictional literature
are a valuable way of accessing a previous society’s culture.

Israel
Zangwill’s 1892 publication, ‘The Children of the Ghetto’, was a major hit in
Britain and America, after being published in both London and Philadelphia and
republished continually throughout the 20th century. As the son of
Latvian and Polish immigrant parents, Zangwill was a self-proclaimed
‘cockney-Jew’, a label he devised whilst trying to straddle the divide that second-generation
immigrant children faced in defining their identity in Britain. His family moved
to the East End of London whilst he was under the age of ten, and subsequently
he attended the Jews’ Free School in Spitalfields, an institution he described
in the novel as a centre of Jewish anglicisation. His intelligence and drive were
clear from the beginning, rising through classes at a rapid rate and beginning
to teach at the age of 14; the school still has a house named after him today.

It is
within this personal experience that we find the inspiration that shapes the messages
and characters within ‘Children of the Ghetto’. The novel not only tells us
about the living conditions and economies of Jewish people in London, or the
popularity of Jewish semi-autobiographical literature, but also paints a
picture of Zangwill’s life too.

Subjects
of charity, diaspora, and integration feature heavily throughout the text. Its
narrative follows the story of the Ansell family, consisting of father Moses,
oldest sister Esther, as well as 5 younger children. It is through their eyes that
we gage a real affinity with the struggles and joys of living as a Jew in later
Victorian London. Zangwill highlights both the major challenges and strange
combinations that emerged within the sphere of Eastern-European Jewish
tradition, conflicting the bustle of the increasingly industrialised cities of
19th century Britain.

Poverty is
a key catalyst in the novel and frames the lives of the Ansells. The contrast
in expectations is palpable, with Moses merely accepting his hunger as part of
his station in the world, whereas daughter Esther strives for more than she has
been dealt, unsatisfied by the seemingly justified reliance on the God given
wealth of the upper class of Jewish society. Esther is seen to mirror Zangwill
himself, eventually becoming a teacher at the end of the book just as Zangwill
did in his own career. Her embarrassment in collecting soup and bread from the
‘Tafeekin’ (charitable body), to take home to her siblings is introduced early
on as her greatest motivator to achieve more, to gain independence from her
seemingly subdued identity.

The
Tafeekin is at the core of this East End immigrant existence, in many ways acting
as the fundamental point of irritation that embodies Zangwill’s messages.
Around him he saw cycles of poverty, perpetuated both through discrimination on
the part of outside employers, but also through the inherent ghettoization of
the Jewish economy in England and the culture of ‘otherness’. Reliance upon
charity was prolonged by the instilled spiritual societies that ran his and his
family’s lives, with seemingly little alternative. In many ways, as Bryan
Cheyette argues, Zangwill made himself and his works difficult to adopt by the
Jewish communities of later generations because of his inability to see a
middle ground between religiosity of the ghetto and total assimilation.
Although, as the Jewish Herald of Texas wrote on March 12, 1909, Zangwill wrote
the Jew, ‘not how he be in fiction, but how he be in fact’, through his work on
‘Children of the Ghetto’, Zangwill’s moral and political ambitions were
developing in a far more provocative way.

The
politics of Zangwill were rooted in a deep and analytic scrutiny of anglicising
the Jewish identity. As the creator of the term ‘Melting Pot’, meaning a
collective of immigrants combined together to create a new cohesive culture –
often with reference to America, Zangwill was commenting on the frustrations
that separationist attitudes bought to his life. His beliefs led him to
advocate Territorial Zionism, the creation of a Jewish state on any land that
could be legally ascertained, as opposed to a specific ‘holy land’. Although
that may appear to disparage to idea of assimilation as a whole, in fact what
Zangwill implied through his writing of ‘Children of the Ghetto’ was the need
for distinction of some kind, as opposed to a tug-of-war between the observant
Jewish communities and a subliminal push towards Anglicism in education,
removing the difficulties associated with being a ‘cockney-Jew’ and aiding the
opportunity for youth such as Esther to decide how they want to live their
lives as adults.

Overall,
‘Children of the Ghetto’ was a piece unlike any other of its time. It both
enlightened a generation as to the religion and culture of Jewish people in
Britain, as well as challenging some of the traditional forms of Zionism and
religious separatism that existed during his lifetime. Sparking both criticism
and support from the Jewish community, even claims of blasphemy, Israel
Zangwill was a controversial and brave writer. His 1892 work warrants respect
and acknowledgment, which is why it sits in our museum today.

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