The Jew in Literature:
Israel Zangwill and the "Children of the Ghetto"

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From the Jewish Herald, Houston, Texas
dated March 12, 1909

"The Children of the Ghetto."
Read Before the Beth Israel Literary Society
--By Miss Sara Segal

Due to the exclusiveness of our race, prejudice and want of information on the part of authors, the Jew in fiction does not figure as a hero.

We are not struck with his polished speeches, his knightly bearing, his brave stand in the face of the enemy, or the grandeur of his sentiments.

With the exception of Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot and possibly a few other, no Christian author had thought it worth while to study the Jew and present him truly.

His virtues have been minimized and his faults magnified and every peculiarity stressed. Not caring to go below the surface the Christian authors, did not seem to know that the best and most interesting things are hidden from view, and that the Jews are really a race of thinkers and enthusiasts.

Israel Zangwill.


Instead, however, the Jew in fiction is either an usurious money lender or engaged in some mercantile undertaking and making larger profits than could consistently accrue from the capital invested.

Shylock, the type of the money lender was drawn from hearsay rather than observation. It is doubtful whether Shakespeare ever saw a Jew. Dickens, the creator of Fagin, admitted that he had, had no original for that character. The sketches of the Jew's wife and family do not compliment them either. The children are often pictured as rebelling and ashamed of the faith of their fathers.

Among the Jews are the types mentioned. We have the merchants and the money lender. But it is strictly an injustice to say that these types characterize our race. No more than the Yankee represents the American, neither does the Jew of fiction represent the Jew.

So it has been left to one of our own race to portray us and perhaps that is best. For who could depict clearly or more sympathetically than one of our own kind!

Israel Zangwill, who has been called the unrivalled exponent of the modern Jew, first drew the attention of the public by his short character sketches. Later he came under the notice of the Jewish Publication Society of America, who requested him to write a novel on modern Jewish life.

The result was called the "Children of the Ghetto," being the pictures of a peculiar people. This book was his first real success. It was translated into German, Yiddish and parts of it into Hebrew.

The plot of the "Children of the Ghetto' is a very slender one. It is a story of character rather than of interesting situations. Not enough plot, but too much character portraiture, were some of the adverse criticisms when the book came out. The critic did not seem to realize that it is not a story of "they lived happy every after," kind.

The book consists of a mass of human interest as varied in its fun and sadness as life itself.

Reb Shemuel, in "Children of the Ghetto," 1899.

Reb Shemuel, character in the play
version of "Children of the Ghetto"
 (Herald Square Theatre, NY, Oct-Dec 1899)
photo courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.

This is the story in brief. Ephraim Phillips invites his friends to the redemption of his first born. Among the guests were Sam Levine, the chosen of Leah, and Hannah Jacobs, daughter of Reb Shemuel.  While the company were at the table, Sam with a dramatic gesture, held up the ring he had bought for Leah. Teasingly he put the ring on Hannah's finger and repeated the Hebrew formula, he had learned for his marriage.

"Behold thou art consecrated unto me by this ring according to the Law of Moses and Israel."

"The company thought it a good joke and laughed heartily. In the midst of the fun Reb Shemuel said gravely: "Mr. Levine, you have married Hannah." Imagine the consternation! Hannah didn't want Sam, Sam didn't want Hannah. So Sam had to be divorced from Hannah.

And this incident is the pivot on which the story turns. Later Hannah met her fate and became engaged to him without her father's knowledge thinking he would object to her lover because is is not frum.  In this she wronged her father for he does not stand in the way of her happiness.

The day before Pesach Reb Shemuel met his future son-in-law for the first time.

"Of course you'll come to the Seder tomorrow night and taste some of Hannah's cookery? You're one of the family now, you know."

"I shall be delighted to have the privilege of having Seder with you," replied David, his heart going out more and more to the fatherly old man.

"What Shul will you be going to for the Passover? I can get you a seat in mine if you haven't arranged."

"Thank you, but I promised Mr. Birnbaum t come to the little synagogue of which he is president. It seems they have a scarcity of Cohenism, and they want me to bless the congregation, I suppose."

"What?" cried Reb Shemuel, excitedly, "Are you a Cohen?"

"Of course I am. Why, they got me to bless them in the Transvaal last Yom Kippur. So you see I'm anything but a sinner in Israel." He laughted, but his laugh ended abruptly. Reb Shemuel face had grown white. His hands were trembling.

"What is the matter, you are ill?" cried David.

"My daughter cannot marry you," said Reb Shmeul, in hushed, quavering tones.

The fit of trembling passed from the old man to the young one. His heart pulsed as with the stroke of a mighty piston.

"Do you mean to say I can't marry Hannah?" he asked, almost in a whisper.

"Such is the law. A women who as had Gett may not marry a Cohen!"

"But you wouldn't call Hannah a divorced woman?" he cried, hoarsely.

"How shall I not? I gave her the divorce myself."

"Great God!" exclaimed David. "Then Sam has ruined our lives." He stood a moment in dazed horror, striving to grasp the terrible tangle. Then he burst forth: "This is some of your cursed Rabbinical laws; it is not Judaism, it is not true Judaism. God never made any such law."

"Hush!" said Reb Shemuel, sternly, "It is in the Holy Torah. It is not even the Rabbis of whom you speak like an Epicurean. It is in Leviticus, chapter 21; verse 7--Neither shall they take a woman put away from her husband; for he is holy unto God. Thou shalt sanctify him, therefore; for he offereth the bread of they God; he shall be holy unto thee, for I the Lord which sanctify you am holy.

For an instant David was overwhelmed by the quotation, for the Bible was still a sacred book to him. Then he cried indignantly: "But God never meant it to apply to a case like this."

"We must obey God's law," said Reb Shemuel.

David and Hannah decided to elope on the night of the first Seder. Hannah had always been rebellious at the many ceremonials of her father's religion. She thought herself hemmed in too much by traditional usages and wanted to be free. But when it came to the test she could not give up her religion. Passionately as she loved David, the traditions of her people were so deep-rooted she could not tear them out and become an outcast with David. Thus Hannah sacrificed her happiness.

Among the other characters are Moses Ansell, jack of all trades, and a very pious man. Sugarman, the Schadchan, who besides being a watchmaker, also sells tickets for the lottery. Pinchas, the poet, full of low cunning and poetic ecstasy.

Mr. and Mrs. Hyams, two pathetic figures sailing away to America because they thought they were a burden on their children.

The book is replete with witticisms of Jews and Jewish life.

Two Spanish Jews, who had got grace were waiting to be baptized at Burgos Cathedral. There was a great throng of Catholics and a special Cardinal was coming to conduct the ceremony, for their conversion was a great triumph. But the Cardinal was late and the Jews fumed and fretted at the delay. The shadows of evening were falling on vault and transept. At last, one turned to the other and said: "Knowest thou what, Moses? If the Holy Father does not arrive soon, we shall be too late to say Mincha."

"My sister has married a man who can't play cards," said Breckeloff.

"How lucky for her," answered several voices.

"No, it's just her black luck," he rejoined; "for he will play."

"Why, your sister's husband is a splendid player," said Sugarman with a flash of memory, and the company laughed afresh.

"Yes," said Breckeloff, " but he does not give me the chance of losing to him now, he's got such a stuck-up Kotzon. He belongs to Duke's Plaizer Shul and comes there very late, and when you ask him his birthplace, he forgets he was a Pole and says he comes from 'behind Berlin.' "

We are indebted to Mr. Zangwill for The Children of the Ghetto, for he introduced the Jew, not as he is in fiction; but as he is in fact.

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