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Yiddish Theatre

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The First Melting Pot :A new collection of his plays by Israel Zangwill
By Ted Merwin

A new collection of his plays rightfully rescues early 20th-century British intellectual Israel Zangwill from obscurity.

We use no metaphor to describe our culture to ourselves more frequently than that of the melting pot; a search on Google comes up instantly with more than three million hits; the first page of results contains a candle-making business, interracial greeting card company and a defunct home schooling organization in Las Vegas.

But few remember that it was an Anglo-Jewish intellectual, Israel Zangwill, who popularized the term in “The Melting Pot,” a 1908 play about a fervently patriotic Jewish violinist on Staten Island (then called Richmond) who views America as a “great new continent that could melt up all race differences and vendettas.”

Thanks to Edna Nahshon, a Tel Aviv-born professor of Hebrew at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Zangwill’s most important works for the theater will now find a new audience. Wayne State University Press has just published three of Zangwill’s plays, including “The Melting Pot,” along with extensive introductions and commentary by Nahshon. The other two plays, “Children of the Ghetto” and “The King of Schnorrers” were believed to have been lost; Nahson tracked them down in the British Library, along with an original manuscript of “The Melting Pot.” The result is that Zangwill emerges as a major Jewish playwright, who deserves a reassessment of his life and work.

Born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in London’s East End in 1864, Zangwill called himself a “Cockney Jew” in a nod to his working-class origins. His first novel, “Children of the Ghetto,” a series of colorful, finely drawn portraits of Jewish denizens of the immigrant district, invited comparisons to the work of George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Nahshon quotes an American critic, Louis Lipsky, noting that the novel “gave American Jews for the first time an adequate picture how we, our parents and grandparents, appeared in the sight of the world.”

For the dramatic version, Zangwill focused on a series of conflicts between religious orthodoxy and secular desires; the play ends with a woman torn between allowing her non-religious Jewish fiancי to tear her away from her father or remaining loyal to her father and his interpretation of Torah.

In the dramatic version of “Children of the Ghetto,” as Nahshon told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview, Zangwill created the “first English-language play produced on the mainstream American stage to be entirely dedicated to a serious portrayal of Jewish life.” In her introduction, she discusses the history of the “stage Jew,” who took several decades to rise out of caricature and ridicule and lose, as Nahshon writes, his “silly or grotesque physical and linguistic otherness.” Zangwill continued to elevate Jewish characters from parody in “The Melting Pot” and “The King of Schnorrers.”

“The Melting Pot,” which premiered in Washington in 1908, emphasized the tumultuous processes by which the massive European immigration to America at the turn of the 20th century was rebuilding American culture from the ground up; Zangwill used intermarriage between Jews and Christians to suggest the coming fusion of different races, religions and ethnicities. “The King of Schnorrers,” based on Zangwill’s ingenious 1893 comic novella of the same name, is a comedy of manners set in 18th century London, when more established Sephardic Jews turned up their noses at the parvenu Ashkenazim, much as German Jews did to their East European brethren a century later in America.

The Metropolitan Playhouse in New York is planning a revival of “The Melting Pot” for next March. And Nahshon also finds “The King of Schnorrers” to be a prime candidate for resurrection, even as it still awaits its first professional, English-language production in America. (It was staged by Jacob P. Adler in New York in 1905 in a Yiddish-language version, but, other than “Schnorrers,” a loose musical adaptation of the novella produced off-Broadway in 1979, it has been done only in Great Britain.)

Why has Zangwill fallen into relative obscurity, especially on these shores? Part of the reason, according to Nahshon, may lie with his politics. After being enlisted by Max Nordau and Theodore Herzl in 1895 to help win support for the nascent Zionist movement, he soon threw his influence behind the proposal to establish a Jewish refuge in Uganda rather than Palestine, a position that brought him great censure. Although he rejoined the Zionists in 1917, Zangwill remained committed to what was called a “territorialist” vision of resettling the suffering European Jews in whatever country could provide a hospitable environment — including supporting the Galveston Plan, an effort to resettle European Jews in the American Southwest. Nahshon believes that Zangwill viewed himself almost in biblical terms, as a potential Moses who could lead his people into redemption.

In the end, Zangwill had to settle for a reputation as what Nahshon dubs “the best-known person in English letters,” someone she compares to Elie Wiesel nowadays — a public intellectual who becomes a kind of representative Jewish figure esteemed by both Jews and non-Jews alike. As the new volume of his plays amply demonstrates, he was also far ahead of his time in his dramatization of the very kinds of issues that preoccupy us today — conflict between those of the same ethnicity or nationality but different religious views, marriage between those of different origins and the need to grant humanity to the most vulnerable in our midst.

And even as he intermarried himself and left no Jewish descendants, Zangwill remained, above all, concerned about securing the future of the Jewish people. Nahshon does a great service in helping to keep his legacy alive.


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  • Israel Zangwill on Broadway
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  • The Golden Epoch of Yiddish Theatre in America : A Brief Historical Overview

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  • Israel Zangwill

    Wayne State University Press has just published three of Zangwill’s plays

    Edna Nahshon

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