Israel Zangwill. Photograph by M. Landesberg. From the Berg Collection, New York Public Library (image id no. 484378). [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), the foremost Anglo-Jewish author of his generation, chronicled London’s Jewish East End in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Poland, he was born in Ebenezer Street in London’s East End, and Zangwill frequently described his identity as a “Cockney Jew”. He attended schools in Plymouth, Bristol, and the Jews’ Free School in Bell Lane in London, where he later taught. In 1884, he received a BA degree with triple honours from the University of London and devoted himself to journalism and literature. In 1890, he founded and edited the short-lived comic magazine Ariel, or The London Puck. He wrote sketches, essays, and editorials about Jewish immigrants for a number of British and American periodicals, including the Jewish Quarterly Review, founded by Israel Abrahams (1858-1925) and Claude Montefiore (1858-1938), distinguished Jewish scholars.

Israel Zangwill, who tried his hand in various forms of fiction on both Jewish and non-Jewish issues, published numerous short stories, several novels, and plays, including The Melting Pot (1908), which gave rise to the famous metaphor about America as a crucible where various nationalities are transformed into a new race. Under the pseudonym of J. Freeman Bell, Zangwill published together with Lewis (Laurence) Cowen (1865-1942) his first novel, The Premier and the Painter (1888), a political satire that emulated Dickensian humour, but had an entirely original plot. The novel contains some references to the East End slum life. Zangwill also wrote a series of essays on Jewish issues, the most important being Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898), a series of fictionalised biographies of notable Jewish thinkers including Spinoza and Heine.

Commissioned by the Jewish Publication Society of America, Zangwill wrote a novel of Jewish life, Children of the Ghetto (1892), which brought him an instant international fame. After the success of Children of the Ghetto he continued to deal with slum issues in his short stories, Ghetto Tragedies (1893, reissued and expanded in 1899) and Ghetto Comedies (1907).

After meeting Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionist movement, in 1895, Zangwill supported the Zionism until he created in 1905 his own movement, the Jewish Territorial Organization, whose aim was to promote settlement of Jews in areas outside of Palestine. Zangwill rejoined the Zionist movement following the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, which supported the establishment a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine.

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century saw a growing influx of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe to Victorian England. These immigrants, who often fled the pogroms in their homelands, were generally very poor; they spoke Yiddish and differed significantly from Anglo-Jewry. They had to compete with the local poor for jobs and accommodation. They were religiously orthodox and tried to maintain their Jewish identity living in a close-tied community. It is estimated that there were about 45,000 Jews living in the East End by the end of the Victorian era. (Rochelson, 18) The Jewish immigrants settled mostly in the East London’s districts of Spitalfields, Whitechapel, and Stepney. The Petticoat Lane Market was the most important Jewish market in the East End.

Children of the Ghetto

Zangwill’s most famous novel, Children of the Ghetto (published simultaneously in London and Philadelphia in 1892), relates the life and experiences of East European Jewish children in Whitechapel in the early 1880s. Its second part, Grandchildren of the Ghetto, which was later also published separately, deals mostly with the gradual evolution of Jewish identity, describing the move of some successful immigrant Jews from the slums to the affluent West End and their subsequent assimilation. As Meri-Jane Rochelson writes in her superbly researched Introduction to Zangwill’s novel:

Children of the Ghetto gave readers an inside look into an immigrant community that was nearly as mysterious to more established, middle-class Jews as it was to the non-Jewish population of Britain; at the same time, it provided a compelling analysis of the generation caught between the ghetto and modern British life. [11]

Unlike other slum novelists, such as Gissing, Morrison, and Kipling, Zangwill wrote about slum life in a more sympathetic or even entertaining way. Children of the Ghetto is a mix of loosely connected sketches of Jewish life in the East End, based on the author’s childhood memories of the Whitechapel slums. The novel opens with a Proem about the modern ghetto of London.

[T]his London Ghetto of ours is 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, fantastic and poetic as the mirage of the Orient where they were woven, of superstitions grotesque as the cathedral gargoyles of the Dark Ages in which they had birth. [61]

In the 1880s, the East End of London became a haven for poor Jewish immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe. They quickly established a tight community of craftsmen and traders who were allowed to develop their small businesses and practise Judaism freely without restrictions imposed on Jews in their former homelands.

Into the heart of East London there poured from Russia, from Poland, from Germany, from Holland, streams of Jewish exiles, refugees, settlers, few as well-to-do as the Jew of the proverb, but all rich in their cheerfulness, their industry, and their cleverness. The majority bore with them nothing but their phylacteries and praying shawls, and a good-natured contempt for Christians and Christianity. For the Jew has rarely been embittered by persecution. He knows that he is in Goluth, in exile, and that the days of the Messiah are not yet, and he looks upon the persecutor merely as the stupid instrument of an all-wise Providence. So that these poor Jews were rich in all the virtues, devout yet tolerant, and strong in their reliance on Faith, Hope, and more especially Charity. [62]

Zangwill vividly recreates the picture of Petticoat Lane Market where Jewish social life concentrated on Friday and Sunday fairs. Jewish immigrants were the most visible traders and buyers in the market.

The Lane was always the great market-place, and every insalubrious street and alley abutting on it was covered with the overflowings of its commerce and its mud. Wentworth Street and Goulston Street were the chief branches, and in festival times the latter was a pandemonium of caged poultry, clucking and quacking and cackling and screaming. Fowls and geese and ducks were bought alive, and taken to have their throats cut for a fee by the official slaughterer. At Purim a gaiety, as of the Roman carnival, enlivened the swampy Wentworth Street, and brought a smile into the unwashed face of the pavement. The confectioners’ shops, crammed with “stuffed monkeys” and “bolas,” were besieged by hilarious crowds of handsome girls and their young men, fat women and their children, all washing down the luscious spicy compounds with cups of chocolate; temporarily erected swinging cradles bore a vociferous many-colored burden to the skies; cardboard noses, grotesque in their departure from truth, abounded. [. . .]

The famous Sunday Fair was an event of metropolitan importance, and thither came buyers of every sect. The Friday Fair was more local, and confined mainly to edibles. The Ante-Festival Fairs combined something of the other two, for Jews desired to sport new hats and clothes for the holidays as well as to eat extra luxuries, and took the opportunity of a well-marked epoch to invest in new everythings from oil-cloth to cups and saucers. Especially was this so at Passover, when for a week the poorest Jew must use a supplementary set of crockery and kitchen utensils. A babel of sound, audible for several streets around, denoted Market Day in Petticoat Lane, and the pavements were blocked by serried crowds going both ways at once. [67]

The novel, which has a loose, episodic structure linked by the account of the fate of the Ansell family, is enriched by descriptions of Jewish customs and reflections about Jewish dual identity in England and elsewhere. Some characters and scenes in the novel are semi- autobiographical. For example, Mosel Ansell reminds Zangwill’s father, who was a wandering peddler.

Hawkers and peddlers, tailors and cigar-makers, cobblers and furriers, glaziers and cap-makers — this was in sum their life: to pray much and to work long; to beg a little and to cheat a little; to eat not over much and to “drink” scarce at all; to beget annual children by chaste wives (disallowed them half the year), and to rear them not over-well; to study the Law and the Prophets, and to reverence the Rabbinical tradition and the chaos of commentaries expounding it; [ . . .] to know no work on Sabbath and no rest on weekday. [184]

The Ansell family, which lives in poverty in one room in the Whitechapel ghetto, consists of Moses, his humble wife, who soon dies, their elder daughter Esther, three sons, one of whom is put in an orphan asylum, and two younger daughters. Moses is a pious man who believes that time spent in prayer will yield more than that given to work. As a result, the family is undernourished and dependent on charity. Esther, the novel’s central character, clearly stands for the author himself, who had experienced as a child the hardships of poverty and the humiliation of charity. In the opening chapter, titled “The Bread of Affliction” Esther is sent to the charity kitchen to fetch some soup for the family. The following passages best illustrate Zangwill’ realistic style of writing tinted with gentle irony and sarcasm.

At half-past five the stable-doors were thrown open, and the crowd pressed through a long, narrow white-washed stone corridor into a barn-like compartment, with a white-washed ceiling traversed by wooden beams. Within this compartment, and leaving but a narrow, circumscribing border, was a sort of cattle-pen, into which the paupers crushed, awaiting amid discomfort and universal jabber the divine moment.[ . . . ]

They felt hungry, these picturesque people; their near and dear ones were hungering at home. Voluptuously savoring in imagination the operation of the soup, they forgot its operation as a dole in aid of wages; were unconscious of the grave economical possibilities of pauperization and the rest, and quite willing to swallow their independence with the soup. Even Esther, who had read much, and was sensitive, accepted unquestioningly the theory of the universe that was held by most people about her, that human beings were distinguished from animals in having to toil terribly for a meagre crust, but that their lot was lightened by the existence of a small and semi-divine class called Takeefim, or rich people, who gave away what they didn’t want. How these rich people came to be, Esther did not inquire; they were as much a part of the constitution of things as clouds and horses. The semi- celestial variety was rarely to be met with. It lived far away from the Ghetto, and a small family of it was said to occupy a whole house. Representatives of it, clad in rustling silks or impressive broad-cloth, and radiating an indefinable aroma of superhumanity, sometimes came to the school, preceded by the beaming Head Mistress; and then all the little girls rose and curtseyed, and the best of them, passing as average members of the class, astonished the semi- divine persons by their intimate acquaintance with the topography of the Pyrenees and the disagreements of Saul and David, the intercourse of the two species ending in effusive smiles and general satisfaction.[ . . . ]

When a sufficient number of semi-divinities was gathered together, the President addressed the meeting at considerable length, striving to impress upon the clergymen and other philanthropists present that charity was a virtue, and appealing to the Bible, the Koran, and even the Vedas, for confirmation of his proposition. Early in his speech the sliding door that separated the cattle-pen from the kitchen proper had to be closed, because the jostling crowd jabbered so much and inconsiderate infants squalled, and there did not seem to be any general desire to hear the President’s ethical views. They were a low material lot, who thought only of their bellies, and did but chatter the louder when the speech was shut out. They had overflowed their barriers by this time, and were surging cruelly to and fro, and Esther had to keep her elbows close to her sides lest her arms should be dislocated. Outside the stable doors a shifting array of boys and girls hovered hungrily and curiously. When the President had finished, the Rabbinate was invited to address the philanthropists, which it did at not less length, eloquently seconding the proposition that charity was a virtue. Then the door was slid back, and the first two paupers were admitted, the rest of the crowd being courageously kept at bay by the superintendent. The head cook filled a couple of plates with soup, dipping a great pewter pot into the cauldron.[75-76]

The open ending of the novel reveals Zangwill’s ambivalent attitude to the future of Jews in England, particularly in relation to the problem of assimilation and ethnicity. Esther, who has become a teacher and writer, decides to leave for the New World hoping that America offers more opportunities for Jews than Europe.

The realistic representation of Jewish life in the slums of the East End, pathos, nostalgia and humour made the novel an instant bestseller, and at least nine editions were published in Britain and America between 1892 and 1938. (Rochelson, 12) The book was also translated into a number of languages and Zangwill became a recognised Anglo-Jewish author. Children of the Ghetto revealed the realities of immigrant Jewish life to a wide readership and removed some of the stereotypes and prejudices related to Jews both in Britain and the United States. In a way Zangwill followed the realist tradition of George Eliot’s Zionist novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), who was one of the first English writers to show sympathetically the Jewish characters’ spiritual and moral coherence and their sense of community.


Israel Zangwill contributed significantly to slum fiction. His best novel, Children of the Ghetto, can be read as a compelling specimen of Jewish immigrant experience at the turn of the Victorian era and a literary evidence of the budding multicultural East End of London.

References and further reading

Berrol, Selma. East Side/East End: Eastern European Jews in London and New York, 1870-1920. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994.

Rochelson, Meri-Jane. A Jew in the Public Arena: The Career of Israel Zangwill. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008.

Zangwill, Israel. Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People. 1895. Edited with an Introduction by Meri-Jane Rochelson. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

--. Dreamers of the Ghetto, New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1898. Available from Project Gutenberg.

--. Ghetto Tragedies. Project Gutenberg.

--. The Melting Pot. New York: Macmillan, 1909.

--.From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot: Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Plays. Edited with an Introductions and Commentary by Edna Nahshon. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006.

Last modified 6 January 2014