Page 43 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 10 (1951-1952)

Basic HTML Version

ISRAEL ZANGWILL
By
I
ra
E
i s e n s t e in
A
HAD HAAM’S son once remarked to the writer, “My father
l is a classic in Eretz Yisrael. That is, his books are on all
the shelves — and they stay there.” The same fate seems to have
overtaken the works of Israel Zangwill, whose 25th
yahrzeit
occurs
this year, 1951. All the libraries contain
Children of the Ghetto
,
Dreamers of the Ghetto
, and
The Voice of Jerusalem.
Most Jewish
homes, certainly those of literate families, possess nicely bound
sets of the “Works;” but readers are few and far between.
The reasons for the neglect of so talented an author, who was
in a sense a pioneer in Anglo-Jewish literature, are not difficult
to trace. First, Jewish writers generally are not popular with
Jews. Besides, Zangwill wrote about the ghetto, the teeming
multitudes of the East End of London, corresponding to the
East Side of New York and the equivalent “Sides” of Chicago,
Boston and Philadelphia. The peculiar psychology of American
Jews militates against the particular manner in which Zangwill
treated the ghetto. He loved his people so ardently, and understood
them so well that he could not help but write in their behalf.
This is not to say that he was apologetic. He did not
explain
or defend, he described the characters that moved and had their
being in the crowded tenements, in the stuffy synagogues, and on
the excited streets of the
judengass.
And in the course of describing
them, he sought to portray what was of universal interest in their
lives, to show the underlying humanity of these people.
But, as usual, his Jewish contemporaries — and ours — in their
subconscious desire to escape from Jewish life, failed to recognize
the healthy-mindedness of Zangwill. For them, he was ridiculing
the ghetto before the gentiles. He replied to his critics once,
saying: “What the Christian mind wants is truthful treatment
of us. When first my books appeared, it was thought that to
write about Jewish things was to attack them, and it is still
thought by some that Christians cannot be made to understand
Jewish life, so that it is better to leave them in ignorance. The
reception of my work shows that they can be made to understand.
The Jewish character with all its faults, truthfully portrayed, can
afford to stand on its own merits.” One wonders whether Zangwill
realized that what made the Jews uncomfortable about his stories
37