Page 45 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 10 (1951-1952)

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39
E I SENSTEIN — I SRAEL ZANGWILL
Hard work took its toll on his nervous system and at times he
suffered depression of spirit. This necessitated frequent changes
of scene. Thus, when he was able to afford travel, he took
advantage of his opportunities to visit other countries. While he
was attracted to public activity, and participated in it, he was
essentially a man of letters, fulfilling himself best in the written
word.
Two major themes seem to have occupied Zangwill: 1) the
nobility and the tragedy of the ghetto; 2) the chasm that separates
the generations from one another.
The first of these themes predominates in the
Children of the
Ghetto.
With great tenderness, he described the seemingly bizarre
conglomeration of pietists and radicals, charlatans and beggars,
scholars and would-be scholars, philanthropists and the humble
poor. I say “seemingly bizarre,” because he always probed beneath
the surface to uncover their essential humanity. His humor was
always gentle, and oblique, never sharp and direct; for he regarded
himself as an interpreter of the ghetto to the world, and he
respected both.
One of my favorite passages is his description of the synagogue
in “The Sons of the Covenant,” who “sent no representatives to
the club balls, wotting neither of waltzes nor of dress-coats, and
preferring death to the embrace of a strange dancing woman.”
They occupied two large rooms, knocked into one, “the rear
partitioned off for the use of the bewigged, heavy-jawed women
who might not sit with the men lest they should fascinate their
thoughts away from things spiritual.”
“They prayed metaphysics, acrostics, angelology, Cabalah,
history, exegetics, Talmudical controversies, menus, recipes,
priestly prescriptions, the canonical books, psalms, love poems,
and undigested hotch-potch of exalted and questionable senti-
ments, of communal and egoistic aspirations of the highest
order . . . . If they did not always know what they were saying,
they always meant it. If the service had been more intelligible
it would have been less emotional and edifying. There was not
a sentiment, however incomprehensible, for which they were not
ready to die or to damn.”
The “Grandchildren of the Ghetto” are more refined, more
rational about their faith; but more materialistic, and soulless. The
synagogues are now run “as a stock company for the sake of div-
idends,” in a business-like way. And the “Children” are ridiculed
for their uncouthness. Zangwill resented this rejection of the basic
values of the ghetto. He conceded that there were even rogues