The child of immigrants from Latvia and Poland, Israel Zangwill grew up in the Whitechapel area of London. He was educated at the Jews’ Free School, becoming a pupil-teacher there. Zangwill studied at night at London University, earning a B.A. with honors in 1884. In 1888, he resigned from the Free School because he opposed corporal punishment and began a career as a journalist, editing magazines and contributing regular columns, humorous stories, and essays to various publications. Zangwill soon became known as an outstanding writer of comic sketches. Collected in The Bachelors’ Club (1891) and The Old Maids’ Club (1892), they won him critical praise.
An 1889 essay on “English Judaism, a Criticism and a Classification” brought Zangwill to the attention of Judge Mayer Sulzberger, chairman of the publication committee of the newly founded Jewish Publication Society of America. In September, 1890, Sulzberger offered to have the society publish a novel on Jewish themes. Zangwill had already started thinking along those lines and, in seven months, produced a draft manuscript of Children of the Ghetto. The 1892 publication of the book established Zangwill as a major Jewish writer. Short stories collected in Ghetto Tragedies (1893), The King of Schnorrers (1894), and Ghetto Comedies (1907) helped establish Zangwill’s reputation in England and in the United States as the leading English-language Jewish storyteller of his generation.
In the 1890’s, several of Zangwill’s plays had modest runs in London. The success of his 1899 adaptation of Children of the Ghetto in New York encouraged Zangwill to devote most of his later creative literary activity to the stage. He wrote fifteen plays between 1900 and his death in 1926. His greatest success came with Merely Mary Ann, adapted from an 1893 short story, which ran for 148 performances in New York City in 1903 before being staged in London and Vienna. The play...
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