(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Moses Ansell accepted poverty as the natural condition of the chosen people. A pious man, he observed all the rituals of his religion; but even his meek wife, before she died, realized that he should have spent less time in prayer and more time working. His family consisted of Esther, a serious young girl, two smaller sons, a little daughter, and their complaining grandmother. The Ansells lived in one room in the ghetto. When the mother died, Benjamin, an older son, had been put in an orphanage.

One night, Esther returned from the soup kitchen with a pitcher of soup and two loaves of bread. She fell at the doorway of their room, and the soup spilled. The hungry family snatched at the bread. Becky Belcovitch came to complain that the soup had leaked through the ceiling of her room on the floor below. When the Belcovitches heard what had happened, they sent up their own rations to the Ansells.

Malka Birnbaum was the cousin of Moses’ dead wife. Occasionally, when the Ansells grew too hungry, she would give Moses a few shillings and berate him for his pious ineptitude. Malka had two daughters, Milly and Leah, by her first husband. Milly was married, and Leah had become engaged to Sam Levine, a commercial traveler.

At the feast of redemption for Milly’s infant son, Sam pretended that he had forgotten to give Leah a present. He took an expensive ring from his pocket and held it up for all to admire. Playfully, he slipped it on the finger of Hannah Jacobs, the beautiful daughter of Reb Shemuel, while he repeated the words he had memorized for his marriage to Leah. The horrified company realized at once what Sam was too secular to understand; he and Hannah were married according to the law. Hannah and Sam arranged for the ritualistic formality of a divorce after his next trip.

As compensation, Sam and Leah took Hannah to the Purim ball. There Hannah was greatly taken with David Brandon, a young South African immigrant who no longer observed orthodox practices. Hannah already had an earnest suitor, an impoverished poet and scholar named Pinchas. Although Reb Shemuel listened favorably to his bid for Hannah’s hand, the indulgent rabbi refused to force his daughter to marry anyone she did not love.

Sugarman, the marriage broker, had a daughter, Bessie, who was in love with Daniel Hyams; but there was no talk of marriage because Daniel supported his aged parents. When the father saw that Daniel remained unmarried because he could not keep up two households, the old man pretended to receive word from a brother in America. With borrowed money, the two old people took steerage passage for New York.

Sugarman, seeing that Becky Belcovitch was of an age to marry, thought he could arrange a match with Shosshi Shmendrik, a street hawker. Bear Belcovitch, her father, gave his consent. Becky, having other ideas, tried never to be at home when Shosshi came courting. One...

(The entire section is 1195 words.)