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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1789

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First published: 1892

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Ethnocentric realism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: London

Principal Characters:

Moses Ansell, a pious Jew

Esther, his daughter

Hannah Jacobs, a beautiful young Jewess

Reb Shemuel Jacobs, her father and a rabbi

David Brandon, Hannah’s beloved

Melchitsekek Pinchas, a poor poet and scholar

Mrs. Henry Goldsmith, Esther Ansell’s benefactress

Raphael Leon, a young journalist

Rabbi Joseph Strelitski, the minister of a fashionable synagogue

Debby, a seamstress

The Story:

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 day, Shosshi stationed his barrow in front of Widow Finkelstein’s store. Because he started to leave without paying his sixpence rent, the determined widow harangued him in the street and continued the argument at his house. When she admitted to owning two hundred and seventeen golden sovereigns as well as her shop, Shosshi fell in love with her. Their marriage was a great success.

The disconsolate Pinchas met Wolf, a Jewish labor leader. When starving sweatshop workers struck for higher wages, Pinchas persuaded Wolf to let him address the strikers. In a speech filled with Messianic delusions, he asked them to support his candidacy for Parliament. The workers threw him out in disgust.

Occasionally, Benjamin Ansell came to see his family, but he did not get along well with them. Only Esther, who had dared to look into a New Testament, sympathized with him. Word came from his school that the boy had pneumonia. In his dying delirium, Benjamin spoke only Yiddish, and Moses, sitting by his bedside, rejoiced that his son died a real Jew.

When Hannah and David planned to marry, Reb Shemuel was apprehensive of her suitor’s orthodoxy. David assured the rabbi that his family was orthodox and that he himself was a cohen, a priest. But Reb Shemuel declared they could never marry. Hannah had been divorced, and the law forbade a cohen to take a divorced woman. Hannah and David planned to run away to America, but after she had accompanied her father to the Seder services, Hannah realized the old traditions were too strong for her to break. Heartbroken, she renounced David forever.

Ten years later, wealthy Mrs. Henry Goldsmith entertained at a Hanukkah dinner. Most of the guests were artists and intellectuals who had drifted away from the strict practices of Old Jewry. Among them was Raphael Leon, a young journalist. One topic of conversation was MORDECAI JOSEPHS, a new novel scandalous to West End Judaism, written by an unknown author named Edward Armitage. Sidney Graham, a young dilettante, praised the novel but criticized the crudity and immaturity of the writer. Raphael noticed that a shy, dark girl followed the conversation closely but said nothing.

The girl was Esther Ansell. After packing old Moses and the rest of his brood off to America, Mrs. Goldsmith had adopted Esther and educated her. A graduate of London University, Esther was trying to decide upon a career. Unknown to all, she was Edward Armitage, the author of MORDECAI JOSEPHS.

Raphael’s interest in her continued after he became editor of a Jewish paper, THE FLAG OF JUDAH, financed by Mr. Goldsmith. Pinchas, the neglected poet, aspired to become a contributor. Raphael, unwilling to compromise between his principles and the wishes of his sponsor, was unhappy in his work.

At the theater, Esther encountered Leonard James, the snobbish, vulgar brother of Hannah Jacobs. A short time later, Leonard went to see Esther. They quarreled, and he reminded her that her family had always been schnorrers, beggars. Esther, feeling that he might be right, decided to abuse the generosity of the Goldsmiths no longer. When Raphael called, she told him her decision and announced that she was Edward Armitage.

Dissatisfied with himself, Raphael had an interview with the Reverend Joseph Strelitski, a fashionable minister who was, like Esther, of humble origins. Regarding himself as a hypocrite, a slave to wealth and outmoded ritual, Strelitski intended to resign his pastorate and go to America. Encouraged by his and Esther’s examples, Raphael felt relieved when Mr. Goldsmith fired him and made Pinchas editor of the paper.

Meanwhile, Esther had returned to the ghetto to stay with Debby, a seamstress she had known years before. Surrounded by friends of her childhood, she felt herself drawn by family ties; she would go to America. She was glad when her publisher told her that her novel promised to be a success, for she would not go to her family empty-handed. She and Strelitski sailed for America on a ship loaded with Jewish emigrants; but there was no deep sadness in parting when Esther said good-bye to Raphael. He would come to her later.

Critical Evaluation:

CHILDREN OF THE GHETTO is divided into two books. The first and more interesting part is titled “Children of the Ghetto”; the second part, “Grandchildren of the Ghetto,” deals mainly with the issue of assimilated Jews in England. Book 1 is basically a survey of the life of the ghetto; appearing in a loosely connected narrative, a number of characters struggle to survive in the hostile environment of the slum. In book 2, the central characters are Anglicized Jews who have lost the core of their beliefs. Israel Zangwill has no sympathy for them and exposes their hypocrisy and fears.

The ghetto, as here presented, was a separate community continually struggling with the influx of destitute Poles, and the fierce, surging life within—a life both comic and tragic—was regulated by the canons of strict orthodoxy. In one sense, this work is not a novel. There is no central plot, only a series of loosely grouped episodes, and the numerous characters are only vaguely connected in many instances. Although Zangwill wrote from a parochial point of view, the book is valuable for its descriptions of seething life, its study of racial strivings and discontents, and its warm, sympathetic character sketches.

The central theme of CHILDREN OF THE GHETTO is the conflict over the survival of the Jewish religion. In book 1, it is possible to see the beginnings of the end. The younger generation is no longer willing to carry on the traditions of the past in the same manner as older generations. Social and economic pressures are moving them away from the strict observances of their ancestors.

Zangwill’s manner of presentation is uneven. At times, he appears to be merely cataloging various aspects of ghetto life: he presents Jewish folklore, songs, sayings, and jokes at great length; Yiddish words abound in the text. At the same time, Zangwill attempts to portray typical ghetto scenes, including dinners, religious ceremonies, a charity kitchen, and sweatshops. Along with these scenes are characters who, although sometimes touching, are often stereotyped and sentimentalized.

An early work in the career of its author, this novel is nevertheless an informative and for the most part realistic account of the life of the ghetto. As such, it clearly falls into the tradition of European realism. Its attempt to apply the techniques of realism to the ghetto—a hidden, forgotten community—is unique. One aspect of Zangwill’s realism is a certain doubleness in approach. On the one hand, the author clearly identifies with the people of the ghetto and their life; on the other, he often adopts an ironic and occasionally patronizing tone toward the people he depicts in order to establish the distance necessary to be objective. Later in his career, perhaps trying to resolve this contradiction, he stopped writing fiction and became a polemicist and dramatist and an early advocate of Zionism. His name is often linked to that of Theodor Herzl. It is because of his later career that Zangwill’s reputation is more established in the history of thought than in the history of English literature.

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