Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

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.

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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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