Israel Zangwill (1864 – 1926) is remembered as Anglo Jewry’s renowned novelist and leader of the Jewish Territorial Organization. However, less is known about his considerable achievement as a playwright on the West End and Broadway.
Of particular significance are the three plays he wrote about Jewish life, the well received productions of which did much to dispel the negative image of the “stage Jew” then prevalent, while exploring religious, ethnic and social issues that remain relevant to this day.
Edna Nahshon has produced a wellresearched and much needed collection of these plays with ample information on their production history and incisive critical commentary. We owe to her the discovery and publication of the presumed lost manuscript of Children of the Ghetto and the original versions of The Melting Pot and The King of Schnorrers.
Along with providing a rich portrait of 19th century Jewish life in London’s East End, Children of the Ghetto, based on Zangwill’s popular novel with the same title, provides a telling conflict between an Orthodox rabbi and his free thinking daughter.
In The Melting Pot, the Jewish violinist hero eloquently champions the United States as the crucible in which persecuted refugees like himself, a survivor of the Kishineff Pogrom, will leave behind the inter-ethnic enmities endemic to their European origins and “melt” into one prejudice-free people. The success of the production turned its title into a metaphor for the American immigrant experience. Based on another popular novel, The King of Schnorrers is a hilarious comedy dramatizing the triumphs in chutzpah of the Sephardic beggar, Manessa Bueno Barsillai Azevedo, against the Jewish establishment— both Ashkenazic and Sephardic.
Kol ha-kavod to Dr. Nahshon for recovering for our knowledge and enjoyment such a literary and Judaic treasure!
Norman J. Fedder, Ph.D., is distinguished professor emeritus of theatre at Kansas State University. He is currently on the faculty of the Interdisciplinary Arts Program at Nova Southeastern University.