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Israel Zangwill, 1864-1926

Lucien Wolf

<plain_text><page sequence="1">252 israel zangwill. Israel Zangwill, 1864-1926. By Lucien Wolf. Address delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Jewish Historical Society of England, October 26, 1926. In the ordinary course of things it would, I suppose, be my duty at this stage of our proceedings to move a vote of thanks to our retiring President. Instead of that I have been assigned the mournful task of formulating on your behalf a tribute to his memory. Israel Zangwill's death is a loss which profoundly affects the whole Jewish community, and which is mourned in wider fields of thought and action beyond, but to us of the Jewish Historical Society it has a peculiar note of sadness. He was for the time our Chief. We had formed high hopes of his closer association with us, and although they had been disap? pointed by his illness, we did not abandon them. Now they have to be set aside for ever, and the blow is felt all the more severely because it comes so soon after the deaths of three of our ex-Presidents who, like him, had been pillars of our Society, and who all passed away during his Presidency. We remember, however, with gratitude that he was one of our founders, and that with Asher Myers, Joseph Jacobs, Israel Abrahams, and Isidore Spielmann he stood by the cradle of our Society in its earliest and most difficult times. To the end of his life he was a member of our Council, and he was always ready to help us with speech and pen, although I believe he contributed only one paper to our Transactions. That paper, however, was the brilliant and well remembered Memorial Address on the death of Joseph Jacobs. His interest in Jewish history continued to the end, and you will be inter? ested to hear that the last work on which he was engaged, and which, unhappily, has remained unfinished, was an ambitious historical novel, of which the scene was laid in France and Germany during the second half of the eighteenth century, and for which he had in his thorough way collected much inedited material from foreign archives. But in truth Zangwill's services to our Society were but a small part of his public activities, and it is not of them that we are chiefly</page><page sequence="2">^^^^^^^^^^^^^ ^^^^^^V^^^^^^^^^Hp^^^^^^^^^^HI^|^^^r^^^|l^^^^^^n| Israel Zangwill [Jamifii p. 252</page><page sequence="3">ISRAEL ZANGWILL. 253 thinking at this moment. Rather are we thinking of the great Jew who was at the same time a great English man of letters, of the dreamer who fought for so many noble causes, of the scholar and the wit who never failed to interest and charm us. Some of us too are thinking-? and perhaps before everything else?of the loyal and warm-hearted friend whose companionship was one of the joys of our lives and will always remain with us a delightful memory. The appraisement of so varied a life-work as ZangwilPs is not easy, but it may be simplified if it is realised that it can all be summed up in his relations to Judaism and Jewry. There is very little even in the most non-Jewish of his work which has not a Jewish inspiration or which does not owe much to Jewish ideas and experiences. If he was, as I have said, a great English man of letters, it was because he was the most striking manifestation of Jewish genius in British garb that has appeared among us since Disraeli. And what renders him the more striking in this respect is the fact that he reproduced all the distinctive features of the Jewish mind as they revealed themselves to the world at the first emergence of the Jew from his long Ghetto seclusion. These distinctive features are found most strongly in men like Heine, Saphir, Lassalle, and Disraeli, who all illustrated the daring wit, the epigrammatic cynicism, and the fantastic imagination which the more alert Jewish mind unites with an infinite tenderness and an encyclopaedic scholarship. Zangwill, however, did more than inherit this essentially Jewish psychology. He gave it an entirely new appli? cation, due to the fact that he came straight from the heart of the Ghetto, while Disraeli had never known it, and Heine, Saphir, and Lassalle, though at one time in touch with it, cut themselves adrift from it. Heine in his early years brought to the gates of the Ghetto the culture he had acquired at Bonn and G?ttingen, and for a brief moment dreamt of opening a new epoch in Hebrew history; but he found no response and he turned away. Zangwill was more fortunate. He was the product of another period, when Gentile culture had become avail? able in the Ghetto itself, with not over-pleasing results. The Jewish schools, while endeavouring to combine the progressive Occident with the unchanging East, had only thrown the eternal Jewish problem into more tragic relief. They subordinated the Ghetto to a middle class</page><page sequence="4">254 ISRAEL ZANGWILL. which had made the unquestioning faith of the old days a fetish, and the culture of the new a showy Philistinism. Born and reared in this environment Zangwill faced the problem as Heine faced it a hundred years ago, but, unlike Heine, he confronted it with knowledge and enthusiasm, and he found encouragement to persevere in a large volume of rebellious sympathy. In a word, while Heine, Lassalle, and even Disraeli, with the same strange type of intellect as we find in Israel Zangwill, were revoltes against Judaism, Zangwill was a revolte on the ground of Jewish idealism against the Philistinism of one-half of Jewry and the pathetic stagnation of the other half. No estimate of Zangwill's place in English literature can pretend to even an approximate accuracy until this relationship of his to Judaism has been grasped. And I say this not only because it gives us the key to his psychology, but because it was by his Jewish work that his richest intellectual resources were tapped, and that he acquired a hold on the public which with all his great gifts would have come to him much more slowly had he ploughed a more conventional field. His destiny was, however, not obvious to him from the first. I im? agine that when in a rebellious moment he shook the dust of the Jews' Free School from his feet, he had little thought of becoming the Dickens of the Grhetto, still less of aspiring to reincarnate its Akiba. His first book, The Premier and the Painter, written in collaboration with a brother ex-usher and rebel, Mr. Louis Cowen, was a bold bid for the ear of the world outside. It has no Jewish interest except that in its bewildering and tantalising cleverness, its keen satire, its wildly fantastic episodes, and its flashy superficiality, it reminds one of Vivian Grey. But the year 1888, in which The Premier and the Painter saw the light, was in another and more serious direction a stirring one for Israel Zangwill. It was the year in which Robert Elsmere was published. The spiritual unrest of which that book was a symptom had also invaded Jewry, and was made manifest by the starting of Mr. Claude Monte fiore's Jewish Quarterly Review. Revolt was in the air. Amy Levy's Reuben Sachs illustrated at once its intensity and its dangers. Zangwill found himself a centre of sympathetic interest to which his pen not unreadily responded. Among other things he wrote for the Jewish Quarterly an exceedingly clever analysis of the growing spiritual anarchy in the Jewish community, which showed that he was a scholar as well</page><page sequence="5">ISRAEL ZANGWILL. 255 as a wit, and for an obscure Jewish Calendar a story, Satan Mekatrig ?afterwards published in Ghetto Tragedies and republished in They that Walk in Darkness?which, though conventional enough in its central idea, revealed a wonderful grasp of Ghetto life and character, and the budding of a profound sympathy with its tragi-comedy of sordid and shifting poverty." A few months later Zangwill was asked to write a big Jewish novel for the newly started Jewish Publication Society of America. I was in a large measure responsible for the proposal. Judge Sulzberger, one of the founders of the Society, sent Rabbi Krauskopf to tell me that they wanted a " Jewish Robert Elsmere, and to ask me either to do it myself or to find somebody to do it. At the time I did not know Zangwill personally, but I replied at once that there wTas only one man in England capable of the work, and that wras the author of Satan Mekatrig and of the article in the Jewish Quarterly. It was not easy, however, to prevail on Zangwill to accept the commission. He was then editing a comic paper, Ariel, with considerable success, and he felt the big world tugging at him. In Ariel he wrote The Bachelors' Club and The Old Maids' Club, two of the wittiest books published for a good many years. One of the reviewers congratulated him on his independence of American models. If that reviewer had read Moritz Saphir's Humoristische Erz?hlungen or the sparkling buffoonery of Hector Cremieux and Albert Milhaud, he would have modified his view of Zangwill's originality, though, of course, The Bachelors' Club owed nothing to these models except by wray of unconscious Hebrew atavism. But these were trifles by the side of the work that was coming. Zangwill accepted the American proposal, and the result was a great book?The Children of the Ghetto. For the first time the real heart and soul of Jewry were uncompromisingly laid bare. But it was not only because it was Jewry that it stimulated public interest, but because it was an entirely new field of study. Others had worked at it, but without revealing its true character. George Eliot had investigated it with the same brilliant intuition that Zangwill himself afterwards brought to bear on Nova Scotia, but she knew it not. Amy Levy and Mrs. Sidgwick had yielded clever studies of Jewish character in Reuben Sachs and Isaac Ellerts Money, but they were too near the familiar</page><page sequence="6">256 ISRAEL ZANGWILL. caricatures. Zangwill's Jewry was a terra incognita. Some people knew the Halb-Asien of Franzos and Kompert and Miss Gerard, but this was a Halb-Asien in an entirely new setting?the setting of the strenuous and storm-tossed life of London, with social contrasts almost unknown in Galicia and the Bukovina, and soul-wrestlings touching the deepest notes of tragedy. But the book not only revealed Jewry? it also revealed Zangwill. The cabotin of Ariel threw off his motley and made his bow as a constructive artist, a master of human emotion, pursuing a high intellectual and ethical purpose. The book was not without faults, but the palpitating life and the marvellous local colour, the wonderful panorama of new types of character, the strange world to which it introduced us with so clear an insight and such dazzling alternations of tears and laughter, remained and compensated for every defect. The book was in short a great book, and at once placed Zangwill?then in his twenty-eighth year?in the front rank of English novelists. The Children of the Ghetto is so typical of his Jewish work that it is scarcely necessary to examine very closely his other efforts in the same direction. In the following year (1893) he published Ghetto Tragedies, chips from the workshop in which the larger work had been fashioned. Although several of these stories are early efforts, their merits are exceedingly high. They were republished, together with a further collection, under the title They that Walk in Darkness, in 1899. The chief interest of this volume lies in the comparison it enables the reader to make between the author's earliest efforts and his work a decade later. The material and the old qualities are the same, but the material is handled with greater delicacy, and the old qualities bear distinct traces of a more elastic art, a maturer judgment and settling convictions. Meanwhile, two other volumes of Jewish tales had issued from Zangwill's pen, the material in both cases being chiefly sought in the Ghettoes of the past. The King of Schnorrers is a study of the typical Jewish beggar in an eighteenth-century setting. It is a droll piece of work with a conscientiously constructed historical background. In it Zangwill's Jewish humour found its legitimate milieu, for it is the " schnorrer " who is the embodiment of that peculiar Jewish quality of audacity of which his own genius was in one direction the refined</page><page sequence="7">ISRAEL ZANGWILL. 257 offspring. The other volume, Dreamers of the Ghetto, is in some respects the most remarkable of all his works. It is a book with a purpose, the presentation of that tragic problem of Judaism which had struggled feebly and ineffectively through the crowded and picturesque sociology of The Children of the Ghetto. In the interval of the two works Zangwill had become a Zionist, and his views of the destiny of Judaism had shaped themselves with a strong pessimistic bias. He had convinced himself that " the time had come for a new religious expression, a new language for the old everlasting emotions, in terms of the modern cosmos," and that the only safe alternative was a return to nationalism. The idea would have been a striking one, however presented, but the dramatic form chosen by Zangwill was unconventional, even daring. He transferred the Jewish problem from the field of spirited and palpitating activities to the romantic canvas of Jewish history. He took the lives of typical revoltes?men like Uriel Acosta, Spinoza, Heine, Lassalle, and even Disraeli, who had sought in one direction or another to burst the iron bonds of the Synagogue or to express its spirit " in terms of the modern cosmos "?and endeavoured to bring out or explain their motives by a process of dramatic idealisation. As romance the work is brilliantly successful, but as history, even on its author's principle that" fiction is the highest form of truth," its value is doubtful.. The work is not sufficiently objective. It starts with a parti pris, and instead of analysing character it synthesises it to a very great extent in the Zangwillian image. None the less it is a rich mine of historic portraiture, and a fine presentation of the problems of Judaism in terms of moving romance. The Dream ers of the Ghetto and They that Walk in Darkness represent the high-water mark of Zangwill's literary achievement. During the first period of his literary output, 1888-1907, when his work was pre? dominantly artistic, as distinct from the predominantly propagandist work which he produced during the following twenty years, he wrote a number of other books, but, with the exception of a volume of essays, Italian Fantasies, a collection of poems, Blind Children, and one of his non-Jewish novels, The Master, nothing that equalled them in merit. His non-Jewish novels were three in number?The Master, The Mantle of Elijah, and Jinny the Carrier. They are all books of unusual distinc? tion and, as Mr. Holbrook Jackson has said, " They hold their own in VOL. XL S</page><page sequence="8">258 ISRAEL ZANGWILL. the great tradition of the English novel." Although The Master is innocent of Jewish elements, it is a life history which only a Jew could have achieved with so profound a grasp of the problems of conduct and human destiny. Jinny the Carrier, a delightful study of English pastoral life, which found ZangwilPs sympathies as much attracted by the countryside as by the Ghetto, also belongs to this period, although it was not written until 1919. It was the fruit of nearly three years' vagabondage among the hamlets and sea marshes of forgotten Essex, and it was first written as a comedy in 1905. The Mantle of Elijah belongs properly to the propagandist books, for it is a counter-blast against modern Jingoism written at the time of the Boer War. It is a political roman a clef, lighter in texture than The Master, but less convincing as a whole. As the work of a Jewish writer of Zangwill's type it challenges comparison with Disraeli's Sybil, but, with all its wider intellectual range, its mastery of political atmosphere and motives is inferior to that of Disraeli. One other remarkable book which in large part belongs to this period, although it was not published until 1910, must be mentioned here?the Italian Fantasies. It is a bewilder? ing tour de force of brilliant travel pictures, of recondite scholarship, criticism, and philosophy, the whole lit up by endless flashes of ironic humour and daring epigram. It is a great book which in the domain of English essays will always hold high rank, but to the student of Zangwill it has a peculiar value inasmuch as it seems to disclose to us the workshop and the raw material in which his more imaginative work was fashioned. It was perhaps a natural transition in a man of Zangwill's sensitive idealism and of his restless impatience of the Weltschmerz, that sooner or later he should pass from a life of literary contemplation to one of political action. Roughly his career bisects itself under these two heads, though there is much overlapping, and even in the period of action the book remained with him as powerful an instrument as the platform and the stage. Here again, whatever the outward form of his propaganda, the starting-points and the inspiration were almost always Hebraic. The literary fruit of his various propagandas was considerable. It took the form of seven plays which, whatever their merit from the point of view of stage technique, have, at any rate, found a large and appreciative reading public. There were also two</page><page sequence="9">ISRAEL ZANGWILL. 259 portly volumes occasioned by the war?The War for the World and The Voice of Jerusalem?and a dazzling Milky Way of pamphlets and smaller essays on all sorts of political and social problems. This propagandist activity began in the later nineties with his interest in Zionism. In his earliest essay on Judaism in the Jewish Quarterly Review there are distinct traces of a sympathy with the then unborn Jewish Nationalist movement, but when he met Herzl in 1895 he was already an Itoist rather than a Zionist. This he took the trouble to explain to us in his Voice of Jerusalem six years ago. That being so, the split which took place in 1905, when Zangwill cut himself from Zionism and founded the Jewish Territorial Organisation, will be seen to have been inevitable. To him the fulfilment of the Jewish Nation? alist dream in Palestine was not urgent, but the finding of a land of refuge of some kind for the thousands of Jews, mostly in Eastern Europe, who could not or would not remain in the lands in which they lived, was urgent on practical grounds of Jewish communal economics, and, if such a land could be obtained on an autonomous basis, its acquisition was even more urgent and indeed indispensable for the moralising effect it would have on the whole of Jewry. Hence, when the Seventh Zionist Congress rejected the British Government's offer of the high plateaux in Uganda, he had no alternative but to found the Ito. Although the new movement was not a success, its record in Jewish history is far from barren. For twenty years it struggled on under a captaincy which was singularly resourceful and was never daunted. Zangwill's activity during the whole of this period was prodigious. He scoured the world for a land of refuge ; he stumped Europe and America in support of his organisation ; he developed an extraordinary mastery of Colonial problems, to the literature of which he made notable contributions; finally he sent out scientific expedi? tions to explore Cyrenaica and Angola, and even persuaded the Portuguese Government to introduce a Bill into the Cortes authorising him to colonise the highlands of the Angola province. Unfortunately, both Angola and Cyrenaica were found to be impossible for Jewish colonisation on the Zangwill plan, and so this last of the Dreams of the Ghetto came to an end. It was characteristic of the practical genius of Zangwill that even in the moment of failure he availed himself of</page><page sequence="10">260 ISRAEL ZANGWILL. a proposal to deal with some of the pressing exigencies of his problem within the practicable limits of conventional emigration. With the support of Mr. Jacob Schiff and Lord Rothschild he carried out the famous Galveston scheme, of which it was truly said in an Address presented to him last year, that " it not only rescued many thousands of our Eastern European brethren from bondage and squalor, but did so on a methodical plan of selection and distribution which, if more largely adopted to-day, would render immigration restrictions un? necessary, and would recognise in the Jewish emigrants a new and valuable source of economic and social fertilisation." Such in brief and all-too-feeble outline was the life work of the great Jew to whose memory we bring to-night the oblation of our love, our admiration, and our gratitude. How richly he deserved it all! In character and achievement no man of his generation has laid us under a heavier obligation. I have spoken of him as the consummate literary artist and as the gallant fighter for justice for his people and of many another noble cause. But he was in truth something more than this. If we take the sum of his activities we must see that he was essentially and above all a great moral teacher, preoccupied with the spiritual problems of his time and always seeking a saner and happier life for humanity in a closer understanding of the God of Israel. His was the " Voice of Jerusalem " which stirred the dry bones of the Synagogue as they had rarely been stirred before, and which, in the darkest crisis of European history, summoned Christendom back to the ideals of Hebraism and the " simple Semitic ethic " with all the courage and impressiveness of a prophet of old.</page></plain_text>