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  • Masters and Messiahs:Religion, Sex, and Home in Two Works by Israel Zangwill1
  • Meri-Jane Rochelson (bio)

Among General readers, Israel Zangwill is best known today as a humorist, his episodic novella The King of Schnorrers having been reprinted and performed frequently since 1893. However, while humour was never banished from his page, Zangwill was a diverse and prolific writer of fiction, drama, poetry, and essays, from the late 1880s to the 1920s, engaging in impassioned protest as well as satire on a variety of timely issues. Not surprisingly, however, his most enduring work—including the novel Children of the Ghetto (1892) and the play The Melting Pot (1908)—consider the Jewish experience. Judaism is a culture as well as a religion, the Torah spelling out a way of life at least as much as a system of belief, and Zangwill’s writing is largely concerned with how Jews and Jewish observance adapt to modernity and emancipation. When Jews no longer have to live in a ghetto that curtails opportunity but facilitates religious practice—when Jews can interact with others and engage in a world that sees Jewish customs and laws as, at best, curiosities—what will become of Judaism and Jews, he asks? Zangwill tackles such questions in writing addressed to an audience within and beyond the Jewish community. But rather than suggest a solution, he offers an array of possibilities, both for Jewish communities and for individuals. He understands the complexities of decision-making about both religion and personal identity, and his work astutely represents conflicts between religious obligation and other needs and desires.

Indeed, Zangwill examines conundrums of religion and sexuality within and outside Jewish life. His novel The Master (1895), a bestseller in the year it appeared,2 looks at a young Nova Scotian painter, brought up in a strict Christian household, as he encounters the temptations of fin-de-siècle Europe and chooses between a libertine life of art and passion and the boring domesticity of a mistaken marriage. In 1898, in “The Turkish Messiah” (part of his collection Dreamers of the Ghetto), Zangwill returns to similar intersections of sexuality, religion, and domestic life in the explicitly Jewish and transgressive story of Sabbatai Zevi, the most famous of several seventeenth-century false messiahs. While the more conventional narrative of The Master resolves religious and sexual conflicts in a didactic way, the ending of “The Turkish Messiah” is more problematic. Both works, however, ask readers to consider the unsettling questions of who is master? what is mastery? and what does salvation mean [End Page 121] when domestic life, sexual need, and religious mandate refuse to align? While on the surface their conclusions equate traditional sexual and gender norms with an ideal of domestic virtue rooted in moderate and reassuring religious belief, these narratives also interrogate the pervasive interconnections among creativity, spirituality, and sensuality. In each case, marriage and domestic peace (society’s prescribed endpoints for sex and faith) are threatened as they compete with the alluring chaos of sexual and religious ecstasy.

Biographical and Critical Contexts

Israel Zangwill (1864–1926) was a London-born Jew, the son of immigrant parents, who achieved honours at university and began his career in journalism. By the first decades of the twentieth century, he had become a well-known public figure in a transatlantic culture. Although Zangwill is not commonly viewed as avant-garde, he was committed to equal rights for women; indeed, in tandem with his wife, Edith Ayrton Zangwill, and his mother-in-law, Hertha Marks Ayrton, he was an active writer and speaker for the Women’s Social and Political Union, the more radical arm of the British women’s suffrage movement (see Rochelson, chapter 6). That Zangwill’s writings explored changing notions of sexuality and gender identity underscores his engagement with debates of his time. Still, his work approaches sexuality with both fascination and unease.

The fascination is not difficult to explain. Zangwill was intrigued by the sexual freedom of fin-de-siècle literary and artistic circles. His diary for the year 1893, the most complete of his extant diaries from the 1890s, chronicles his immersion in literary and theatrical worlds. As he...


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pp. 121-135
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