- How to Write Yiddish in English, or Israel Zangwill and Multilingualism in Children of the Ghetto
In 1888, an Orthodox English-language newspaper, the Jewish Standard, published an article series, “Jews in Fiction,” that looked critically at Jewish characters in English literature. The series began with Sir Walter Scott’s Isaac of York, then featured Benjamin Disraeli’s Sidonia and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. After critiquing Fagin and Riah, the April 20th column conjectured what it might look like for Charles Dickens to use his “magician’s wand” to write a more nuanced treatment of everyday Jewish life:
How he would have reveled in the description of the ostentation, the generosity, the kindliness, the harshness, the thousand and one contradictions to be found in our fellow-Jews and Jewesses. [How he would have treated]… Mr. and Mrs. Z—, with all their children—how they went to synagogue Saturday morning gorgeously attired....Then Dickens would describe how the family go home to luncheon, a better luncheon most likely than on weekdays, because paterfamilias is at home. How our author would revel over the fried fish and various orthodox dainties.(3)
Envisioning Jewish life through the lens of an outside observer, the columnist’s flight of fancy focuses more on the imagined pleasure Dickens would take in the spectacle, how he would “revel” in the scene, than on the interior lives of the Jewish characters. The writer then exclaims, “Shade of Dickens! would that your mantle might descend on my shoulders, that I might worthily describe all this.” The irony is, of course, that the writer has just described this scene, but as the imagined Dickens.
This passage from the Jewish Standard dramatizes the pressure of external Jewish stereotypes on the self-conception of the nineteenth-century Anglo-Jewish community. In the very act of portraying this community, the columnist negates the act by calling upon Dickens to make the anonymous columnist a [End Page 315] worthy narrator for depicting Jewish life. On one level, this negation seems to present an ambivalence about the potential for Jewish authorship and literature. Yet the writer also imagines Dickens relishing the material culture of Anglo-Jewish life and finding charm in its difference from the English everyday: the synagogue, the fried fish, the “orthodox dainties.” The writer in effect calls for a Jewish Dickens, a persona that is both English and Jewish.
At the time of this column’s printing, Israel Zangwill—the man who would later be called the “Jewish Dickens”—was subeditor of the Jewish Standard and writing a satiric column about Anglo-Jewish life called “Morour and Charouseth.”1 Born to immigrants from czarist Russia in 1864 and raised in London’s East End, Anglo-Jewish writer Israel Zangwill became famous for his realistic depiction of Jewish East End life in his 1892 novel Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People, which was considered the foremost representation of Jewish life in both Great Britain and the United States. Zangwill was a transatlantic celebrity in his time and a political activist in the international Jewish community. He has, however, been largely marginalized in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, arguably in the first instance because of his opposition to a Jewish state in Palestine. Critic Meri-Jane Rochelson has worked to correct misconceptions about Zangwill and to make him a central figure of Victorian studies. In A Jew in the Public Arena, Rochelson critiques scholars like Joseph Udelson who reduce Zangwill’s world view to one divided between assimilation in the West and Orthodoxy elsewhere. She also critiques readings that represent tensions and inconsistencies in Zangwill’s work as evidence of his ambivalence toward his Jewish identity. Instead, she sees these inconsistencies as a pragmatic response to lived situations: she writes, “By insisting upon both sides of his identity, his Jewishness and his Englishness, Zangwill made choices that are indeed emblematic of those faced by many in his generation and later…” (Jew in the Public Arena 4). In this paper, I agree with Rochelson’s reluctance to read Zangwill’s tensions around Jewish and English identity as representative of some psychological ambivalence about his status as...