London Peculiar

Israel Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People (1892)

May contain spoilers

And this, I confess, is a novel that I hadn’t heard of, set somewhat to the east of the Clerkenwell of The Nether World, but in an impoverished area. I hadn’t heard of Zangwill – although apparently his The Big Bow Mystery (1891) was the first locked room mystery novel. He was the author of the play The Melting Pot (1908), a term which came to stand for the ethnic homogenisation of American society.

Whilst there seemed to be no solutions to the problems of Clerkenwell in The Nether World, whether state, religious or charitable, in Zangwill’s East End ghetto the community and beliefs of the Jewish immigrants and their children at least provide a safety net. The focus is mostly on the area around Petticoat Lane and a thinly disguised Princelet Street (I wonder if the synagogue glimpsed here is the one in Iain Sinclair and Rachel Lichtenstein’s Rodinsky’s Room?), with excursions to the West End, the British Museum and Kensington.

Zangwill (1864–1926) was born in London to Jewish immigrant parents from present day Latvia and Poland, but was initial educated in Plymouth and Bristol. He finished his formal education at the Spitalfields Jews’ Free School from the age of nine, going on to teach there whilst studying for a B.A. at the University of London. He won the first Rothschild Prize for writing and began to dabble in journalism and satire, as well as writing poetry and translating works into English from Hebrew. Unlike some other nineteenth-century writers, he is able to observe the ghetto from within (although this does not stop critics writing things such as “Zangwill’s closeness to his subject had the effect of blinding him to forms of objective knowledge of ghetto space and culture” (Kaufman 2015: 95) – perhaps he over romanticises? In his rendering of Hebrew, Yiddish and German into English, there are occasions when you wonder whether he hasn’t tipped into stereotypes.

The novel is split into a proem and two uneven parts – “The Children of the Ghetto” and “The Grandchildren of the Ghetto” – and apparently the (gentile) critics prefer the first section for its Dickensian sweep of the geographical area, with rich and poor, trades people and rabbis, poets and matchmakers. Esther Ansell emerges as the central character, taking charity to others, struggling with her beliefs. Zangwill was interested in woman’s suffrage and the New Woman, indeed he was to marry the suffragist Edith Ayrton – note those initials, although they weren’t to marry until 1903. The action alternates between the comic and the semi-tragic – with a key scene an accidental marriage of two people. (This reminded me of plot points from a Wilkie Collins novel, although there the niceties of Scottish law are invoked rather than Jewish ritual). To my mind this felt comic rather than tragic, but it is to have consequences for the plot.

In the second section, the focus is tighter: on Ansell, who has left the ghetto for a more assimilated life in Kensington, and on Raphael Leon, who is invited to edit a new newspaper, The Flag of Judah, for the East End community and who sees this in part as a means of trying to bring Edith back to orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the team that surround him and their backers begin to suspect that Leon is insufficiently orthodox. This section is presumably more contemporary (ten years later?) and more satiric, with it tempting to see Zangwill in both Leon and Ansell – as well as a poet who wishes the newspaper to print his works.

By now, the characters are more firmly settled in Britain – although there are the alternatives of migrating further to America or returning to Palestine. We don’t get a first-hand account of the New World – although several characters head that way – but there is a glimpse of Jerusalem: “scarce more than his London Ghetto transplanted, only grown filthier and narrower and more ragged, with cripples for beggars and lepers in lieu of hawkers. The magic of his dream-city was not here” (245). At the time of writing the novel, Zangwill was a Zionist, envisaging Palestine (then under Ottoman rule) as all but deserted. He later became a Territorialist, in favour of a Jewish homeland, but not necessarily in the Middle East.

If an inadvertent marriage leading to the impossibility of a second marriage is the thread of the book, the climax is Leon and Ansell’s failure to quite come together, to quite be reconciled. If I knew more about the topic, I’d suggest this would be a reflection of the ongoing tension between orthodoxy and reform and assimilation. Ansell is drawn back to the ghetto she left but is judged by the standards of the ghetto whether she is there or not. Coincidence, I guess, but note the lack of marriage in The Nether World (and the need for one in The Sign of the Four).

Zangwill helpfully provides a dictionary for those of us who lack Hebrew, Yiddish or German, with the Wayne State University Press adding further explanatory notes.

Nadia Valman places the novel in the context of Zangwill’s life and the growth of the European Jewish population in the United Kingdom. In a sense she sees him as reclaiming a people from prejudice – the East End is othered from the white, middle class readership, but this offers a less brutal world than Arthur Morrison or George Gissing. It may not be Christianity, but it is a faith system and there is familial warmth. Her afterword notes that some of the locations may have been cleared away, but others have become heritage. The East European Jews had studied, worshipped and lived where once the Huguenots studied, worshipped and lived – and in turn the Bangladeshi Muslims have come to study, worship and live. Petticoat Lane remains.


  • Heidi Kaufman (2015) “Borders of Intimacy in Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto“, Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 13(1): 91-110.
  • Nadia Valman (2013) “Israel Zangwill Children of the Ghetto (1892)”, in Andrew Whitehead and Jerry White (eds) London Fictions (Nottingham: Five Leaves Press).
  • Israel Zangwill (1998) Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People, edited by Meri-Jane Rochelson (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press).

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