This Day in Jewish History

1899: 'Children of the Ghetto' Premieres in New York, Gets Skewered

Previews of very Jewish universalist's play went great, which made the critics' savage take all the more surprising.

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On October 16, 1899, the play “Children of the Ghetto,” by Israel Zangwill, had its New York premiere performance. The play, an adaptation of Zangwill’s 1892 novel of the same name, tells the story of immigrant Jews living in the crowded ghetto of London’s East End earlier in the 19th century. It is based on Zangwill’s own childhood there and was the author’s first full-length stage play, the first of three he wrote on Jewish themes.

Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) was one of the most popular and successful writers of his era, and also an important figure in Jewish communal life. As a universalist who was also proudly open about his Jewish background, he became a medium for interpreting the story of his people to the Gentile world. (He was also involved early on in the Zionist movement, and later founded the Jewish Territorialist Organizaiton.) As one admirer wrote about Zangwill’s role in English society at the time of his death: “when a Jewish question was taken up by the press, or a Jewish question was discussed in Parliament, or anything Jewish appeared on the surface, the English world would not listen to Rothschild, the head of the Jewish community, nor to the Board of Deputies, nor to the Chief Rabbi, but to Israel Zangwill, because he was considered the authoritative Jewish spokesman and the unofficial ambassador of the Jewish people at the Court of St. James.”

A very Jewish universalist

Zangwill wrote frequently about non-Jewish topics, and certainly wanted to be regarded as a writer for the general audience, but there is no doubt he is best known for his work on Jewish themes, about which he wrote with great vividness, based on personal experience. In addition to “Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People,” as the original novel was called, his Jewish works included the 1909 play “The Melting Pot,” which Theodore Roosevelt, writing to Zangwill in 1912, described as “among the very strong and real influences upon my thought and my life.” Zangwill also wrote the novel “King of the Schnorrers” and “Dreamers of the Ghetto,” a series of short biographical portraits of influential Jewish thinkers.

Although “Children of the Ghetto” introduces readers to a wide array of characters living in the East End, in the stage version, Zangwill focused on the doomed romance between Hannah Jacobs and David Brandon.

Hannah is the daughter of Reb Shmuel, and she and David, a jeweler, are in love with one another. But because David is a kohen, a descendant of the priestly tribe, and Hannah is technically a divorcee (after having been involved in a mock marriage), Jewish law forbids them from marrying. Initially, Hannah argues for dispensing with archaic Jewish law, and considers eloping with David and fleeing to America, but in the end, she holds fast to Jewish law and gives up on her desire.

In her book about the play, “From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot,” scholar Edna Nahshon suggests that the character of Hannah “serves as a mouthpiece for Zangwill,” who was himself secular in his Jewishness and married to a non-Jew, but who nonetheless “could not embrace Reform Judaism as a viable alternative to the traditional Judaism he loved but could not practice. … The monumental tragedy of modern Jewish life, Zangwill seems to be saying, is that the alternative to the authentic Jewishness of the ghetto is total abandonment of tradition and full submersion in a secular though essentially Gentile world.”

The press turn savage

For director of the stage adaptation of “Children of the Ghetto,” Zangwill turned to James A. Herne, a playwright and actor. The play previewed in Washington, D.C., opening there on September 18, 1899. It was a big event, one that grabbed the attention of the Jewish community, both in the U.S. and in London. Richard Gottheil, a well-known Jewish intellectual, wrote for a London newspaper at the time, that, for American Jewry, this was “Zangwill month,” and that the local newspapers had been “full of Zangwill, of the Ghetto, and of its children; but chiefly of Zangwill.”

Audiences in Washington responded with great enthusiasm to the play. And when it opened in New York, at the Herald Square Theater, a month later, expectations were high, and the atmosphere at the premiere performance highly celebratory. Which is why the negative critical reponses came as a surprise to many.

Although the actors were largely praised, Nahshon says that the playwright was savaged by the local press. Abraham Cahan called it “a piece of art,” but he was in the minority. More typical was Clement Scott, a London critic who had been banished to New York for bad behavior, who began his review in the New York Herald in the following way: “As I write after an evening of boredom and astonishment, the Zangwill play seems to me one fine dramatic moment sandwiched between a somewhat silly farce and an occasionally blasphemous pantomime.”

Two days after its opening, The New York Times actually ran an editorial accusing Zangwill of holding the Jews up to mockery, and of therefore being “disloyal” to them. It suggested that, if Zangwill, “in the effort to display his talents or genius, and to win the rewards, monetary and other, of such display… passes the wavering limits of taste and decency, his offense is a grave one.” The clear intent was that he had done just that.

The controversy over the play and the question of whether it was “good for the Jews” became quite heated in the Jewish press, but the attention did not help the ticket sales of “Children of the Ghetto.” The play held its own for only 49 performances, and closed in December 1899. A London production that same month ran for even less time.

Zangwill went on to have many other plays produced in both London and New York, and “Children of the Ghetto” had both a Yiddish production in New York, in 1904, and also was the basis for a 1915 silent film, with the action transferred from the East End to New York’s Lower East Side.