Every so often a play comes along that not only speaks directly to the concerns of its generation — to its specific anxieties and aspirations — but also renders those concerns with such crystalline clarity that the play emblematizes its moment in time. For my generation, that play was “Angels in America.” For my parents’ generation, it was “West Side Story” or perhaps even “Fiddler on the Roof.” For those who came of age in America of the early 20th century, the honors went to Israel Zangwill’s 1908 “The Melting Pot.” This four-act drama captured the ups and downs of the immigrant experience with such insight and sensitivity that its vision of the melting pot — one in which foreignness gives way to cultural fusion — became a part of the nation’s civic imagination and its common parlance. “A fig for your feuds and vendettas,” cries the play’s protagonist, David, a violin virtuoso whose love of both music and of Vera Revendal, a non-Jewish woman, fuels the plot. “Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians — into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”
The melodramatic plot, or what there is of it (by most accounts, the storyline is little more than a thin, rickety platform for Zangwill’s bold ideas about the future), follows the lives of one Jewish immigrant family, the Quixanos, as its members adjust, each in his or her own way, to the New World. Grandmother Quixano holds on to tradition for dear life, while her talented grandson, David, throws it over in favor of a woman who, like him, believes in the power of art to bring people together.
Although cultural luminaries such as President Teddy Roosevelt and Jane Addams thought quite highly of the play and publicly endorsed it, the critics thought otherwise. To them, “The Melting Pot” was riddled with defects. Insisting that it had more in common with a lecture or, worse still, with a sermon than with an actual theatrical experience, they characterized the play as sappy and sentimental, longwinded and preachy. The New York Times, for its part, suggested that its readers pay no mind to the fact that the nation’s president had showered the play with praise. It all goes to show, said the paper of record, “that even a president may be mistaken.”
Still others thought that “The Melting Pot” had gone too far in its celebration of romantic love. To many a Jewish cultural leader, the play seemed to endorse intermarriage, an idea that, then, as now, raised a lot of hackles. Marriage outside of the faith was not a “synonym of broadmindedness,” they said, but a “willful rupture with a revered religion and a thrilling past” and, as such, could not be countenanced. “That a Jew marries a Christian may be only his private affair,” The Hebrew Standard observed. “That America of necessity demands the Jew shall intermarry is not founded upon truth.”
Stung by criticism, Zangwill responded by saying that he wasn’t so much an advocate of intermarriage as he was a student of contemporary society. Given the way of the world, intermarriage, he felt, was all but inevitable. The playwright, who was himself married to a non-Jewish woman, simply called things as he saw them. Elsewhere, in a more elegant formulation, Zangwill, a territorialist turned Zionist, allowed that modern-day Jews had two options. Either they could “de-nationalize Judaism” by relegating religion to just one compartment of their modern selves, in which case intermarriage would increasingly become normative, or they could “re-nationalize” Judaism by becoming Zionists for whom the Jewish project was the be-all and end-all of life and intermarriage an anathema.
In the end, while “The Melting Pot” may not have succeeded entirely as theater or, for that matter, as prophecy, it certainly succeeded in generating a passionate and long-running discussion about one of the more intractable and controversial issues of modern times: the limits and possibilities of identity. More to the point, Zangwill’s contribution to that discussion remains as timely today as it was back in 1908. While we may choose to speak of hybridity, diversity and otherness, of mosaics and salad bowls in lieu of melting pots and crucibles, our search for belonging in 21st-century America remains just as driven and complex as that of David Quixano, Vera Revendal and the other members of “The Melting Pot” cast who looked for love and acceptance at the turn of the 20th.
To read more about it, please pick up a copy of Edna Nahshon’s new book, “From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot: Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Plays” (Wayne State University Press). To experience the play firsthand, visit New York’s Metropolitan Playhouse, whose production of “The Melting Pot” runs from March 3 to April 2.