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The Man Who Brought the Melting Pot to the Stage

From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot: Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Plays

By Israel Zangwill Edited by Edna Nahshon

Wayne State University Press 363 pages, $34.95.

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Long before “diversity” became a cultural buzzword, playwright and novelist Israel Zangwill coined a phrase that would become an indelible part of America’s language of self-description. The image of a crucible in which many disparate elements blend to create a stronger alloy proved irresistible to Americans in the early 20th century, and even today it is difficult to put American culture into words without using the term “the melting pot.” Yet few of us, if pressed, could pinpoint how the expression originated, and fewer still are familiar with its author’s delightful body of dramatic work.

Edna Nahshon has sought to remedy this unfortunate neglect with her lively anthology “From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot: Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Plays.” The book contains a well-researched foreword and three of Zangwill’s dramas, each accompanied by an introductory essay. Two of the plays have never been published before, which in itself makes this volume something of a literary event. But by placing them in the context of the author’s life and times, Nahshon also illuminates Zangwill the social pioneer. Though English by birth, he looked to America as a haven for all races and helped Jewish refugees settle in Harlingen, Texas. He also befriended Theodor Herzl and became active in the burgeoning Zionist movement. At the same time, he never lost touch with the poetry of the ancient traditions handed down to him by his Russian immigrant parents. Not surprisingly, the quest to form a new Jewish identity is at the crux of his plays as well as his politics.

In “Children of the Ghetto,” Hannah, the daughter of a gentle and pious London rabbi, must face her family’s staunch refusal to allow her to marry the man she loves. Although the suitor in question is Jewish and is quite capable of providing for a family, a complex series of Talmudic laws forbid the marriage from taking place. The young couple plans to slip away to the easier society of America, but as the ghetto quiets and dusk descends on Passover evening, Hannah chooses to break her lover’s heart rather than her father’s.

In her introduction, Nahshon speculates as to why this groundbreaking work failed to win critical and box office support in New York, but after a close look at the text, it seems quite possible that Jewish self-representation on the mainstream stage was simply too far ahead of its time. A London production fared somewhat better, but the play found its most receptive audience when a Yiddish translation opened at the People’s Theatre in 1904. Unlike their uptown counterparts, the Lower East Side audience saw nothing controversial in the work but allowed themselves to be carried along by its rich tapestry of recognizable characters, and by the bittersweet realism of its storyline.

Perhaps because his own wife was a Gentile, Zangwill continued to explore the theme of marriage and the prohibitions surrounding it. In his broad comedy titled “The King of Schnorrers,” a Machiavellian schemer named Manasseh Bueno Barsillai Azevedo Da Costa plays upon the consciences of the righteous to serve his own ends. Employing a healthy dose of chutzpah and his own twisted take on Talmudic reasoning, Da Costa manages to wrangle everything from a new wardrobe to an invitation to Sabbath dinner. But the council of elders forbids marriage between Sephardic Jews and those of German origin, and the play’s ingénues unexpectedly fall in love across ethnic lines. So skilled is Da Costa in his tactics he is able to bend even the most rigid institution to his will. Though everyone shuns the Schnorrer at first, in the end it is he who paves the way for a happy ending. As in nature, even a creature who appears parasitic can prove crucial to the functioning of the ecosystem.

A later work, “The Melting Pot,” provides a culmination of all the themes that Zangwill held dear. The setting is a free-spirited New York City in which Irish and Anglo-Saxon characters intermingle with Jews to both comic and dramatic effect. David Quixano is an idealistic young musician who has fled to America after seeing his entire family slaughtered in the Kishinev pogrom. Happy in the new world, David endeavors to compose a piece of modern music that will embody the great American promise of racial harmony. His love interest, activist Vera Revendal, shares his vision of a just society, though she herself hails from Russian aristocracy. Independent minded, Vera overcomes the objections of her antisemitic father, Baron Revendal. But when David and the Baron meet face to face, the trauma proves too much to bear. David remembers the Baron from Kishinev: A proud officer in the tsar’s army, it was he who gave the order to fire upon the Jews. With so much history of bloodshed between their families, the couple will struggle, not against tradition but against their own fear and shame. Even as they enter the melting pot, they inevitably become aware of its heat as well as its beauty. David may as well be speaking for the playwright when he says, “It is live things, not dead metals, that are being melted in the crucible.” Decades after their creation, Zangwill’s compassionate contributions to society and letters remain very live things indeed.

Ethan Kanfer is a playwright and theater critic living in New York.

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