Review: Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People

The Anglo-Jewish situation is depicted with extreme precision and accuracy in the novel, Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People, by Israel Zangwill. Being a second-generation Jew of Polish and Latvian heritage, he grew up the midst of the Anglo-Jewish economic and social scene in Victorian England. As both a child and an adult he lived in the Whitechapel Ghetto of London. Through life experiences, he was involved in the social situations portrayed in Children of the Ghetto, first published in 1892.

Petticoat Lane and surrounding streets in the area known as the Whitechapel Ghetto are given illumination that fills the reader’s senses. From the food stalls and carts, to the shops, clothes, and daily goings-on, Jewish life and its hardships take on new meaning through Zangwill’s exacting descriptions and vivid word-paintings. He leaves nothing unturned, and his descriptions resound with vivid clarity.

Food takes on new meaning, as the majority of the immigrant Jews live day to day in a hand to mouth situation. They have “fast days”, not associated with Jewish holidays. These are the days that they don’t have food to eat. They get free food three times a week, and try to make it through to the next handout by fasting. Life is harsh and difficult, and within the social stratum of it, the Jewish factors illuminate.

Esther Ansell is a young girl whose mother died. She is left to be a surrogate mother to her siblings, and is still a child, herself. She is confronted with all of the challenges of raising children, including feeding them and clothing them. She is an avid reader, loves books, and has goals of becoming a writer. Her father is constantly studying Torah, and when he isn’t doing that he is praying. He does try to earn an income, but never seems to entirely succeed. This reinforces the family’s strife and keeps them in a constant state of poverty.

Raphael Leon is a man torn between two worlds, the ever-changing societal politics and economics, and the traditions of old. Character after character take on the burdens of the past in their attempt to move forward. Some characters manage to unload the baggage, others are caught in the folds of tradition, and can not let go. Retaining strong traditions within a modern environment is difficult for some, less difficult for others. Within the movement of secularism, many Jews practiced their traditions behind closed doors, illuminating a sign of the times externally.

The younger generation, born inside the Ghetto, find themselves in a disparate situation. They go to school, the Jews Free School, established for children of penniless Jewish immigrants. Their primary language is English, and they have adapted to secular standards. This generation of Jews is in transition between the traditions and mores of their Ashkenazi and Sephardi parents and grandparents, and between the modern society of their time period. They are in a quandary of sorts.

The forces of the old homeland and its traditions versus the modern day society are sharp and concise, and the reader is taken back to an era in transition. It is a time when the Orthodox Jews of the “old country” find it difficult to assimilate into modern English society. Yiddish is the language they speak, and their children speak English outside the house, but speak Yiddish inside. Even at that, some of the children are reluctant to continue speaking it, even inside the house. They are Anglo-Jews, and they are the individuals who will mold future generations of English Jews.

Many of the characters portrayed are in double-bind between the past and here and now. Hannah Jacobs, for instance, has a chance at love and marriage. Due to a legality that dates back to the existence of the Jerusalem Temple, she is not able to marry the man of her choice, David Brandon. Her father, Rabbi Shemuel, is insistent on that factor. Hannah and David dismiss that theory and plan to meet, run off, elope and marry in a civil ceremony.

Sam Levine believes in “muscular Judaism,” a movement that encourages both mental and physical strength in order to foster efforts to achieve a Zionist national state. Within his beliefs lies his parental roots, that never let him forget where he came from. Jewish transition and the Jewish homeland, although his goal, is restricted at times due to his ancestry.

Within the streets live a varied blend of Jews, and some with differing traditions and life styles. Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews and their customs and religious practices differed. Along with that, their common denominator, Judaism, did not necessarily bring them together in a harmonious way. The Orthodoxy and the Heterodoxy are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Some Jews felt superior to others, and some exhibited charitable tendencies to the less fortunate Jews in order to gain status within the Jewish community and within English society.

Zangwill’s historical novel is an intense read, yet one that also exhibits humor within the pages. Jewish humor is like no other, and through euphemisms filled with humor, and through humorous moments during gatherings, the Jews often get through their days, days of a life of hardship. Zangwill is forthright in his descriptions, describing every minute particle of Jewish life. His portrayal of the Ghetto streets, Ghetto homes, Ghetto life, Ghetto amusements, Ghetto Jews, and Jewish traditions is masterful. His own upbringing gave him the foundation to write the novel, and he filled the pages with brilliant scenarios, taken straight from his own background.

Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People is an incredible read. I felt the characters were realized, and found them to be credible. The novel is filled with societal, economic and political mutation. The comparison of “then and now” is astounding. The reader is taken to the heights of a changing Jewish England, a changing London, and a society fluctuating in constant transformation and metamorphosis. I gained so much from this historical novel, from the social journeys and searches, to the scenarios of the time period, it was as if I was physically there. I was infused with Victorian London in every aspect, due to Israel Zangwill’s mastery with his stunning prose.

-The Grandchildren of the Ghetto, is a sequel, Israel Zangwill’s second book, which was published separately (although some editions have condensed it with The Children of the Ghetto).

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