Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Israel Zangwill was an English novelist and playwright (1864-1926). Zangwill’s writings are relevant to Jewish religious trends in the contemporary world because they express, better than most, the tensions in his soul which were typical of those suffered by thinking Jews torn between intense loyalty to the religious tradition and the allure of the wider world.
Troubled, for instance, by the doctrine of the Chosen People, Zangwill countered with his famous epigram: ‘The Chosen People is a choosing people,’ thus shifting imperceptibly the emphasis from God to the people.
The Meaning of Peoplehood
Jewish peoplehood was in the forefront of Zangwill’s thought and activities. When Herzl visited England in 1895, Zangwill introduced him to a number of influential Jews, and as a result the Zionist movement took root in Great Britain with Zangwill as an influential member.
Later on Zangwill, still emphasizing the significance of Jewish peoplehood, took up the idea of Jewish territorialism as a substitute for Zionism, founding the ITO, the Jewish Territorialist Organisation, in which what mattered was not the settlement of Jews in Palestine but having them settle somewhere, anywhere in the world wherever they could build a home as an independent people.
Zangwill’s agonizing over the problem of Jewish peoplehood is to be observed especially in his two most famous books, at least from the point of view of the Jewish religion. In his Children of the Ghetto, now in many editions and a classic of English literature, Zangwill wittily describes, mixing admiration with irony, the life of Russian immigrants to England in the ghetto of the East End of London, where Zangwill was born.
But in his series of sketches Dreamers of the Ghetto, he depicts mainly Jewish renegades (though the book does contain a study of the Baal Shem Tov) such as Uriel Acasta, Spinoza, and Shabbetai Zevi, for whom, for one reason or another, the burden of the Jewish religion became too hard to bear.
The pull of Judaism is also evident in Zangwill’s translations of some of Ibn Gabirol’s poems and of Jewish liturgical hymns. The latter, although far from representing Zangwill at his best, were admitted into the standard English Festival Prayer Book, the Routledge Mahzor.
Zangwill can hardly be considered a profound Jewish thinker, but few have succeeded as well at giving expression in good English to the turmoil of the modern Jew trying to live in two worlds; this is not to say, however, that Zangwill provides anything remotely resembling a solution to the problem.