Monday, 22 July 2019

A reminder of the vision
of the ‘melting pot’ from
the poet of the ghetto

‘They shall worship You at sunrise, / And feel Your Kingdom’s might’ … waiting for sunrise on Inishmore on the Aran Islands last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During my prayers last night, using the Jewish prayer book Service of the Heart, edited by Rabbi John D Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern, I came across the poem All the world shall come to serve You, adapted slightly from a translation by Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) of a Hebrew poem, Vaye’ethayu, believed to date from the seventh century.

During these weeks, I am working on reflections on the Prophets Hosea and Amos as resources for clergy and readers preparing sermons on the Lectionary readings, and this is yet another poem that is imbued with the vision of the prophets for a world and a future that comes to enjoy God’s blessings:

All the world shall come to serve You
And bless Your glorious Name,
And Your righteousness triumphant
The islands shall proclaim.
And the peoples shall go seeking
Who knew You not before,
And the ends of earth shall praise You,
And tell Your greatness o’er.

They shall build for You their altars,
Their idols overthrown,
And their graven gods shall shame them,
As they turn to You alone.
They shall worship You at sunrise,
And feel Your Kingdom’s might,
And impart their understanding
To those astray in night.

With the coming of Your Kingdom
The hills shall break into song,
And the islands laugh exultant
That they to God belong.
And all their congregations
So loud Your praise shall sing,
That the uttermost peoples hearing,
Shall hail You crownéd King.

This poem was included in The Standard Book of Jewish Verse (1917) compiled by Joseph Friedlander and edited by George Alexander Kohut. These 731 poems spanned 3,000 years and comprised the loving work of an expert compiler, scores of translators, and hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish authors.

In his introduction, Joseph Friedlander wrote, ‘Hebrew poetry ... was essentially religious, flowing from an intense racial consciousness and developing to an exalted spiritual mood, under stress of mingled storm and sunshine of national fortune.’

Since then, the poem has been included in a number of Jewish hymnals, to tunes by the American Jewish composer Abraham Wolf Binder (1895-1966) and the German-born composer Leon M Kramer (1866–1943), who began his career as the assistant director of music at the Oranienbergerstrasse Synagogue or New Synagogue in Berlin. As a hymn, it is often associated with Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish New Year.

Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) was an English-born Jewish pacifist, poet playwright and novelist who coined the phrase ‘melting pot’ for the great American dream of a culturally diverse and integrated United States and was known as ‘the Dickens of the Ghetto.’ He was at the forefront of cultural Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th century, and was once a close associate of Theodor Herzl. He later rejected the search for a Jewish homeland in Palestine and became the prime thinker behind the territorial movement.

Zangwill was born in London on 21 January 1864, into a family of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire. His father, Moses Zangwill, was from what is now Latvia, and his mother, Ellen Hannah Marks Zangwill, was from what is now Poland. He dedicated his life to championing the cause of people he considered oppressed, becoming involved with topics such as Jewish emancipation, Jewish assimilation, territorialism, Zionism, and women's suffrage. His brother was novelist Louis Zangwill.

Zangwill went to school in Plymouth and Bristol and then at the Jews’ Free School in Spitalfields in east London, a school for Jewish immigrant children. Today, one of the four houses at the school is named in his honour. Eventually, he become a teacher at the school while studying for his BA degree at the University of London (1884).

He had already written a tale entitled The Premier and the Painter in collaboration with Louis Cowen, when he resigned as a teacher began working as a journalism. He initiated and edited Ariel, The London Puck, and work soon earned him the nickname ‘the Dickens of the Ghetto.’ He wrote an influential novel, Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People (1892).

The use of the metaphorical phrase ‘melting pot’ to describe American absorption of immigrants was popularised by Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot, a success in the US in 1909-1910.

When The Melting Pot opened in Washington on 5 October 1909, the former President Theodore Roosevelt leaned over the edge of his box and shouted, ‘That’s a great play, Mr Zangwill, that’s a great play.’ Later, Roosevelt wrote to Zangwill, saying, ‘That particular play I shall always count among the very strong and real influences upon my thought and my life.’

The protagonist of the play, David, emigrates to America after the Kishinev pogrom in which his entire family is killed. He writes a great symphony, The Crucible, expressing his hope for a world in which all ethnicity has melted away, and becomes enamoured with a beautiful Russian Christian immigrant named Vera. The dramatic climax of the play is the moment when David meets Vera’s father, who turns out to be the Russian officer responsible for the annihilation of David’s family. Vera’s father admits guilt, the symphony is performed to accolades, David and Vera live happily ever after, or, at least, agree to wed and kiss as the curtain falls.

The Melting Pot celebrated America’s capacity to absorb and grow from the contributions of its immigrants.

Many of Zangwill’s later plays were staged on Broadway. He also wrote mystery works and novels that were used as the basis for movies. His play The Lens Grinder is based on the life of Spinoza. But he is best remembered for the ‘Ghetto’ books.

Zangwill endorsed feminism and pacifism, but his greatest effect may have been as a writer who popularised the idea of the combination of ethnicities into a single, American nation. The hero of The Melting Pot proclaims: ‘America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming ... Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians – into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.’

Zangwill was an early Zionist and a territorialist. For a time, he endorsed Theodor Herzl, and presided at a meeting at the Maccabean Club, London, addressed by Herzl in 1895. But Zangwill founded his own organisation, named the Jewish Territorialist Organisation in 1905, advocating a Jewish homeland in whatever land might be available in the world that could be found for them, with speculations including Canada, Australia, Mesopotamia, Uganda and Cyrenaica.

Zangwill is known incorrectly for inventing the slogan ‘A land without a people for a people without a land. But Zanwill had borrowed the phrase from a speech by Lord Shaftesbury in 1853, during the preparation for the Crimean War.

In the dramatic voice of the Wandering Jew, he wrote, ‘we can make the wilderness blossom as the rose, and build up in the heart of the world a civilisation that may be a mediator and interpreter between the East and the West.’

But Zangwill told a London court in 1908 that he had been naive in the past and had since ‘realised what is the density of the Arab population’ in Palestine, which twice that of the US. In 1913, he criticised those who insisted on repeating that Palestine was ‘empty and derelict’ and who called him a traitor for reporting otherwise. In 1917 he wrote in 1917, ‘“Give the country without a people,” magnanimously pleaded Lord Shaftesbury, “to the people without a country.” Alas, it was a misleading mistake. The country holds 600,000 Arabs.’

Zangwill married Edith Ayrton, a feminist and author. They lived for many years in a house called ‘Far End’ in East Preston, West Sussex. Their youngest son was the British psychologist, Oliver Zangwill. Zangwill died in 1926 in Midhurst, West Sussex.

Zangwill’s vision of the American ‘melting pot’ and the acclaim he received from Roosevelt are telling reminders of an American dream that has been replaced by an American nightmare by the Trump administration.

‘And Your righteousness triumphant / The islands shall proclaim’ … islands off the coast of Anglesey in north Wales (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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