Ghetto People

Chabad salesman. Tel Aviv, August 2017.

Chabad salesman. Tel Aviv, August 2017.

People who have been living in a ghetto for a couple of centuries, are not able to step outside merely because the gates are thrown down, nor to efface the brands on their souls by putting off the yellow badges. The isolation imposed from without will have come to seem the law of their being. But a minority will pass, by units, into the larger, freer, stranger life amid the execrations of an ever-dwindling majority. Toward better or for worse, or for both, the ghetto will be gradually abandoned, till at last it becomes only a swarming place for the poor and the ignorant, huddling together for social warmth. Such people are their own ghetto gates; when they migrate they carry them across the sea to lands where they are not.

Into the heart of East London there poured from Russia, from Poland, from Germany, from Holland, streams of Jewish exiles, refugees, settlers, few as well-to-do as the Jew of the proverb, but all rich in their cheerfulness, their industry, and their cleverness. The majority bore with them nothing but their phylacteries and praying shawls, and a good-natured contempt for Christians and Christianity. For the Jew has rarely been embittered by persecution. He knows that he is in Goluth, in exile, and that the days of the Messiah are not yet, and he looks upon the persecutor merely as the stupid instrument of an all-wise Providence. So that these poor Jews were rich in all the virtues, devout yet tolerant, and strong in their reliance on Faith, Hope, and more especially Charity.

In the early days of the nineteenth century, all Israel were brethren. Even the pioneer colony of wealthy Sephardim—descendants of the Spanish crypto-Jews who had reached England via Holland—had modified its boycott of the poor Ashkenazic immigrants, now they were become an overwhelming majority. There was a superior stratum of Anglo-German Jews who had had time to get on, but all the Ashkenazic tribes lived very much like a happy family, the poor not stand-offish towards the rich, but anxious to afford them opportunities for well-doing.

The Schnorrer felt no false shame in his begging. He knew it was the rich man’s duty to give him unleavened bread at Passover, and coals in the winter, and odd half-crowns at all seasons; and he regarded himself as the Jacob’s ladder by which the rich man mounted to Paradise. But, like all genuine philanthropists, he did not look for gratitude. He felt that virtue was its own reward, especially when he sat in Sabbath vesture at the head of his table on Friday nights, and thanked God in an operatic aria for the white cotton table-cloth and the fried sprats. He sought personal interviews with the most majestic magnates, and had humorous repartees for their lumbering censure.

As for the rich, they gave charity unscrupulously—in the same Oriental, unscientific, informal spirit in which the Dayanim, those cadis of the East End, administered justice. The Takif, or man of substance, was as accustomed to the palm of the mendicant outside the Great Synagogue as to the rattling pyx within. They lived in Bury Street, and Prescott Street, and Finsbury—these aristocrats of the ghetto—in mansions that are now but congeries of “apartments.” Few relations had they with Belgravia, but many with Petticoat Lane and the Great Shool, the stately old synagogue which has always been illuminated by candles and still refuses all modern light.

Tel Aviv, August 2017.

The Spanish Jews had a more ancient snoga, but it was within a stone’s throw of the “Duke’s Place” edifice. Worshippers did not pray with bated breath, as if afraid that the deity would overhear them. They were at ease in Zion. They passed the snuff-boxes and remarks about the weather. But hard times had some of the fathers of the ghetto. They were meek and timorous outside the ghetto, walking warily for fear of the Christian. Sufferance was still the badge of all their tribe. Brotherhood broke down under the disparity of revenue, the rich Spanish sect displaying once again the exclusiveness which has marked its history.

Amid these internal problems, the unspeakable immigrant was an added thorn. Very often the victim of Continental persecution was assisted on to America, but the idea that he was hurtful to native labor rankled in the minds of Englishmen, and the Jewish leaders were anxious to remove it, all but proving him a boon. In despair, it was sought to ‘anglicize him by discourses in Yiddish. With the Poor Alien question was connected the return to Palestine. The Holy Land League still pinned its faith to Zion, to the extent of preferring the ancient fatherland, as the scene of agricultural experiments, to the South American soils selected by other schemes.

It was generally felt that the redemption of Judaism lay largely in a return to the land, after several centuries of less primitive and more degrading occupations. But, for the orthodox the difficulties of regeneration by the spade were enhanced by the Sabbatical Year Institute of the Pentateuch, ordaining that land must lie fallow in the seventh year. It happened that this septennial holiday was just going on, and the faithful Palestine farmers were starving in voluntary martyrdom. Judaism was a successful sociological experiment, the moral and physical training of a chosen race whose very dietary had been religiously regulated. All around their

All around their neighbors sought distraction in the blazing public-houses, and their tipsy bellowings resounded through the streets and mingled with the Hebrew hymns. Here and there the voice of a beaten woman rose on the air. But no Son of the Covenant was among the revellers or the wife-beaters; They were clever young artisans from Russia and Poland with a smattering of education, a feverish receptiveness for all the iconoclastic ideas that were in the London air, a hatred of capitalism and strong social sympathies.They were lost in the chaos of populations—Syrians, Armenians, Turks, Copts, Abyssinians, Europeans—as their synagogues were lost amid the domes and minarets of the Gentiles. The city was full of venerated relics of the Christ his people had lived—and died—to deny, and over all flew the crescent flag of the Mussulman.

Adapted from Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto (1912). Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.