In the Melting Pot
"That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play.” President Theodore Roosevelt famously shouted out these words to Israel Zangwill as the curtain went down on the Washington, D.C., premiere of the British Jewish author’s The Melting Pot in October 1908. The president, who on later occasions explicitly deplored the very notion of “hyphenated Americans,” could only have been pleased by a drama whose Jewish hero celebrated America as “God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming,” and where, out of “Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians . . . God is making the American.”
Even before the performance of the play and the universal adoption of its title as a metaphor for the process of complete assimilation, American Jews had been busy devising means of withstanding the pressures that Zangwill welcomed. Among other things, they founded (or rather, refounded) in 1888 the Jewish Publication Society. One of the first works the society published was what Jonathan Sarna has called “the first best-selling Jewish novel in America,” Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto—a book that sensitively depicted the lives of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in London (without pointing hopefully to their disappearance through assimilation).
Zangwill was also for a time one of the most important figures in the Zionist movement, a key ally of Theodor Herzl in its earliest days and one of his ardent supporters until Herzl died in 1904. Zangwill left Zionism the following year, in protest against the movement’s principled rejection of any territory other than Palestine as a destination for Jewish settlement, but he remained a nationalist activist. For 20 years he led the Jewish Territorial Organization, which scoured the world, from Australia to North Africa to southern Africa, in search of an alternative site for a homeland for his people.