The King of Schnorrers: Israel Zangwill’s Radical Romance
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Israel Zangwill (1864–1926) was a literary celebrity, a political activist, and possibly the best-known Jew in the Anglophone world. He was the author of Children of the Ghetto (1892), a novel about the Jews of London that became a British and American bestseller and was widely translated. In 1908 he wrote the play The Melting-Pot, which argued for the value of immigration to American culture and provided future studies of ethnicity with a much-debated metaphor. Having started his career as a journalist, Zangwill wrote a number of novels and plays, as well as short stories, and not only on Jewish subjects. He advocated for British women’s suffrage and was a leader in, first, Theodor Herzl’s Zionist movement and, later, the Jewish Territorial Organization, which he founded. Zangwill’s writings as well as his activism attest to a strong sense of social justice, while his literary work often nested serious questions in a web of humorous characterization and wordplay. Such an apparently mixed modality often led to mixed reviews; while some critics might have found the humor jarring, others wished Zangwill would stick only to humor. By the middle of the twentieth century, when it was excerpted by Nathan Ausubel in A Treasury of Jewish Folklore and reissued in the United States by Shoe String Press, Zangwill’s best-known work of fiction was probably The King of Schnorrers (1894), a work which solidified Zangwill’s fame as a Jewish humorist. Now that more of Israel Zangwill’s work has been republished, and Zangwill himself has come under more serious study,
it is worth looking at how that masterpiece of humor also embeds some of Israel Zangwill’s most biting social criticism.
The King of Schnorrers was first published in six monthly parts in the Idler, a new literary magazine edited by Jerome K. Jerome and Robert Barr. Zangwill became associated with Jerome after publishing short stories and satirical columns in Jewish periodicals, and, in 1890, becoming editor of the comic newspaper Puck, which he renamed Ariel. For the Idler, Zangwill wrote several short stories and an essay for the series My First Book before serializing The King of Schnorrers in Volume Four, from August 1893 to January 1894.
The Idler was, in general, a magazine for light reading by intelligent readers, but with diverse kinds of contributions. Anne Humpherys describes its tone as “liberal, irreverent, and sentimental,”
but makes clear that it did not have any narrow political or moral agenda: ‘Fiction of course was prominent, but there were also articles on the theatre, books, and exhibitions. There were interviews with celebrities of various sorts, and educational essays on natural history, foreign countries and alien cultural practices as well as tours of historical buildings. The fiction from the beginning included detective and adventure stories, but also a good number of more or less sentimental stories of love and romance. (2) ’ Serialization of The King of Schnorrers in the Idler helped Zangwill to naturalize Jewish life in British, American, and modern European culture at the same time as it placed him in the center of English letters. Jerome and Barr sought diversity in content and authorship, and thus the magazine featured most of the 1890s’ best known literary writers, with the possible significant exception of writers in the aesthetic movement. The King of Schnorrers’ serialized chapters followed Part II of Royal Pets, by Ernest M. Jessop; an episode of the Idler’s Club (a forum of writers’ opinions on current topics); “My First Book” essays by Marie Corelli, “John Strange Winter” (Henrietta Stannard), and Jerome K. Jerome; and Part II of the story “Exchange is Robbery,” by Richard Marsh, best known today, perhaps, as author of The Beetle (1897). Other works in the volume included a story by Arthur Conan Doyle and a profile of George Meredith. Zangwill would have been pleased by his serial’s placement, and he was an Idler “regular.”
The appearance of the entire first chapter of The King in Ausubel’s Treasury of Jewish Folklore suggests that the story was taken from traditional materials and has become part of folklore itself, and, indeed, there is a chicken/egg question surrounding this short novel. Which came first: The King of Schnorrers or the widespread understanding among Ashkenazi Jews of the humor inherent in the Yiddish term of its title? Zangwill acknowledged his debt to tradition in his foreword to the 1894 volume reprint: “I have merely amused myself and attempted to amuse idlers by incarnating the floating tradition of the Jewish Schnorrer, who is as unique among beggars as Israel among nations” (v). Ausubel ascribes this uniqueness to the wit with which the schnorrer
cajoles funds from donors, and the wealth of Judaic learning with which this particular type of beggar abashes the materially wealthy, and Zangwill’s “King”—Manasseh Bueno Barzillai Azevedo da Costa—has wit and Jewish learning in abundance. Bernard Winehouse and Edna Nahshon both credit Zangwill’s novella with promoting the image of this wily character, but acknowledge, as well, that Zangwill was well-versed in the history of the schnorrer figure long before he created Manasseh, and had included schnorrers in earlier writings. Yet Zangwill’s memorable King of Schnorrers—the novella and the character—certainly helped popularize the term, which was, according to the OED, an un-italicized English word as early as 1899. One might well ask whether, when Freud related a “salmon mayonnaise” story in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, he was thinking of a traditional folkloric example or of Zangwill’s Manasseh justifying his purchase of salmon after receiving the wealthy Grobstock’s charity: “If I do not buy salmon when I have two guineas, . . . when shall I buy salmon?” (King 16).
Freud had written to a friend, in 1897, that “for some time past I have been putting together a collection of Jewish anecdotes” (4), and one may speculate on whether his sources included Zangwill’s work. However, given the length to which Zangwill spins out the episode beyond the initial joke—at the end of Chapter One having the embarrassed Grobstock appear to his servant as Manasseh’s food carrier—it is possible that Freud and Zangwill both used traditional sources, with the fiction writer expanding rather than explaining. When, in the film Animal Crackers (1930), Groucho Marx responded to the crowd’s “Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer,” with, “Did someone call me schnorrer?” he assumed that audiences would understand the word—or that, if they didn’t, they should. The OED defines a schnorrer as, originally, a beggar (its basic and least evocative definition), but adds that now it has the connotations of “a scrounger, a freeloader; a layabout, a good-for-nothing.” Merriam-Webster’s more positive definition is closer to Zangwill’s and to Groucho’s: “one who wheedles others into supplying his or her wants.” It is the wheedling that characterizes Zangwill’s schnorrer and that gives the word a taste of bittersweet humor in the mouths of Jews today.
In keeping with his desire to maintain a dual persona, when Zangwill published The King of Schnorrers in volume form he added to it a collection of shorter stories, from the Idler and from other periodicals, only a few of which had Jewish content. All were labeled together in a subtitle, Grotesques and Fantasies, which itself suggests a certain ambivalence by Zangwill toward his subject matter. Zangwill’s friend Joseph Leftwich reported (from hearsay) that Zangwill had considered ending the Idler serial halfway through, but Jerome persuaded him to continue (250). However, Leftwich goes on to quote Zangwill as, throughout his life, being gleeful at the success of his unusual protagonist and story. The King of Schnorrers was Zangwill’s next extended work after his bestselling realist novel of Jewish life, Children of the Ghetto (1892),
and he likely enjoyed the freedom of comedy unmixed with sorrow, and romance only barely mixed with realism.
The concept of Romanticism in late Victorian literature is not new. In 2013, the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies and the English Faculty of Oxford University held a conference titled “Romanticism at the Fin de Siècle,” which “place[d] Romanticism at the core” of that later cultural era (Announcement). One finds echoes of Romanticism in aestheticist theory and Romantic-seeming evocations of past eras in aesthetic poetry, prose, and visual art. For Zangwill, who was not in the aestheticist camp,
romance was a contrast to realism that helped contextualize bitter truths that he often took as his subject matter. The “Proem” to Children of the Ghetto, a novel whose first full chapter is set in a late Victorian soup kitchen, takes place in early nineteenth-century London, its reminiscences of an earlier generation of Jews softened, as at its end, by a veil of nostalgia: ‘Perhaps, here and there, some decrepit centenarian rubs his purblind eyes with the ointment of memory, and sees these pictures of the past, hallowed by the concentration of time, and finds his shriveled cheek wet with the pathos sanctifying the joys that have been. (69) ’ In contrast, The King of Schnorrers announces its satiric mode from the start, but it, too, is set in the Romantic era, in this case, the late eighteenth century, “in the days when Lord George Gordon became a Jew, and was suspected of insanity; when, out of respect for the prophecies, England denied her Jews every civic right except that of paying taxes; . . .” (1). By the end of this first paragraph, however, the reader is immersed in the details of the story at hand. The outlandish costumes of its picaresque hero and outmoded eighteenth-century dress and furnishings of surrounding characters provide a distanced (and thus effectively dissonant) backdrop for 1894 social satire.
The King of Schnorrers begins by lampooning the rivalries between rich and poor, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, reversing expectations by making the wealthy man of German Jewish descent while the pauper/beggar is Iberian. The interethnic rivalry played upon here was part of a “myth of Sephardi superiority,” ‘the belief that Jews from the Iberian peninsula were different in kind from other Jews, that they were superior by virtue of their culture, learning, wealth, descent, manners, or indeed even blood. (Endelman 226) ’ The myth had its roots in medieval Spain. When the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisitions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it spread to other parts of Europe. As Todd Endelman has shown, however, by the late nineteenth century—and even the late eighteenth—Ashkenazi Jews outnumbered Sephardim in London, and by the mid-1800s “most of the important Jewish banking houses—the Rothschilds chief among them—traced their origins to the Frankfurt ghetto, not the courts and estates of Castile and Aragon” (228). Thus when suave, brilliant, and devout Manasseh outsmarts the rich but “coarse”
Joseph Grobstock, Zangwill evokes laughter through the complex inversion of a stereotype—which, as Endelman also points out, was kept in public view by writer and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. However, by the end of The King of Schnorrers, even the Sephardi elite falls against the power of Manasseh’s Jewish learning as well as his financial acumen. Edna Nahshon relates that the story’s final conflict has its root in an actual event of 1745, when a Sephardi synagogue warden petitioned the Mahamad (the Sephardic religious governing body) to marry an Ashkenazic woman (392–93), an event that is obliquely referred to in the novella. However, the fascinating but over-the-top Manasseh and the elaborate eighteenth-century costumes and settings that in George Hutchinson’s illustrations
seem integral to the story may distract the reader from what is perhaps the most subversive satire in the plot. As Zangwill in The King of Schnorrers reverses easy expectations and prejudices, he also suggests new ways of looking at such terms as work, profession, investment, and wealth. Groucho is not the only Marx relevant to The King of Schnorrers.
The language of commerce pervades this novella. Yes, there are comic reversals as the poorly yet fancifully attired schnorrer reminds the wealthy Grobstock and others that by schnorring he allows them to fulfill the commandment of helping the needy. Yes, Manasseh asserts a nobility of learning and religious devotion that places him above the shallow pomposities of Grobstock and the Sephardic Mahamad. But throughout the work a pattern of references makes clear that both rich and poor operate according to the same laws of exchange. When the dim but basically good-natured Grobstock realizes he owes Manasseh an apology, the narrator reports that he “proceeded honestly to pay it, but with a maladroit manner, as one unaccustomed to the currency” (8). When Grobstock offers three guineas for the salmon, while Manasseh has bargained for two, Manasseh reminds him that “this is not an auction” (14). Grobstock accuses Manasseh of theft because “a pauper—a beggar—with a wife and children” should not spend all he has—his charity from Grobstock—“on a mere luxury like salmon” (15–16). From here proceeds Zangwill’s version of the salmon joke, because once the money leaves Grobstock’s hand the salmon is no longer his. It is Manasseh’s property, and he has every right to do with it as he pleases. Similarly, when Grobstock gives Manasseh a trove of his used clothing, expecting Manasseh to wear it to dinner at his home and thus spare him shame before his servants, he is outraged to learn that Manasseh has immediately sold the items to a wealthy used-clothing dealer. When Manasseh replies that he can’t wear such clothes because “I know my station” (48), we suspect a multiple meaning. He knows the value of the clothing and he knows his own worth as a man, as well as a man of business. Once Grobstock gives him the clothes, again, they are Manasseh’s to use as he pleases. If Grobstock chooses to be embarrassed by Manasseh’s usual garb, that is none of Manasseh’s concern. However, since Manasseh will receive Grobstock’s clothing in perpetuity, he reminds the financier not to spill snuff on it or do anything else that might decrease its value. Similarly, when he agrees to sell the salmon back to Grobstock, he insists on three guineas, not two, the larger figure being the value Grobstock had originally assigned to it, along with profit for having been made into a middleman and “compensation for being degraded to fishmongering” as well as for losing the salmon itself (28–29)—even though he had already rebuked the financier for interrupting his original negotiations, saying he could have gotten the salmon for twenty-five shillings had Grobstock not offered the much higher price (18). Manasseh knows that value is equal only to the most that someone will pay for something and does not correspond to any so-called intrinsic worth.
Before Manasseh agrees to take Grobstock’s clothing, he makes sure that Grobstock does not already have a “clothes-receiver” (22). Schnorring is a business, like Grobstock’s directorship in the East India Company, and it has its rules and ethics. One does not trespass on a competitor’s territory. Manasseh also insists that the position be permanent, because “it hurts one’s reputation to lose a client” (22). Similarly, one can present part of one’s own schnorring-ground as dowry to a prospective son-in-law (103–04). Yankelé, the Ashkenazi schnorrer to whom Manasseh will marry his daughter, enumerates to his prospective father-in-law what he will bring to the marriage through a combination of schnorring, selling old clothes, and carrying out synagogue and communal duties. Their conversation is filled with Wildean paradox: ‘Manasseh shook his head. “Schnorring is the only occupation that is regular all the year round,” he said. “Everything else may fail—the greatest commercial houses may totter to the ground; as it is written, ‘He humbleth the proud.’ But the Schnorrer is always secure. Whoever falls, there are always enough left to look after him. If you were a father, Yankelé, you would understand my feelings. How can a man allow his daughter’s future happiness to repose on a basis so uncertain as work? (71)’ One can almost hear Lady Bracknell interrogating Jack Worthing, although The Importance of Being Earnest had its first performance the year after The King of Schnorrers was published.
Writing about the short novel in 1953, less than a decade after the Holocaust ended, Bernard Schilling reminded readers of “the background of sorrow and evil” against which Jewish humor has flourished throughout Jewish history (vii), a context that later critics have not especially emphasized, while all who have written on The King of Schnorrers acknowledge its consonance with Zangwill’s lifelong concern for the poor. Indeed, as his reputation rose and fell in loftier circles even during his lifetime, he remained a hero to the immigrant Jews of the East End. But, as even Schilling points out, “the materials before us are much too funny for inquiry into their sadder implications” (xiv). Manasseh indeed has two professions, schnorrer and Talmud scholar, an explicator of Jewish law for those whose pursuits are wholly material. As he quotes from scripture and rabbinic texts to prevent potential almsgivers from falling into sin (since charity is an essential commandment), his learned conning provides a great deal of the novella’s comedy. Having already taken ownership of the packets of coins in the bag he has taken from Grobstock to carry the salmon, he further asks the financier if he might have left anything in the pockets of his clothes; if so, Manasseh will return to him anything “of no value to anybody but you” (33). He reminds the astounded financier of the biblical laws relating to gleaners: ‘‘When thou reapest thine harvest in thine field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.’ . . . You will admit that Moses would have added a prohibition against searching minutely the pockets of cast-off garments, were it not that for forty years our ancestors had to wander in the wilderness in the same clothes, which miraculously waxed with their growth. (34) ’ At this point one assumes that Grobstock, concerned about appearances and not wanting to seem ignorant of Jewish law, would readily capitulate to Manasseh’s assumption of what is his due. He does so, but Zangwill goes further, noting that “Grobstock’s magnanimity responded to the appeal.” Additional descriptions of this sort affirm that Grobstock’s magnanimity is genuine; after all, he first appears in the novella giving alms to a crowd of beggars outside the synagogue. In a novella that ends with Manasseh carrying out the greatest schnorr of all—getting the Sephardic leadership to agree to the marriage of Sephardic Deborah and Ashkenazic Yankelé and granting the King of Schnorrers an income for life—Zangwill calls upon the forces of law and business to bring this about.
The middle chapters of The King of Schnorrers examine how Yankelé is able to demonstrate his professional prowess to Manasseh by schnorring dinner at the home of a notoriously stingy rabbi. The last two chapters of the six, however, reveal Manasseh appearing before the court of the Mahamad, using his verbal wit to show that Sephardi officialdom is as pompous as any grob German. Manasseh knows the Ascamot (or Laws and Regulations) better than the authorities do, and he knows that nowhere in this document is the marriage between a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi Jew prohibited (117).
They continue to debate on points of tradition versus law, Yahidim (full members of the community) versus schnorrers, and even the position of Deborah, whose marriage to Yankelé her father defends on the ground that “she is not a male . . . ; she is not an active agent, she has not gone out of her way to choose a Tedesco
—she has been chosen” (119).
Finally, after the President has threatened him with excommunication, Manasseh threatens to spread word of the Mahamad’s small-minded contumely not only to the Sephardic Yahidim from whom he schnorrs, but also to “that very Ashkenazic community you contemn— . . . a community that waxes daily in wealth and greatness while you sleep in your sloth” (124–25). In the course of this speech Manasseh has managed to occupy the President’s chair, and the effect of the speech and the action leave the President “gasping like a landed cod” (125–26), reminiscent of the bagged salmon in chapter one, and finally having a stroke on the spot. He recovers, but in his absence “Manasseh found scant difficulty in imposing his will on the minor officers” (128) and the wedding between Yankelé and Deborah takes place.
However, this is not the King of Schnorrers’ ultimate success. Just as a glassy-eyed fish returns to the narrative, so does Joseph Grobstock. As a new father-in-law, Manasseh takes on the honor of making monetary donations to the congregation, even though his major source of income is schnorring (or more generally taking alms) from the same congregation’s leaders. His logic is impossible to summarize or concisely record, but “every man who yielded to Manasseh’s eloquence was a step to reach the next” and he soon collects a kingly sum for the synagogue’s coffers (140). Deciding to make the gift even greater, he asks Grobstock to invest the money for him. When the East India director suggests that Manasseh go to someone else this time, Manasseh closes the circle of the economic plot: ‘Sir! . . . You are a skilful—nay a famous, financier. You know what stocks to buy, what stocks to sell, when to follow a rise, and when a fall. . . . What would you say if I presumed to interfere in your financial affairs—if I told you to issue these shares or to call in those? You would tell me to mind my own business; and you would be perfectly right. Now Schnorring is my business. Trust me, I know best whom to come to. (150)’ In Grobstock’s hands the sixty pounds grow to six hundred, and Manasseh donates the balance to the congregation “to purchase a life-annuity (styled the Da Costa Fund) for a poor and deserving member of the congregation, in whose selection he, as donor, should have the ruling voice” (156). Of course, he chooses himself, earning in perpetuity the title of King of Schnorrers. In the end, although The King of Schnorrers’ satire targets intracommunal and class rivalries, it concludes, as Nahshon points out, “not with chaos and revolution, but with orderly power-sharing and acceptance” (393). Zangwill’s comic novella reveals how to create a civil society despite social, cultural, and economic differences. This, of course, is a major theme of Torah and Jewish ethics.
The critique of capitalism in this novella is not strictly Marxian. The financier, after all, is key to the schnorrer’s financial success, and money produced for the most part by commerce and investment is what keeps the religious communities afloat. But so do the machinations of schnorrers, who also have to live, and who use spiritual persuasion while heeding the laws of capitalism. Schnorring may be considered labor in that it takes the place of more conventional kinds of work, but the schnorrer is more accurately an entrepreneur. Work and schnorring are mutually exclusive, as Manasseh makes clear. Audrey Jaffe’s analysis of Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is thus in many ways relevant to The King of Schnorrers. Finding that he can earn more by disguising himself as a disfigured beggar, Doyle’s Neville St. Clair keeps up the pretense of managing financial interests in the City, while actually conducting a very different enterprise. Jaffe points out that “the scenario wherein a beggar is revealed to be a gentleman or nobleman in disguise is a familiar one” in nineteenth-century literature, and in the parallels I have noted between schnorrer and financier, Zangwill’s novella is part of that pattern. For a moment, even Grobstock wonders whether Manasseh might really be a Spanish nobleman playing a role, and questions whether he, himself, has been the “victim of a practical joke, a prank? Did not a natural aristocracy ooze from every pore of this mysterious visitor? Was not every tone, every gesture, that of a man born to rule?” (41). If there is no sure way to distinguish among the aristocrat, the financier, and the beggar, then how can one be reassured by social hierarchies? Moreover, as Jaffe points out, “the figure of the finance capitalist [such as Grobstock in The King of Schnorrers] confounds the attempt . . . to define identity in relation to work” (49), the principle upon which condemnation of the beggar (or schnorrer) rests. Noting that even St. Clair’s wife had no idea of what his business in the City was—not even the business he purported to conduct—Jaffe writes that “the ‘man who does something in the City’ exemplifies the kind of fungible identity that, his contemporaries feared, inhabited a realm of exchange divorced from production” (51). In other words, does it essentially matter whether one deals at the exchange or on the street, so long as the money comes home? To what is considered respectable society it certainly does, and so St. Clair is ordered to abandon his alter-ego, to the extent of not even revealing “Hugh Boone” or his longterm begging to his wife. Yet by revealing the instability of economic and class identities, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” lifts a veil on the unstable underpinnings of nineteenth-century bourgeois society. Writing in a similarly moralistic mid-twentieth-century context, Bernard Schilling anticipates Jaffe’s conclusions, with only slight hesitation: ‘The whole seems an ironic comment upon the absurdity of all human arrangements; one becomes almost persuaded that Manasseh is right, that his parasitical impudence and refusal to work for what he extorts from the sober, reasonable, and industrious pedestrians who run the world—that this is in fact justified and is no more ludicrous than the actual nature of things anyway. (xxxiii; emphasis added)’ I would propose that Zangwill in The King of Schnorrers makes precisely the case that Schilling suggests. Condemned by what is thought of as respectable society, schnorring requires both effort and intelligence; it is in a category of its own, as essential perhaps to the larger world as it is to the Jewish community in the ways it brings wit, performance, creativity, and, indeed instability to more sober and less open societal constructs.
Here is where The King of Schnorrers diverges from “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” and also goes beyond the play that Zangwill created from the novella in 1925. Ausubel distinguishes the schnorrer from ordinary Jewish beggars who survived not through wit but through feigning disability (267), much as Hugh Boone sports a cosmetic scar across his lower face. Zangwill goes even further. The crowd of beggars at the synagogue door when the story opens are all described as schnorrers, and the few who present physical afflictions are sincere and discreet: ‘A green shade might denote weakness of sight, but the stone-blind man bore no braggart placard—his infirmity was an old established concern well known to the public, and conferring upon the proprietor a definite status in the community. . . . Rarest of all sights in this pageantry of Jewish pauperdom was the hollow trouser-leg or the empty sleeve, or the wooden limb fulfilling either and pushing out a proclamatory peg. (2) ’ The veracity of this statement is confirmed a few pages later, as the mendicants receive “prize-packets” from Grobstock: “One of the few pieces of gold in the lucky-bag fell to the solitary lame man, who danced in his joy on his sound leg”—an image confirmed in Hutchinson’s lively illustration—“while the poor blind man pocketed his half-penny, unconscious of ill-fortune, and merely wondering why the coin came swathed in paper” (5). Although they may be less clever, witty, or learned than their king, these schnorrers apparently share his sense of ethics. The 1925 play,
however, opens with a crew of Jewish beggars who soon reveal that “Stumpy Sol has two legs, Armless Isaac two arms, and Blind Jonathan two good eyes” (stage direction, Nahshon 407). Deceit rather than wit becomes their overriding characteristic, and the pathos of the early scene in the novella is gone. Also introduced right away is Deborah, Manasseh da Costa’s daughter, now a hard-bitten schnorrer herself. When the others tell her to go home, a “woman’s place,” she complains that she needs the money for her dowry and that her father takes all that she schnorrs, anyway (409). This may be marginally more suitable to the post-women’s suffrage audience than a Deborah who is talked about and bargained over but who never appears, as in the novel, but it detracts from Manasseh’s uniqueness, at least in his family. Further drifting from its source, the 1925 play adds a subplot depicting the desired marriage between Grobstock’s daughter and a Sephardi dandy. This subplot, again, adds a significant woman to the cast, and presents dramatically what Manasseh only alludes to in the novella: that when it comes to a Sephardi of the upper class, he will be allowed to marry whomever he wants. All of these changes may have been made to heighten dramatic interest and popularity. In 1925 Zangwill was struggling financially while self-producing his more overtly didactic political plays. He was also sixty-one years of age at the time of these serious professional reverses, not the up-and-coming twenty-nine-year-old who saw the short novel through its appearance in the Idler. He would die the following year. According to Nahshon, the first run of The King of Schnorrers in London was intentionally short, and the reviews were mixed; revivals in 1930 had a total of ten performances, and in 1950 twenty-one (395–97). But Zangwill’s own opening-out of the story to fit expected conventions, both of theater and of how a beggar is to be perceived, may have diluted the story’s wit and its point, to its detriment.
The novella, in its focus on the men of the story, with only a few brief appearances by Grobstock’s and Manasseh’s wives, is in fact uncharacteristic of Zangwill, who throughout his fiction and drama explored the lives and thoughts of female characters both as protagonists and secondary figures. In this novella, however, the nearly all-male cast of characters is effective, as it underscores the interconnectedness of schnorrers and financiers, as well as Ashkenazi and Sephardi pomposities, in what was a male-dominated commercial system. Turning the dandy Beau Belasco (who appears just briefly in the middle of the novella) into, in the play, a full-fledged character seeking the hand of Grobstock’s daughter detracts from the focus on Manasseh and his schemes.
The King of Schnorrers as a play—not necessarily a play by Zangwill—seems to have had more success in the United States. Jacob Adler adapted a Yiddish version in 1905 (Nahshon 394), and Judd Woldin’s musical version, first performed in 1979 as Petticoat Lane, has been produced well into the twenty-first century in various adaptations of its own. Petticoat Lane is an effective adaptation in that it focuses closely on a few distinct instances of schnorring, each following logically from the one preceding and staying close to Zangwill’s own witty dialogue. Deborah’s suitor is in this case a cabinet-maker, which allows Manasseh once again to deprecate work as a suitable means for providing for a wife. The setting, however, seems more late-nineteenth century than eighteenth, with Deborah Da Costa a proto-suffragette. The streamlined plot, as well, becomes too streamlined when the central conflict revolves around Manasseh’s disdain for the Ashkenazim, something treated lightly and only briefly at the start of Zangwill’s novella.
The title of Woldin’s play when I saw it in 1997 was not Petticoat Lane, but The King of Schnorrers. That restored title alone may account for some of the success of recent productions, as children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants—not fluent in Yiddish themselves—have seen the word schnorrer and laughed, aware of its only semi-secret (and as we have seen, now English) meaning. Today there is a resurgence of interest in the serious study of Yiddish, a recognition that this was a language in which Jews of Europe wrote poetry, prose, and drama; did business; made love; argued; mourned; bought groceries; and did everything else one uses a language for. But in the middle of the twentieth-century, and even later, a Jewish comedian had only to say a word in Yiddish to get a laugh. In 2015, when Robert Brustein’s The King of Second Avenue (based on The King of Schnorrers) was performed in Boston, the reviewer for the Globe called it, affectionately, “a serving of borscht,” alluding to the comic borscht belt of the Catskills that had its heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s. Brustein—whose high-culture credentials as founder of the Yale and American Repertory Theaters and adapter of classic plays are duly noted—is said to have “the soul of a borscht belt comedian.” Brustein himself agrees: “I’m a burlesque artist at heart” (Brown). But for all its humor and even sight gags (the President of the Mahamad’s apoplexy, for instance), the novella does not seem to fit those pop-culture descriptions, even though Israel Zangwill himself linked it with “grotesques and fantasies.”
I saw the retitled Woldin musical at the Florida Jewish Theatre, where it was directed by Russell Kaplan. In his Director’s Note in the program, Kaplan referred to Zangwill as “one of the greatest writers of Yiddish fiction of the 19th century,” repeating an error that would have exasperated Zangwill, who wrote in English, not Yiddish, and who saw himself as working within both British and Jewish cultures, connecting the two. Perhaps Kaplan assumed that a play about a schnorrer—using that “funny” word—must be entirely frivolous and originally Yiddish. Manasseh has schnorred in many languages; on a trip to France in the 1990s I saw a placard listing plays to be performed that summer, including Le Roi Des Schnorrers, par Israel Zangwill.
And although Zangwill objected to the “low comedy” of Jacob Adler’s operetta (Nahshon 394), one might expect to find other Yiddish adaptations. However, after searching a number of comprehensive databases, the closest I could come was a Hebrew edition, published in 1900.
Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898)—one of Zangwill’s more serious and historically-based works—seems to be the only work of his that can readily be found today in a Yiddish edition. Perhaps Zangwill’s ambivalence about the language left him ambivalent about authorizing translations, or perhaps they had only limited circulation. The Hebrew translation, in fact, at a time when modern Hebrew was being developed and encouraged, used a Hebrew word in place of schnorrer in its title, even though that word—kabtsn or kamtsn—has the significantly different meaning of cheapskate or stingy person.
The King of Schnorrers was neither Zangwill’s first nor his last treatment of economic justice in fiction. For example, in Children of the Ghetto an admired and idealistic character asserts that Moses “was the first Socialist” (265), citing the laws of the Torah to which Manasseh, also, would refer. In the widely reprinted Dreamers of the Ghetto, which compiles slightly fictionalized stories of failed idealists, the German-Jewish socialist Ferdinand Lassalle receives a chapter. Zangwill often, too, contributed to causes promoted by trade unionists and socialists.
The King of Schnorrers presents in a subtle and palatable form radical ideas of economic justice that Zangwill always saw as Jewish. Indeed, The King of Schnorrers may have yet appeared in Yiddish, even if only through informal publication. One would think that the Yiddish-literate workers of his day, despite Manasseh Da Costa’s disparagement of labor, would have cheered Zangwill’s clever and effective means of upholding their rights and sticking it to the bosses.