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Children of the Ghetto: a study of a peculiar people online

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four mistresses, they will all be there, and Gideon, the Man-of-
the-Earth, M. P., — ah, it will be terrible. If I could only get
them to see it performed, they should have free passes."

" No, shoot them first ; it would be more merciful. But where
is this comedy to be played?" asked Hamburg curiously.

" At the Jargon Theatre, the great theatre in Prince's Street,
the only real national theatre in England. The English stage —
Drury Lane — pooh! It is not in harmony with the people; it
does not express them."

Hamburg could not help smiling. He knew the wretched
little hall, since tragically £unous for a massacre of innocents^
victims to the fatal cry of fire — more deadly than fiercest fiame.

" But how will your audience understand it? " he asked.

** Aha! " said the poet, laying his finger on his nose and grin-
ning. "They will understand. They know the corruptions of
our society. All this conspiracy to crush me, to hound me out
of England so that ignoramuses may prosper and hypocrites
wax fat — do you think it is not the talk of the Ghetto? What!
Shall it be the talk of Berlin, of Constantinople, of Mogadore^
of Jerusalem, of Paris, and here it shall not be known ? Besides^
the leading actress will speak a prologue. Ah ! she is beautiful^
beautiful as Lilith, as the Queen of Sheba, as Cleopatra! And
how she acts! She and Rachel — both Jewesses! Think of it!
Ah, we are a great people. If I could tell you the secrets of her
eyes as she looks at me — but no, you are dry as dust, a creature
of prose! And there will be an orchestra, too, for Pesach Wein-
gott has promised to play the overture on his fiddle. How he
stirs the soul! It is like David playing before Saul."

" Yes, but it won't be javelins the people will throw," mur-
mured Hamburg, adding aloud: "I suppose you have written
the music of this overture."

"No, I cannot write music," said Pinchas.

"Good heavens! You don't say so?" gasped Gabriel Ham-
burg. "Let that be my last recollection of you! No! Don't

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say another word! Don't spoil it! Good-bye." And he tore
himself away, leaving the poet bewildered.

"Mad! mad!" said Pinchas, tapping his brow significantly;
" mad, the old snufF-and-pepper-box." He smiled at the recol-
lection of his latest phrase. "These scholars stagnate so.
They see not enough of the women. Ha! I will go and see
my actress."

He threw out his chest, puffed out a volume of smoke, and
took his way to Petticoat Lane. The compatriot of Rachel was
wrapping up a scrag of mutton. She was a butcher's daughter
and did not even wield the chopper, as Mrs. Siddons is reputed
to have flourished the domestic table-knife. She was a simple,
amiable girl, who had stepped into the position of lead in the
stock jargon company as a way of eking out her pocket-money,
and because there was no one else who wanted the post. She
was rather plain except when be-rouged and be-pencilled. The
company included several tailors and tailoresses of talent, and
the low comedian was a Dutchman who sold herrings. They
all had the gift of improvisation more developed than memory,
and consequently availed themselves of the faculty that worked
easier. The repertory was written by goodness knew whom,
and was very extensive. It embraced all the species enumer-
ated by Polonius, including comic opera, which was not known
to the Danish saw-monger. There was nothing the company
would not have undertaken to play or have come out of with a
fair measure of success. Some of the plays were on Biblical sub-
jects, but only a minority. There were also plays in rhyme,
though Yiddish knows not blank verse. Melchitsedek accosted
his interpretess and made sheep's-eyes at her. But an actress
who serves in a butcher's shop is doubly accustomed to such,
and being busy the girl paid no attention to the poet, though
the poet was paying marked attention to her.

"Kiss me, thou beauteous one, the gems of whose crown
are foot-lights," said the poet, when the custom ebbed for a

" If thou comest near me," said the actress whirling the chop-
per, "I'll chop thy ugly little head off."

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<^ Unless thou lendest me thy lips thou shalt not play in my
comedy," said Pinchas angrily.

" My trouble! " said the leading lady, shrugging her shoulders.

Pinchas made several reappearances outside the open shop,
with his insinuptive finger on his nose and hb insinuative smile
on his face,- but \i^ the end went away with a flea in his ear and
hunted up the actor-manager, the only person who made any
money, to speak of, <iUt of the performances. That gentleman
had not yet consented to produce the play that Pinchas had
ready in manuscript and which had been coveted by all the
great theatres in the world, but which he, Pinchas, had reserved
for the use of the only actor in Europe. The result of this
interview was that the actor-manager yielded to Pinchas's solici-
tations, backed by frequent applications of poetic finger to poetic

"But," said the actor-manager, with a sudden recollection,
" how about the besom ? "

" The besom ! " repeated Pinchas, nonplussed for once.

"Yes, thou sayest thou hast seen all the plays I have pro-
duced. Hast thou not noticed that I have a besom in all my
plays ? "

"Aha! Yes, I remember," said Pinchas.

" An old garden-besom it is," said the actor-manager. " And
it is the cause of all my luck." He took up a house-broom that
stood in the corner. " In comedy I sweep the floor with it — so
— and the people grin ; in comic-opera I beat time with it as I
sing — so — and the people laugh; in farce I beat my mother-
in-law with it — so — and the people roar ; in tragedy I lean upon
it — so — and the people thrill ; in melodrama I sweep away the
snow with it — so — and the people burst into tears. Usually I
have my plays written beforehand and the authors are aware of
the besom. Dost thou think," he concluded doubtfully, " that
thou hast sufficient ingenuity to work in the besom now that the
play is written ? "

Pinchas put his finger to his nose and smiled reassuringly.

" It shall be all besom," he said.

" And when wilt thou read it to me ? "

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"Will to-morrow this time suit thee? "

"As honey a bear."

" Good, then! " said Pinchas ; " I shall not fail."

The door closed upon him. In another moment it reopened
a bit and he thrust his grinning face through the aperture.

"Ten per cent, of the receipts!" he said with his cajoling
digito-nasal gesture.

" Certainly," rejoined the actor-manager briskly. " After pay-
ing the expenses — ten per cent, of the receipts."

" Thou wilt not forget? "

" I shall not forget."

Pinchas strode forth into the street and lit a new cigar in his
exultation. How lucky the play was not yet written! Now he
would be able to make it all turn round the axis of the besom.
" It shall be all besom ! " His own phrase rang in his ears like
voluptuous marriage bells. Yes, it should, indeed, be all besom.
With that besom he would sweep all his enemies — all the foul
conspirators — in one clean sweep, down, down to Sheol. He
would sweep them along the floor with it — so — and grin;
he would beat time to their yells of agony — so — and laugh ; he
would beat them over the heads — so — and roar ; he would lean
upon it in statuesque greatness — so — and thrill; he would
sweep away their remains with it — so — and weep for joy of
coimtermining and quelling the long persecution.

All night he wrote the play at railway speed, like a night
express — puffing out volumes of smoke as he panted along.
" I dip my pen in their blood," he said from time to time, and
threw back his head and laughed aloud in the silence of the
small hours.

Pinchas had a good deal to do to explain the next day to the
actor-manager where the fun came in. " Thou dost not grasp
all the allusions, the back-handed slaps, the hidden poniards;
perhaps not," the author acknowledged. " But the great heart
of the people — it will understand."

The actor-manager was unconvinced, but he admitted there
was a good deal of besom, and in consideration of the poet
bating his terms to five per cent, of the receipts he agreed to

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give it a chance. The piece was billed widely in several streets
under the title of " The Hornet of Judah," and the name of Mel-
chitsedek Pinchas appeared in letters of the size stipulated by
the finger on the nose.

But the leading actress threw up her part at the last moment,
disgusted by the poet's amorous advances ; Pinchas volunteered
to play the part himself and, although his offer was rejected, he
attired himself in skirts and streaked his complexion with red
and white to replace the promoted second actress, and shaved
off his beard.

But in spite of this heroic sacrifice, the gods were unpropitious.
They chaffed the poet in polished Yiddish throughout the first
two acts. There was only a sprinkling of audience (most of it
paper) in the dimly-lit hall, for the fame of the great writer had
not spread from Berlin, Mogadore, Constantinople and the rest
of the universe.

No one could make head or tail of the piece with its incessant
play of occult satire against clergymen with four mistresses.
Rabbis who sold their daughters, stockbrokers ignorant of
Hebrew and destitute of English, greengrocers blowing Mes-
sianic and their own trumpets, labor-leaders embezzling funds,
and the like. In vain the actor-manager swept the floor with
the besom, beat time with the besom, beat his mother-in-law with
the besom, leaned on the besom, swept bits of white paper
with the besom. The hall, empty of its usual crowd, was fuller
of derisive laughter. At last the spectators tired of laughter and
the rafters re-echoed with hoots. At the end of the second act,
Melchitsedek Pinchas addressed the audience from the stage, in
his ample petticoats, his brow streaming with paint and perspi-
ration. He spoke of the great English conspiracy and expressed
his grief and astonishment at finding it had infected the entire

There was no third act. It was the poet's first — and last —
s^pearance on any stage.

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The learned say that Passover was a Spring festival even be-
fore it was associated with the Redemption from Egypt, but there
is not much Nature to worship in the Ghetto and the historical
elements of the Festival swamp all the others. Passover still
remains the most picturesque of the " Three Festivals " with its
entire transmogrification of things culinary, its thorough taboo of
leaven. The audacious archaeologist of the thirtieth century
may trace back the origin of the festival to the Spring Cleaning,
the annual revel of the English housewife, for it is now that the
Ghetto whitewashes itself and scrubs itself and paints itself and
pranks itself and purifies its pans in a baptism of fire. Now, too,
the publican gets unto himself a white sheet and suspends it
at his door and proclaims that he sells Kosher rum by permis-
sion of the Chief Rabbi. Now the confectioner exchanges his
"stuffed monkeys," and his bolas and his jam-puiFs, and his
cheese-cakes for unleavened "palavas," and worsted balls and
almond cakes. Time was when the Passover dietary was re-
stricted to fruit and meat and vegetables, but year by year the
circle is expanding, and it should not be beyond the reach of
ingenuity to make bread itself Passoverian. It is now that the
pious shopkeeper whose store is tainted with leaven sells his
business to a friendly Christian, buying it back at the conclusion
of the festival. Now the Shalotten Shammos is busy from
morning to night filling up charity-forms, artistically multiplying
the poor man's children and dividing his rooms. Now is holo-
caust made of a people's bread-crumbs, and now is the national
salutation changed to "How do \}[it Motsos agree with you?"
half of the race growing facetious, and the other half finical
over the spotted Passover cakes.

It was on the evening preceding the opening of Passover
that Esther Ansell set forth to purchase a shilling's worth of

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fish in Petticoat Lane, involuntarily storing up in her mind
vivid impressions of the bustling scene. It is one of the
compensations of poverty that it allows no time for mourning.
Daily duty is the poor man^s nepenthe.

Esther and her father were the only two members of the
family upon whom the death of Benjamin made a deep im-
pression. He had been so long away from home that he
was the merest shadow to the rest. But Moses bore the
loss with resignation, his emotions discharging themselves in
the daily Kaddish. Blent with his personal grief was a sor-
row for the commentaries lost to Hebrew literature by his boy's
premature transference to Paradise. Esther's grief was more
bitter and defiant. All the children were delicate, but it was
the first time death had taken one. The meaningless tragedy
of Benjamin's end shook the child's soul to its depths. Poor
lad! How horrible to be lying cold and ghastly beneath the
winter snow! What had been the use of all his long prepa-
rations to write great novels ? The name of Ansell would now
become ingloriously extinct. She wondered whether Our Own
would collapse and secretly felt it must. And then what of
the hopes of worldly wealth she had built on Benjamin's genius ?
Alas! the emancipation of the Ansells from the yoke of pov-
erty was clearly postponed. To her and her alone must the
family now look for deliverance. Well, she would take up the
mantle of the dead boy, and fill it as best she might. She
clenched her little hands in iron determination. Moses Ansell
knew nothing either of her doubts or her ambitions. Work
was still plentiful three days a week, and he was unconscious
he was not supporting his family in comparative affluence.
But even with Esther the incessant grind of school-life and
quasi-motherhood speedily rubbed away the sharper edges
of sorrow, though the custom prohibiting obvious pleasures
during the year of mourning went in no danger of transgres-
sion, for poor little Esther gadded neither to children's balls
nor to theatres. Her thoughts were full of the prospects of
piscine bargains, as she pushed her way through a crowd so
closely wedged, and lit up by such a flare of gas from the

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shops and such, streamers of flame from the barrows that the
cold wind of early April lost its sting.

Two opposing currents of heavy-laden pedestrians were en-
deavoring in their progress to occupy the same strip of pavement
at the same moment, and the laws of space kept them blocked
till they yielded to its remorseless conditions. Rich and poor
elbowed one another, ladies in satins and furs were jammed
against wretched looking foreign women with their heads
swathed in dirty handkerchiefs ; rough, red-faced English bet-
ting men struggled good-humoredly with their greasy kindred
from over the North Sea ; and a sprinkling of Christian yokels
surveyed the Jewish hucksters and chapmen with amused supe-

For this was the night of nights, when the purchases were
made for the festival, and great ladies of the West, leaving be-
hind their daughters who played the piano and had a subscrip-
tion at Mudie's^ came down again to the beloved Lane to throw
off the veneer of refinement, and plunge gloveless hands in bar-
rels where pickled cucumbers weltered in their own ^^russell,''
and to pick fat juicy olives from the rich-heaped tubs. Ah, me !
what tragic comedy lay behind the transient happiness of these
sensuous faces, laughing and munching with the shamelessness
of school-girls ! For to-night they need not hanker in silence
after the flesh-pots of Egypt. To-night they could laugh and
talk over Oi(nt hasholom times — " Peace be upon him " times —
with their old cronies, and loosen the stays of social ambition,
even while they dazzled the Ghetto with the splendors of their
get-up and the halo of the West End whence they came. It
was a scene without parallel in the history of the world — this
phantasmagoria of grubs and butterflies, met together for auld
lang syne in their beloved hatching-place. Such violent con-
trasts of wealth and poverty as might be looked for in romantic
gold-fields, or in unsettled countries were evolved quite naturally
amid a colorless civilization by a people with an incurable talent
for the picturesque.

" Hullo! Can that be you, Betsy?" some grizzled shabby old
man would observe in innocent delight to Mrs. Arthur Mont-

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morenci ; " Why so it is! I never would have believed my eyes!
Lord, what a fine woman youVe grown ! And so youVe little
Betsy who used to bring her father's coffee in a brown jug when
he and I stood side by side in the Lane! He used to sell slip-
pers next to my cutlery stall for eleven years — Dear, dear, how
time flies to be sure."

Then Betsy Montmorenci's creamy face would grow scarlet
under the gas-jets, and she would glower and draw her sables
around her, and look round involuntarily, to see if any of her
Kensington friends were within earshot.

Another Betsy Montmorenci would feel Bohemian for this
occasion only, and would receive old acquaintances* greeting
effusively, and pass the old phrases and by-words with a strange
sense of stolen sweets ; while yet a third Betsy Montmorenci, a
finer spirit this, and worthier of the name, would cry to a Betsy
Jacobs :

"Is that you, Betsy, how are you? How are you.** Fm so
glad to see you. Won't you come and treat me to a cup of
chocolate at Bonn's, just to show you haven't forgot Olov
hasholom times?"

And then, having thus thrown the responsibility of stand-
oflishness on the poorer Betsy, the Montmorenci would launch
into recollections of those good old " Peace be upon him " times
till the grub forgot the splendors of the caterpillar in a joyous
resurrection of ancient scandals. But few of the Montmorencis,
whatever their species, left the Ghetto without pressing bits of
gold into half-reluctant palms in shabby back-rooms where old
friends or poor relatives mouldered.

Overhead, the stars burned silently, but no one looked up
at them. Underfoot, lay the thick, black veil of mud, which the
Lane never lifted, but none looked down on it. It was impos-
sible to think of aught but humanity in the bustle and confusion,
in the cram and crush, in the wedge and the jam, in the squeez-
ing and shouting, in the hubbub and medley. Such a jolly,
rampant, screaming, fighting, maddening, jostling, polyglot, quar-
relling, laughing broth of a Vanity Fair ! Mendicants, vendors,
buyers, gossips, showmen, all swelled the roar.

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" Here's your cakes ! All yontovdik (for the festival) ! Yon-
tovdik — "

" Braces, best braces, all — "

** Yontovdik ! Only one shilling — "

"It's the Rav's orders, mum; all legs of mutton must be
porged or my license — "

" Cowcumbers ! Cowcumbers ! "

" Now's your chance — "

"The best trousers, gentlemen. Corst me as sure as I
stand — "

" On your own head, you old — "

" Arbah Kanfus (four fringes) ! Arbah — "

" My old man's been under an operation — "

" Hokey Pokey ! Yontovdik ! Hokey — "

" Get out of the way, can't you — "

" By your life and mine, Betsy — "

" Gord blesh you, mishter, a toisand year shall ye live."

" Eat the best Motsos. Only fourpence — "

" The bones must go with, marm. I've cut it as lean as

^'' Charoises (a sweet mixture). Charoisesl Moroire (bitter
herb)! C^r/z/W (horseradish) ! /Vj^z^^^//^ (for Passover)."

" Come and have a glass of Old Tom, along o' me, sonny."

" Fine plaice ! Here y'are ! Hi ! where's yer pluck ! S'elp
me — "

"Bob! Yontovdikl Yontovdik! Only a bob!"

" Chuck steak and half a pound of fat."

" A slap in the eye, if you — "

" Gord bless you. Remember me to Jacob."

" Shaink (spare) meer a 'apenny, missis lieben^ missis croin
(dear) — "

" An unnatural death on you, you — "

" Lord! Sal, how you've altered ! "

" Ladies, here you are — "

" I give you my word, sir, the fish will be home before you."

" Painted in the best style, for a tanner — "

"A spoonge, mister? "

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" ril cut a slice of this melon for you for — "
" She's dead, poor thing, peace be upon him."
" Yontovdik I Three bob for one purse containing — "
" The real live tattooed Hindian, bom in the African Harchi-
pellygo. Walk up."

" This way for the dwarf that will speak, dance, and sing.**
" Tree lemons a penny. Tree lemons — "
" A Shtibbur (penny) for a poor blind man — "
^'Yontovdik I Yontovdik I Yontovdik I Yontovdik P'
And in this last roar, common to so many of the mongers,
the whole Babel would often blend for a moment and be swal-
lowed up, re-emerging anon in its broken multiplicity.

Everybody Esther knew was in the crowd — she met them
all sooner or later. In Went worth Street, amid dead cabbage-
leaves, and mud, and refuse, and orts, and offal, stood the woe-
begone Meckish, offering his puny sponges, and wooing the
charitable with grinning grimaces tempered by epileptic fits at
judicious intervals. A few inches off, his wife in costly sealskin
jacket, purchased salmon with a Maida Vale manner. Com-
pressed in a corner was Shosshi Shmendrik, his coat-tails yellow
with the yolks of dissolving eggs from a bag in his pocket.
He asked her frantically, if she had seen a boy whom he had
hired to carry home his codfish and his fowls, and explained
that his missus was busy in the shop, and had delegated to him
the domestic duties. It is probable, that if Mrs. Shmendrik,
formerly the widow Finkelstein, ever received these dainties,
she found her good man had purchased fish artificially inflated
with air, and fowls fattened with brown paper. Hearty Sam
Abrahams, the bass chorister, whose genial countenance spread
sunshine for yards around, stopped Esther and gave her a
penny. Further, she met her teacher. Miss Miriam Hyams, and
curtseyed to her, for Esther was not of those who jeeringly called
" teacher " and " master " according to sex after her superiors,
till the victims longed for Elisha's influence over bears. Later
on, she was shocked to see her teacher's brother piloting bonny
Bessie Sugarman through the thick of the ferment. Crushed
between two barrows, she found Mrs. Belcovitch and Fann,,

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who were shopping together, attended by Pesach Weingott, all
carrying piles of purchases.

** Esther, if you should see my Becky in the crowd, tell her
where I am,'' said Mrs. Belcovitch. "She is with one of her
chosen young men. I am so feeble, I can hardly crawl around,
and my Becky ought to carry home the cabbages. She has
well-matched legs, not one a thick one and one a thin one."

Around the fishmongers the press was great. The fish-trade
was almost monopolized by English Jews — blonde, healthy-
looking fellows, with brawny, bare arms, who were approached
with dread by all but the bravest foreign Jewesses. Their scale
of prices and politeness varied with the status of the buyer.
Esther, who had an observant eye and ear for such things, often
found amusement standing unobtrusively by. To-night there
was the usual comedy awaiting her enjojrment. A well-dressed
dame came up to " Uncle Abe's " stall, where half a dozen lots
of fishy miscellanaea were spread out.

"Good evening, madam. Cold night but fine. That lot?
Well, you're an old customer and fish are cheap to-day, so I can
let you have 'em for a sovereign. Eighteen? Well, it's hard,
but — boy! take the lady's fish. Thank you. Good evening."

" How much that ? " says a neatly dressed woman, pointing to
a precisely similar lot.

" Can't take less than nine bob. Fish are dear to-day. You
won't get anything cheaper in the Lane, by G— you won't.
Five shillings ! By my life and by my children's life, they cost
me more than that. So sure as I stand here and — well, come,
gie's seven and six and they're yours. You can't afford more?
Well, 'old up your apron, old gal. I'll make it up out of the
rich. By your life and mine, you've got a Meisiah (bargain)

Online LibraryIsrael ZangwillChildren of the Ghetto: a study of a peculiar people → online text (page 24 of 48)