The Ghetto as Text in 19th Century Anglo-American Jewish Writings

Learning Objectives

In this module, students will learn about how the historic Jewish ghetto functioned within the literary imaginings of Jewish writers within the transatlantic contexts of England and the United States in the nineteenth century.  The unit takes a cultural studies approach to a range of texts, novels, poetry, photography and essays, as way to open up discussions about larger cultural shifts and debates during this period: namely, the ambivalent position of Jews in post-emancipation liberal democracies, the challenges of assimilation, secularization, inter-marriage, and integration into imperial or colonial cultures.

Students will consider how the selected authors have refigured these debates through representations of the ghettos of early modern Europe, their histories and potential psychic legacies (Zangwill). The readings included below juxtapose material descriptions of the ghetto with fictional renderings of their internal cultural structures, histories and characters. Portions of this module could be incorporated into a range of interdisciplinary courses focusing on Jewish identity and history; Victorian conceptions of race, gender, and religion; literature & space; immigrant literature; and nineteenth-century nation formation.


Levy, Amy. “The Ghetto at Florence.” Jewish Chronicle. 26 March 1886, p. 9. Print.

Written as a travel piece for the London-based Jewish Chronicle by Anglo-Jewish author and poet Amy Levy, “The Ghetto at Florence” is a vivid and haunting meditation on the history and devolution of the Jewish ghetto at Florence. As Levy guides her reader through the alleyways of the crumbling and abandoned ghetto, she paints a portrait of generational gaps and conflicts between her ghetto ancestors and the Jews now celebrating Carnival at its gates. This text offers students a brief and easy to read example of how the ghetto became a screen and the mechanism for these cultural and individual reflections. Pairs well with Richa Dwor’s essay below.

Magnus, Katie. “The Story of a Street” (1886). Jewish Portraits. London: T. Fischer Unwin, 1888. Print.

First published in 1886 in the Protestant Good Words magazine, “The Story of the Street” is at bottom a Ghetto success story. In fact, Lady Katie Magnus positions the Judengasse, or German ghetto-esque neighborhood, as the crucible in which the ethic of humanism and charity was forged, in spite of Christian persecution. This reframing of the ghetto experience as formative and generative is one way that Magnus uses the past to make a case for the “alchemy of domestic life” that, although modernized, should continue to carry the next generation forward. This text is useful for thinking about the ghetto as a vehicle for explaining and accounting for generational gaps within the Jewish community in a way that fosters continuity of past and present.

Jacobs, Joseph. “The Jewish Type, and Galton’s Composite Photographs.” Photographic News. April (1885): 268-269. Print.

This work focuses on the moral and ameliorative achievements of Jacobs’ mentor and founder of Eugenics Sir Francis Galton in making composite photographs of “The Jewish Type” from a series of portraits taken by Jacobs of ghetto children from “the poorest” regions of Europe. The framework of the essay establishes a Jewish racial type that is, according to Jacobs, the result of living for centuries in Europe’s ghettos. He uses composite photography to smooth over the peculiar “Jewish” features of these boys, as a way to forecast the ideal Jewish type that will emerge in the new conditions of post-Emancipation England and the United States.

This text is useful for students to see how narratives about the Ghetto influenced and were shaped by scientific inquiry.

Hirsch. Emil Gustav. “The Modern Jewess.” The American Jewess. Vol. 1.1. April 1895, pp. 10-11

Zangwill, Israel. Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1892. Print.

Zangwill, Israel. “A Child of the Ghetto.” Dreamers of the Ghetto. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1898. Print.

Secondary readings (for graduate or advanced undergraduate reading):

Baumgarten, Murray. “Israel Zangwill and the Afterlife of the Venice Ghetto.” Partial Answers. 13.1. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. Pp. 79-90. Print.

Abstract: Children of the Ghetto: Zangwill’s title announced his intention to explore how the Ghetto experience had shaped new English residents who came from Eastern Europe and Russia. Instead of the “Pale of Settlement,” the term for the residence of the Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia, he turned to Italian Jewish history and the Venetian/Italian language to designate what the Jews had become in their long European exile. In Zangwill’s view, the Ghetto was the defining space of modern Jewish life and — not exactly a promised land — generated the psychological drive in the Jews to imagine alternative modern Jewish spaces. The gates of the Ghetto are not easily forgotten: internalized, the Jewish space of the Venice and Rome Ghettos becomes in modern times a psychological force, and even we might say, a central trope in the discourse of modern Jewish experience.

Dwor, Richa. “Poor-Old Palace-Prison!”: Jewish Urban Memory in Amy Levy’s “The Ghetto at Florence”(1886). Partial Answers. 13.1. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. Pp. 155-170. Print.

Abstract: By writing from the narrative perspective of a self-identifying English Jew, Levy addresses in “The Ghetto at Florence” a history of Jewish exclusion and confinement represented by the ghetto, while also using this site to engage her complex attitudes towards Jewishness in the mid-1880s, in London. Rather than an accurate history of place, however, what is foregrounded in her article is self-reflexivity about ways of seeing and the effects of memory. This paper examines her uses of imaginative representation, race science, and the photographic gaze to attempt a tactile and affective encounter with the ghetto. In occupying a vexed space between extreme openness to imagined historical resonances alongside ironic detachment from the inadequacies of the present moment, she embodies the characteristically isolated subjectivity of the flâneur. She does so while contemplating the role of Jewishness in using the past to make sense of modern identity.

Kaufman, Heidi. “Borders of Intimacy in Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto.” Partial Answers. 13.1. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. Pp.91-110. Print.

Absract: The article focuses on Zangwill’s unusual depictions of ghetto life in late-Victorian London. Zangwill portrays the ghetto as a space with a proclivity for holding its inhabitants not through economic, legal, or cultural pressures — all features of earlier Victorian writing about the ghetto — but through its affective power. It begins by situating Zangwill’s depictions of ghetto life amidst a longer trajectory of Victorian ghetto discourse. The essay moves on to explore the significance of Zangwill’s innovation in depicting ghetto life as a place that emerges from borders born of the interplay of intimate encounters, emotional knowledge, and embodied experience.

This text also provides students with a succinct overview of how the Jewish ghetto circulated in non-Jewish literature during the nineteenth century.

Sharick, Amanda. “Confronting the ‘Jewish Type”: Israel Zangwill, Composite and Mirror Photography.” Partial Answers. 13.1. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015, pp. 111-135. Print.

Abstract: The article considers Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto through the lens of two late-nineteenth century photographic techniques: hinged-mirror and composite photography. These two techniques, each of which played a role in Zangwill’s personal life, can help to reframe Zangwill’s personal and literary struggles with representations of Jewish identity that were confined to notions of “types,” or stereotypes, of race and ethnicity. The article traces Zangwill’s overall discomfort with what it terms the “composite photographic logic of liberalism,” a logic that predicated tolerance on the radical assimilation of Jewish difference and reinforced institutional practices of Anglicization, especially in London’s East End Ghetto.

This essay is useful for thinking about how the ghetto as paradigm influenced cultural production and informed pseudoscientific practices that led to the racialization of the ghetto Jewish body.

Can be assigned with/Pairs well with:

Katz, Dana, E. “Clamber not you up to the casements”: On ghetto views and viewing.” Jewish History (2010). 24: 127-153. Web.

Attention to space, institutional practices and the mechanisms of citizenship.