Jewish immigration to the East End produced a melting pot of businessmen, entrepreneurs, writers, artists and musicians.
Among them was one writer who was unique – he not only grew up in the East End of East European Jews, he took it as the subject of his work. And in doing so he brought the story of the mass immigration to a much wider audience.
Israel Zangwill was born in 1864 at 10 Ebenezer Square, Stoney Lane, in the City of London – growing up in the streets off Brick Lane, living first in Fashion Street and then in Princes Street.
Israel’s father was a poor peddlar from the tiny country of Latvia, later to be swallowed up by the USSR.
Israel was to make his fame by turning out a series of popular novels on the theme of immigrant Jews – in successive years publishing Children of the Ghetto (1892), Ghetto Tragedies and The King of Schnorrers.
How he came from being the son of an impoverished immigrant to a popular and successful writer was a testament to the self-improvement ethic of the incoming Jews.
Israel became a pupil at the Jews Free School in Bell Lane, Spitalfields, and then became a teacher.
While still teaching he set aside his evenings to study for a degree at London University, eventually passing with triple honours.
And the energetic Zangwill was not content with work and study. While teaching in Bell Lane he was working on his first book, Motza Kleis, or Matzo Balls.
This lively account of market days in Spitalfields brought him an enthusiastic and loyal audience – and Zangwill never looked back.
Novels and plays followed, all richly observed slices of East End life. One of his most popular works was The Big Bow Mystery.
A huge cast of characters knock against each other trying to solve the mystery behind the strange death of Oliver Constance, one of the most prolific orators of his day.
Zangwill had a great flair for storytelling but, more than that, the mystery is a thoughtful satire of Victorian England, set “in London’s picturesque Bow district”.
But Israel’s interests in the history and future of his people had long been leading him beyond simply writing fiction.
He became a leading member of the Order of Ancient Maccabeans, a Zionist society established in 1891.
The Zionist movement was working toward the establishment of a Jewish homeland, a dream that became a reality with the birth of the nation of Israel in 1948.
And When Zionist leader Theodor Herzl visited London in 1896 he met Israel to discuss the plans for that state. Argentina and Uruguay were two of the venues proposed for the new homeland, as well as the eventual Israel of the Holy Land.
Zangwill attended the First Zionist Congress, supporting Herzl’s Uganda Territory plan. It was rejected, and a defiant Zangwill led the “Territorial-ists” out of the Zionist organization in 1905.
He swiftly established the Jewish Territorialists Organi-zation (ITO) whose object was to acquire a Jewish homeland where possible.
Following the securing of the Balfour declaration, named after the British political leader backing Jewish calls for a solution to the Arab Question and the forming of a Jewish state, the ITO fell into decline and by 1925 it was officially dissolved.
Zangwill was never to see the setting up of modern Israel. He died in 1926 in Preston, having laid much of the groundwork for his dream of a homeland – a future for the displaced Jews of Europe.
But a visit back to his books paints a rich picture of those people in the century before – and of the lives they lived in their long journey from eastern Europe on their way to the new Promised Land.