« Heads! | Main | Haftorah HaChodesh »

Book Report: The King of the Schnorrers

So. Judging a book by its cover, as YHB so often does, I nabbed off the shelf The King of Schnorrers, by Israel Zangwill. I had never heard of Mr. Zangwill, a late Victorian/Edwardian English Jew who wound up involved in the Zionist mishigas and so on. I wasn’t absolutely convinced I would read the thing, but then it turned out that it was fucking brilliant, so it worked out really well.

I am inclined to call the book Dickensian, but that gives the wrong impression, because it is short (a hundred pages in my library’s 1964 Dollar Dover edition), has only a handful of characters, and is tightly structured. Actually, some of Charles Dickens’s’es’ books are like that, but then those ones aren’t as Dickensian as the others.

On the other hand, the characters are loads of fun, grotesques without being caricatures, have outsized attributes, and exist to typify certain human foibles rather than as exact imitations. It is realistic without being naturalistic, by which I use the terms (and pay ’em extra) to mean that the subject matter is the immediately recognizable situations of day-to-day life, without restricting itself stylistically or representationally to the confines of recognizable reality.

Which is to say, you can have a grotesquely greedy and self-absorbed character called Rabbi Remorse Red-Herring.

The other thing that fascinated me was Mr. Zangwill’s depiction of the animosity between the sephardim and the ashkenazim in London at the end of the eighteenth century. The split is the driving force behind the plot, and its described in terms I wasn’t familiar with. In England at that time, the sephardim were the aristocracy, landed Spaniards with a tradition of weath and community. The ashkenazim, on the other hand, were ignorant riffraff from poor countries in Eastern Europe, Polacks and Slavs and their ilk, with uncouth accents and no family of note. In this country, the tradition is ashkenazic (mostly, mostly), and it’s the sephardim who have funny accents, bizarre traditions and no relation to the Great Men of our line. I joke about it, myself, quietly so that the sephardim don’t hear me, but the division is still there. And, I should say, in the book they are tedesco, not ashkenazim, because Mr. Zangwill properly uses the sephardic name, rather than their own (compare the American use of german rather than deutscher to mean german).

Anyway, at the time the book is set, the ashkenazim are starting to get a little wealth and the plot is sparked by the King of the Schnorrers, Manasseh Bueno Barzillai Azevedo da Costa, (um, a Sephardic Jew for those who couldn’t guess) deciding to schnorr Joseph Grobstock, an ashkenazic Jew. His spectacular (and hilarious) success there inspires his friend Yankele to attempt to schnorr him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Well, one thing and another happens, and the King of the Schnorrers agrees, but then has to deal with the shul, and its President and Board, who are shocked that even a schnorrer like him would marry his daughter to a Polack. Well, da Costa deals with them, and then makes a supreme effort of schnorring such as has never schnorred before or since, a truly kingly schnorr indeed.

There’s the full text on-line, and the audio as well, for those that like to listen.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


i came across your post through a google search of the book and author.Youromments are perceptive & "right on the money",as they say.

Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.