Zangwill, Israel. The Melting-Pot (1909). Available free via The Gutenberg Project at gutenberg.org.
First performed in 1908 and published a year later, British Jewish author Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting-Pot is probably best known today for popularizing its titular metaphor for the United States as a place where a variety of peoples, cultures, and individuals assimilate into a cohesive whole.
The term is out of date but still familiar to multiple living generations. In the twenty-first century, we are far more likely to describe our nation through the metaphor of the salad bowl, where peoples, cultures, and individuals contribute to a distinct nation while maintaining their own cultural identities. We can debate just how much distinct identity this nation tolerates – or, better yet, respects – in its inhabitants, but the general emphasis in public education and popular discourse has shifted from the language of melting-pot assimilation to salad-bowl multiculturalism.
Looking back at the concept through Zangwill’s writing encourages us to recall the era of immigration academics often call the “Great Tide.” For Jewish Americans, this references the flood of nearly 2.5 million Eastern European Jews into the United States through Ellis Island between 1880-1924. People fleeing pogroms or looking for greater equality and freedom accepted the idea that they would have to fit into their new nation, for there was no going back for the vast majority. Adaptation to capitalist demands, above all, drove a deemphasis on God’s commandments, from Sabbath practices to kashrut. In turn, Jews would bring Yiddish, the Vaudeville stage, and other gifts to their new nation.
Such a description, however, is not what Zangwill meant by the melting-pot, nor what he hoped for in his vision of an ideal nation. His image was one of alchemy. As the play’s protagonist declares: “America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming... Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians – into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.” All (white) people from all (European) nations were fusing through what Zangwill envisioned as a divine “purging flame.”
To bring forth this message, the play tells the story of young David Quixano, who emigrates to America in the wake of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, in which his entire family was killed. He labors as an impoverished musician and would-be composer who longs to see the world united, all ethnic and cultural differences melted away. His talent is appreciated by Vera, a Russian Christian immigrant, whose family has the money and social standing to help David. All is well until we learn her father is the very Russian officer responsible for the destruction of David’s family. This causes a terrible rift between the lovers, even as David continues to labor on a great, transformative symphony he calls “The Crucible.” Only when Vera’s father finally admits his guilt can the symphony be performed, and the couple reunite with the promise of a welcome interfaith and interclass marriage.
When the play opened in Washington DC on October 5, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt was in attendance. He loved it. Zangwill dedicated the first publication of the play to him, “in respectful recognition of his strenuous struggle against the forces that threaten to shipwreck the great republic which carries mankind and its fortunes.” This “Square Deal” President, we must remember, believed strongly in racial hierarchies and eugenics, where European ancestry was prized above all others and in which natural conservation included the removal of Indigenous Americans from approximately 86 million acres of tribal land.
We must also acknowledge that, while this is the era in which European immigrants were inundating the east coast, extensions of the Chinese Exclusion Act were besetting the west and Jim Crow Laws were persecuting African Americans nationwide. For Lithuanian-born British immigrant Zangwill (born in 1864), this was also a period after he had fully lost his faith in Zionism. After a close association with Theodor Herzl, he had given up on a Jewish homeland. Instead, he had come to feel the United States held the only real promise for Jews (and other European immigrants), if and only if they were willing to abandon entirely their ethnic and cultural differences.
The touching melodrama of “The Melting-Pot” offers an important glimpse at a historical moment that would crystalize early twentieth-century values as concerned the “Great Tide” of Jewish immigrants, those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as Emma Lazarus described them. We can enjoy the play both because of and in spite of its problematic solution to ethnic otherness -- especially served with a fresh tossed salad.
Author bio: Elyce Rae Helford, Ph.D., is a professor of English and director of the Jewish and Holocaust Studies minor at Middle Tennessee State University. Her most recent book is What Price Hollywood?: Gender and Sex in the Films of George Cukor, and she’s currently at work on a study of Jewish identity in the comedy of Sarah Silverman. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.