4.14. Israel Zangwill, poem ‘“Our Own”: A Cry across the Atlantic’ (1920)

At first sight, the poem “Our Own”: A Cry across the Atlantic (1920) by the British author Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) seems an example of “lachrymose poetry” with old-fashioned rhetoric, an excessive of hyperboles and needless monotony as a result of the frequent use of words rhyming with “own”:

Jews of the great Republic,
Clasped to her mother-breast,
Nestling so warm and peaceful
Within that bosom blest.
Turn to our tortured Europe,
Hark to the myriad moan
Of pinched lips, white with hunger.
That stiffen as they groan.
And remember in these wan creatures runs
the blood that is your own.

Zangwill wrote this poem after reading two reports on the situation of the Polish Jews after World War I, and he quoted from both in his essay The Polish-Jewish Problem, which was included, just as “Our Own”, in his volume of essays The Voice of Jerusalem. The first report was written by Bernard Horwich, representative of the American Joint Distribution Committee in Poland, a distributor of the twenty-five million dollars collected by the American Jewish Relief Committee, the Central Relief Committee, and the People’s Relief Committee:

Of the 350,000 Jews in Warsaw, one-quarter are famishing, 135,000 receive a mark a day. Persons die daily of underfeeding. Hundreds of families live on a single plate of soup each from the soup kitchen, and sometimes the soup is exhausted before the last of the queue is reached. Children of eight to ten years are so weak they have to be carried, their bones growing soft. In many houses of Warsaw bed-linen is absent, having been used up for the corpses. Children of eight to ten may be seen running around the streets at midnight, having lost all their family. One boy of thirteen had the charge of three smaller brothers and sisters. I saw eighteen persons living in a cold and filthy hole too bad for a dog. They have no money to emigrate. *Zangwill, The Voice of Jerusalem 310.

This quotation describes an emergency situation, the inevitable result of World War I, whereas the following quotation is about an emergency situation which in a certain sense is almost an announcement of World War II and the Shoah; the interview appeared in the French newspaper Le Temps of April 7, 1920 and was written by its Warsaw correspondent:

A few days ago I had a conversation with M. Andrew Niemojewski, *The writer and poet Andrzej Niemojewski (1864-1921) a man of superior culture, who had made a speciality of the Jewish question, and is the combined publisher and editor of the journal Mysl Niepodlegla, which has a circulation among all the classes of the population. I could not, however, withhold my sense of indignation when I heard from him the following utterances:

We are now preparing a pogrom on a larger scale than the others; the last gigantic and final pogrom. In that way we shall solve the Jewish question in Poland.”

When I observed that it was not possible to put to death 15 per cent, of the population, *Immediately after World War I, Poland had a community of 3 million Jewish citizens, second only to the Jewish community of the United States* and that the conscience of the whole world would rise against such a deed, he said in reply:

“And why not? Has not the European war sacrificed millions of lives? In face of the universal Reaction Poland would come out even greater and more noble.” *The Voice of Jerusalem 309. Italics original. The anti-Semitic monthly Myśl Niepodległa (“Independent Thought”) appeared in Warsaw from 1908 to 1931.

In view of this serious threat, Zangwill’s Cry did not sound too early or too loud. He subtitled the poem “Written for the Central Relief Committee of America,” thus identifying as the addressees of the poem the well-to-do Jews of the “great Republic,” the United States. The second part of the title is not A Cry to America, but A Cry across the Atlantic and Zangwill may have had several reasons for presenting the chronotope of the ocean so emphatically. Maybe he wanted to remind the Jews from Europe and their descendants of their long voyage across the sea or draw attention to the ocean as a natural and financial barrier; according to the report, not everyone who wanted to emigrate could afford the passage. Zangwill may have thought of Exod. 14 with the story of the sea that gives way to the people of Israel, traveling under God’s guidance. Here, as in the modern world, the chronotope of the sea is both “a border between” and “something to go beyond.” As Elisabeth Joyce noted with regard to an Irish American poet, the Atlantic Ocean is a “liminal space,” a barrier between Europe and America, and “On the ocean the person is a migrant who is deterritorialized in the literal sense.” *Joyce, The Small Space of a Pause: Susan Howe’s Poetry and the Spaces Between 221. The fiery shofar blast in the final stanza 11 of the Cry across the Atlantic is at the same time a call to battle, a prophetic warning and a messianic signal in the war against misery:

Set your lips to the Shofar,
Waken a fiery blast.
Shrill to the heathen nations
This slaughter shall be the last!
And send our old Peace-greeting
Pealing from cot to throne,
Till mankind heeds the message
On the Hebrew trumpet blown,
And the faith of the whole world’s peoples
is the faith that is our own.

*In one English Bible translation, Wycliff’s Bible of the late 14th century, the shofar blast in Job 39:24 is called a “cry of the trumpet.” Bitter is the wish “This slaughter shall be the last!” only thirteen years before the beginning of the Third Reich. The first part of the title, “Our Own”, concerns the national character of the Jewish people and in the last verses of each stanza Zangwill explains the content of this—almost tribal—own character. In stanza 1: “in these wan creatures runs / the blood that is your own” and stanza 4: “the blood from their bodies oozing is the / blood that is your own” the point is blood relationship, which plays a part in stanza 7 as well: “any one of these children might be your / very own.” Children are also the subject in stanza 3, in which Rachel, in the place of the modern mothers, “Weeps again for her children and the fate that / is her own.” Here, the poem alludes to Jer. 31:15 and its echoes in Matthew 2:16 about the children’s murder in Bethlehem. Stanza 5 mourns over the Jews murdered by Christians: “And if we hide our faces, then the guilt is as / our own.” Stanza 2 is about the galut: “For never in all the ages did a home remain / their own.” The other five stanzas focus on the values which preserve the Jewish people; strength in stanza 6: “For the strength whereby God saves us is the / strength that is our own;” spirit in stanza 8, proved by Jews who are proud of their Torah: “They prove how great their spirit, let us prove / how great our own;” Hebrew and Yiddish in stanza 9: “And their death-cry rings to heaven in the / tongue that is your own.” Stanza 10 gives a reminder of the Jewish soldiers of the “Great Republic,” who fell in the struggle for peace in the World War. It asks the question how long the sons of the Jewish people will be slaughtered by cruel enemies without “the love and mercy that for / ages have warmed our own.” *To save the Jewish people from persecution, Zangwill promoted a homeland for the Jews; his opinion that this could be a homeland outside Palestine separated him from the mainstream of Zionism. Cf. Meri-Jane Rochelson, A Jew in the Public Arena: The Career of Israel Zangwill 151.

What the literary historian Jo Carruthers said about Jewish national identity, in an essay on Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot about the American absorption of immigrants, applies as well to the first ten stanzas of “Our Own”: “[T]he logical conclusion of Zangwill’s representation of visceral, ritualized identities is that religious practice is not the expendable clothing that arrays and expresses the religious core; instead, religious practice creates and sustains group (and thus individual) identity.” *Carruthers, “Israel Zangwill, Jewish Identity and Visceral Religion” 84. Stanza 11, the final one of “Our Own”, transforms the rhetorical question of stanza 10 into a call in the name of faith: “And the faith of the whole world’s people / is the faith that is our own.” The fundamental Jewish conviction behind the poem is in accordance with that of Rosh Ha-Shanah, concisely formulated in the U-Netanneh Tokef: “On Rosh HaShana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: . . . who will live and who will die . . . who of hunger and who of thirst . . . who by plague . . . who will be harassed; who will become poor . . .” with the important following words: “But REPENTANCE, PRAYER and CHARITY avert the evil of the decree.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 568. Of these three, “charity” is stressed by the dedication of the poem to the American Relief Committee.

Not only the content, but also the form of the poem can be associated with the liturgy of the Days of Awe, with the system of 100 shofar blasts on Rosh Ha-Shanah, in which the numbers 3 and 10 play an important part, and the single shofar blast on Yom Kippur. Every stanza of “Our Own” consists of ten verses, the first eight of which have three stresses each. The last two verses of every stanza begin in a quick, irregular rhythm and then slow down on the stressed words “our/their/her own,” thus bearing a similarity to the quick tone repetition and the stressed, sonorous last note of the teruʿah.

No fewer than 33 of the 110 verses end in the rhyming syllable “own,” which can be spelled as “own,” “-own,” “-oan,” “-one,” or “-ohn,” and there are 23 different words ending in this rhyme. Eight of these rhyming words, intentionally or unintentionally, denote properties of the shofar or the shofar blast: “cone” (stanza 2) and “bone” (stanza 7) allude to the ram’s horn’s material and form; “blown” (stanza 11) and “tone” (stanza 9) to shofar blowing; “drone” (stanza 4) and “monotone” (stanza 6) to acoustic properties; and “moan” (stanza 1) and “groan” (stanza 1) are already in the Talmud characteristics of the shofar blast. *Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 34a: “He [R. Abbahu] was in doubt whether it [the sound of teruʿah] was a kind of wailing or a kind of groaning.”

The 11 stanzas can be divided into 10+1, because stanza 10 not only has the same beginning as stanza 1, but also returns to its content, both in similarities—”Nestling so warm and peaceful / Within that bosom blest” (stanza 1) and “Compared with the love and mercy that for / ages have warmed our own?” (stanza 10)—and in dissimilarities and reversals—“Jews of the great Republic, / Clasped to her mother-breast” (stanza 1) versus “Jews of the great Republic, / Who gave your sons to death” (stanza 10) and “Turn to our tortured Europe” (stanza 1) versus “That peace be born in Europe” (stanza 10). Just as the 100 shofar blasts in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service are divided into 30+30+30+10 blasts and the Bible quotes in Malkhuyyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot each into 3+3+3+1, *Cf. Chapter 3.3 the first 10 stanzas of Zangwill’s poem reveal the structure 3+3+3+1: stanzas 1-3 are about history; stanzas 4-6 on religion, and stanzas 7-9 on the contemporary crisis. Stanza 11, which calls to action, has the same function as the shofar blast at the end of both the Yom Kippur service and the High Holy Days, which too calls for a new beginning. The caesura between the soul-searching of stanza 10 and the call to struggle for a better world in stanza 11, can be compared with the period of repentance between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. The circle is closed by the parallel between stanza 1, vv. 6-7: “Hark to the myriad moan / Of pinched lips . . . / That stiffen as they groan”—a shofar is blown with “stiff, pinched lips”—and stanza 11, v. 1: “Set your lips to the Shofar;” whereas the first verses are passive, internally persuasive discourse, the last verse is active, authoritative discourse.

In “Our Own”: A Cry across the Atlantic, the Present is directed by the Past through the onomatopoeia and the formal adaptation of rhythmical properties of the traditional shofar blast. The Past is altered by the Present through Zangwill’s point of departure: relieving the fate of the Jews in Eastern Europe, who suffered as a result of the World War, and as he noted in The Voice of Jerusalem, *The Voice of Jerusalem 309-10 warning of the new, still greater danger: a possible genocide in Poland. Instead of picturing poor East European Jews who are waiting for the shofar of the Messiah, as Bialik did in And it shall be when the days grow long…, *Chapter 4.6. Zangwill urged the rich American Jews to help them and to blow the shofar in an alarm call, “Till mankind heeds the message / On the Hebrew trumpet blown[.]”


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