|"View of Fort Pierre," Dakota Territory, 1855|
I clearly recall that as a fourteen year old gentile living in New City, NY, one of the first things which impressed me about Judaism was the lack of violence and substance abuse apparent in the Orthodox Jewish communities. This very much reminded me of a chain of colonial European forts, small islands of civilization, fixed in the midst of a sea of primitive barbarians. This was the first indication which I had that Judaism was not natural but supernatural, not man made but divinely created.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I was not the first person to make this comparison. Israel Zangwill was a British Jew who was raised in Victorian England. Although he did have some Jewish education, he was thoroughly secularized and married a gentile woman.
Nevertheless, in 1892 he wrote the following about the Whitechapel area of London in his book Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People at the end of Book 1 Chapter 18:
The roaring Sambatyon of life was at rest in the Ghetto; on thousands of squalid homes the light of Sinai shone. The Sabbath Angels whispered words of hope and comfort to the foot-sore hawker and the aching machinist, and refreshed their parched souls with celestial anodyne and made them kings of the hour, with leisure to dream of the golden chairs that awaited them in Paradise.
The Ghetto welcomed the Bride with proud song and humble feast, and sped her parting with optimistic symbolisms of fire and wine, of spice and light and shadow. All around their neighbors sought distraction in the blazing public-houses, and their tipsy bellowings resounded through the streets and mingled with the Hebrew hymns. Here and there the voice of a beaten woman rose on the air. But no Son of the Covenant was among the revellers or the wife-beaters; the Jews remained a chosen race, a peculiar people, faulty enough, but redeemed at least from the grosser vices, a little human islet won from the waters of animalism by the genius of ancient engineers. For while the genius of the Greek or the Roman, the Egyptian or the Phoenician, survives but in word and stone, the Hebrew word alone was made flesh.