Zangwill: The King of Schnorrers (1893)

I don’t remember when was the last time I had so much fun reading a book, when I was reading Israel Zangwill‘s “The King of Schnorrers.” I laughed out loud several times and I was aware of the constant smile on my face throughout the reading. The six chapters of the book follows a Jewish beggar, who perfected the art of begging to the level of a professional con artist. He has numerous devious tricks to get money out of his victims via innuendo, threats, public embarrassment, anger, hypocrisy, ambiguous statements and other methods. Each of the chapters focus on one of his major accomplishments but they are all made up from numerous minor victories.

  1. Tricking a wealthy men to buy fish from him at a high price, make him carry it and even feel bad about the procedure
  2. Getting invited for Sabbath dinner by the same man
  3. Getting into a theater on Sabbath without paying
  4. Tricking another beggar, of Ashkenazi origin to marry his daughter in the (false) hope of a large dowry. Also getting invited for Sabbath dinner by a very stringy and selfish rabbi.
  5. Forcing the council of his Sephardi synagogue, using a pecualir interpretation of their own bylaws to accept a Polish Jew, his future son-in-law, as a member of the congregation for the first time ever.
  6. Offering large donation to the synagogue and then forcing the members of the community to pay it to him

These summary points don’t make justice to the richness of the text. The linguistic skill of the author shone through almost every lines. How he mocks the idea of logic, the animosity between Ashkenazi and Sephardi groups, the mis- and abuse of piety, the reference of obscure Talmudic passages as justification for something that goes against common sense, the power of trying to save face, the bowing of seemingly superficial behavior… These were just some of the themes this excellent social satire points to.

The hero (or some might say villain) of the books is Mr. Costa or as he never omits the opportunity to correct it “Manasseh Bueno Barzillai Azevedo da Costa.” He presents himself as a larger than life figure and most people fall for it, even if he is always poorly dressed. But his presence is unavoidable and there was not a single character in the book he eventually didn’t bow to him. He was “The King of Schnorrers.”

My only concern about writing a review for 117 year old book was that if by doing so I point out its existence to any anti-Semite. With the dark lens of somebody who is predisposed to form judgment and generalize from a satire to the entire Jewish population the book can be read as a stereotype of dirty, money-hungry Jew. But because I really recommend the book for anybody who appreciates laughing at the topics mentioned above, I decided I might as well disregard people who would want to misrepresent this book.

The book @ Amazon.com

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