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The Melting Pot

1908 - Israel Zangwill's play about immigrants in America becomes one of the most successful productions in the history of Broadway. Zangwill updates the story of Romeo and Juliet. This time, instead of feuding families in a medieval Italian city, the lovers were from Russian Jewish and Russian Cossack families. Zangwill’s play emphatically claimed that America was a new country where the old hatreds had no place. For the new immigrants in America to try to keep alive their old hatreds and prejudices was pointless, evil, and probably impossible. 

God, Zangwill claimed, was using America as “a crucible” to melt the “fifty” barbarian tribes of Europe into a metal from which He can cast Americans. 

Today, the melting pot metaphor is often taken to refer to soup, or perhaps fondue, into which cheese is melted. This robs Zangwill’s message of much of its power. Zangwill’s “crucible” was a much more violent idea. A crucible is used in metallurgy to reduce ores and metals to their liquid form so they can be purified, mixed, and poured in castings. Zangwill was telling his audience that they were being molded in the fires of the Almighty into a new thing: the American. And they loved it. 

Zangwill’s religious interpretation of America was not new. The Pilgrims thought that the New World was divinely provided 250 years before "The Melting Pot." Americans had referred to their country as the New Jerusalem for many years. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address explained the terrible price of the Civil War as the punishment of a just God for the sin of slavery. But Zangwill had found exactly the right metaphor to translate the urban immigrant experience into American Exceptionalism. If they would but suffer to be melted in the pot, then they would become just as American as anyone else.

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