- Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism ed. by Rebecca Kobrin
The image of Jews in American society has long been linked with money, and this association has taken many forms. While stereotypes of Jewish wealth are the most common, depending on the time and place, popular culture shows Jews throughout the economic hierarchy, [End Page 453] variously depicting them as international bankers, professionals and shop owners; as members of the educated middle class; and as exploited workers. Moreover, Jewish voices–ranging from Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman to Barney Frank and Karl Marx–articulate myriad positions regarding the ethics of acquiring, sharing, manipulating and distributing wealth. In this manner, Jews’ economic postures have served multiple groups (including Jews themselves) as a Rorschach test, yielding both celebration and condemnation of their place in U.S. society.
Given Americans’ longstanding concern with the nature of Jews’ economic thought and behavior, it is surprising that there has been so little scholarship on the topic. This is especially the case when one observes the burgeoning literature on the economic activities of a wide range of immigrant and ethnic groups, many of which are smaller in number and much more recently arrived than Jews. In her edited volume Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism, historian Rebecca Kobrin has assembled a series of outstanding articles that work to fill this void by examining the history and interconnected economic fate of what she identifies as two exceptionalisms to capitalism first identified in the work of Werner Sombart: those of the United States and the Jewish people.
Kobrin poses three questions as central to this project: “First, through which specific niches, and at which specific moments did Jews play a role in the evolution of America’s brand of capitalism? … Second, how and through what methods did Jewish workers, entrepreneurs and businesspeople achieve this mobility? and… Third, how and in what ways did capitalism alter the practice and experience of Judaism itself?” (4). Building on Kobrin’s introduction, Ira Katznelson’s chapter investigates the historical context in which the preferences and decisions of key actors were formed. Toward this end, he provides an enlightening examination of Sombart based on multiple translations of the scholar’s writings.
Following these introductory materials, the book is divided into three thematic sections. The first includes six chapters that describe Jewish niches in the American economy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Innovative and carefully researched, they reveal Jewish entrepreneurs’ ability to survive through profitable but risky (and often disreputable) endeavors like garment manufacturing, real estate development in New York’s garment district, recycling scrap materials in the Midwest, liquor entrepreneurship, the production and marketing of “race music,” and trading in American Indian artifacts. Jews’ willingness to engage in such occupations provoked anti-Semitic reactions from the larger society, thus endangering proprietors’ reputations as they earned [End Page 454] a living. In reaction, some merchants engaged in Jewish philanthropy in order to maintain a good standing, at least among coreligionists.
Jewish entrepreneurs’ transgression against social norms and boundaries poses questions that continue to vex students of American Jewish history. Does Jews’ willingness to trade with minorities suggest pragmatism, tolerance or ruthlessness? Do Jewish merchants deserve credit for distributing the cultural productions of African Americans and American Indians even as they enjoyed financial benefits from doing so? Does holding Jews accountable for profiting from liquor sales or “sweating” garment workers reflect a moral double standard that would not be applied to non-Jewish merchants? Does the better treatment that Jewish merchants received in the U.S. versus Europe excuse American anti-Semitism, or does it contradict assertions of American exceptionalism?
In the book’s second section on Jews and American capitalism, we read about the experience of Jewish labor activists who initially challenged capitalism by mobilizing workers into an array of multicultural, multiracial, enthnolinguistic and gender-based movements. Ultimately, however, they adopted an assimilationist approach that downplayed workers’ origins (Jews included) and abandoned socialist politics in favor of a liberal agenda...