- Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism edited by Rebecca Kobrin
Based on papers presented at a 2008 conference on Jews and capitalism, Rebecca Kobrin edited this engaging exploration of East European Jewish immigrants and their children as entrepreneurial innovators as well as critics of American capitalism. The strength of the volume is its focus on a range of businesses including clothing, real estate, scraps and second-hand goods, liquor, music, Native American artifacts, and food.
In this brief review, I will point out some highlights with the hope that they will inspire Shofar readers to pick up this excellent book filled with lively and informative accounts. Two articles are devoted to the garment industry, a critical economic niche that provided early twentieth-century Jews with entrepreneurial opportunity. Phyllis Dillon and Andrew Godley offer a concise history that spans the Jewish clothing trade’s evolution from German to East European, and from the stable men’s sector to high-risk women’s wear. While their focus is the United States, they offer frequent comparisons to other countries in the Anglophone Diaspora such as England and Canada. Through the lens of the garment lofts built by Abraham E. Lefcourt, Andrew Dolkart takes us on a walking tour of New York’s “new” Garment District, a 15-block area in mid-Manhattan developed between 1920 and 1930. With photos to guide us, we circle the buildings’ perimeters and enter the well-maintained interior spaces. For Lefcourt, who did not allow cigar stands to pollute his lobbies, “a building, like a suit of clothes, has to be respected. Neglect a suit, throw it around carelessly and it becomes unfit for use, shabby in its appearance and reflects discredit of it owner. The same can be applied [End Page 156] to a building. If it is neglected and nobody cares about its appearance, nobody wants to be in it and it depreciates in value” (81). Like Dillon and Godley, Dolkart makes clear that Lefcourt’s buildings were designed for the women’s clothing trade.
Following this emphasis on New York, Jonathan Pollack turns his attention to the Midwest and Marni Davis turns hers to the South. Pollack explores the scrap and secondhand goods industry, the precursor of the contemporary recycling trade, and stands out among the contributors for acknowledging the sociological literature on the relationship between Jewish communal networks and business success. In her chapter on the liquor business, Davis argues that Southern Jews defied the color line by selling to blacks as well as to whites and analyzes how this practice contributed to an anti-Jewish stance in the Prohibition Movement. Jews, who were perceived as immoral by nature, were blamed for capitalizing on the deprivation of urban slums.
Crossing racial boundaries continues to be a central theme in Jonathan Karp’s chapter on Jews and race music—music made by blacks for blacks—and in David Koffman’s discussion of the role played by Jewish entrepreneurs in the distribution of Native American artifacts to consumers as well as to museums (e.g., the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Field Museum in Chicago). Karp asks a basic question, that is, why did Jews, and not African Americans, make it in the production of race music? The bottom line is that blacks could not compete with white businesses. Residential segregation, a form of institutionalized discrimination that likely benefited black businesses, was offset by commercial integration that benefited white entrepreneurs. Karp raises hard issues about Jewish label owners’ exploitation of black musicians’ powerlessness. Similarly, Koffman does not shy away from difficult questions related to race when he discusses how the collusion of Jewish culture and commerce played a role in westward expansion and land appropriation. For Koffman, Jewish entrepreneurs did more than sell curios; by commodifying Indianness, they sold the idea of the American Indian to the American public.
Although in a separate section, Jeffrey Shandler’s chapter on the marketing of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt and Jonathan Sarna’s on the transformation of the matzah from...