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Beyond Binaries: Economics of the Family.

Riv-Ellen Prell's essay centers on the firm assertion that "virtually all scholars writing in the vein of the economic turn in American Jewish history have marginalized, or simply erased, women as subjects and actors in history" (484). Yet, as she explains, the problem is not simply resolved by integrating women into narratives of economic history. Rather, since "Jewish men emerge again not only as the assumed norm, but as the primary actors in history," gender as an analytical category itself has been erased or ignored, and men and women (when acknowledged) are assumed to engage in the economy in ways that do not reflect gender roles. While we can take scholars to task for this omission, I would suggest that economic history is not exceptional. Across the field of Jewish studies, we can note how attention to gender has made deeper inroads into cultural and social history than in other subfields, especially intellectual, religious and, yes, economic history. What is to be done?

According to Prell, studies of consumption emerge as one of the most productive lines of analysis with which historians can return gender to center-stage. Yet, despite Prell's earlier call to interrogate binaries, this change of perspective and historiographical corrective are themselves predicated on a gender binary, namely that, "Jewish men are overwhelmingly associated with economic behavior focused on production, and Jewish women tend to play a far greater role in any analysis of consumption because of their key roles historically as consumers in most societies" (485). Although focusing on consumption certainly can aide scholars in uncovering women's perspectives and roles in the economy, we must be cautious not to reproduce the very entrenched stereotype about consumption being a necessarily female activity. Production has long been valued as an inherently positive, active and creative (read, male) endeavour. While someone inevitably must consume what is produced, consumption, by contrast, has been typically presented as a more passive (literally, less productive) activity; one that can be even threatening when not controlled or engaged in cautiously. (1) Much like female sexuality, unbridled consumption is seen as dangerous and destabilizing to the family and to society. In short, consumption has been clearly gendered female and in the process has been downgraded in its importance within the field of economic history. Herein lies, I would argue, the very answer to Prell's question: "Why has this scholarship written Jewish women out of most of this history, and why has the study of consumption, which was so critical to including women as historical actors with agency, often been neglected?"(504). As scholars, we would do well to interrogate these stereotypes and shed these biases.

This is not to say, however, that consumption is not a fertile perspective from which to study Jewish economic history. Indeed, it has already enriched the field substantially. Yet here I would sharpen Prell's point about how the history of consumer culture can serve as an avenue to write women back into studies of Jews and the economy, and take this call further still. For the matter is not merely about the absence or presence of women in narratives of Jewish economic history. Studies of consumer culture can help unearth the roles of women, men, children, and family units in the economy, offering a varied, nuanced and more complete perspective on gender. The binary of male production and female consumption hides important conclusions that we can draw when we investigate, for example, male consumer patterns. After all, no one today would deny men's claims to economic and social power behind the conspicuous consumption of custom tailored-suits, expensive designer watches, the latest electronic gadgets, and luxury cars. And sources on male consumption are readily available, particularly through memoir literature. To offer but one particularly telling example, in writing about the well-known and very rich diaries of Victor Klemperer, Guy Miron has noted Klemperer's unusual decision to learn how to drive in late 1935 and buy a car in 1936, all this after being fired from his job. As historians of the economy, we can use such insights and examples to plot out patterns and irregularities in consumption, analyze the various rationales for purchases, and consider the role these consumer choices played in the self-understandings of various historical actors. As Miron suggests, buying a car gave Klemperer mobility, freedom, and autonomy. (2)

Material history and the history of photography offer further evidence of gendered consumption patterns--not only (or simply) along the lines of a male/female dichotomy, but from the perspective of the family as a complex emotional and economic unit. In her research on the Wasserman family photo albums, Leora Auslander shows how these albums offer glimpses into the family home, however staged individual photos might have at times been. (3) In particular, Auslander's analysis helps us understand styles and consumption patterns of the family, and its efforts to foreground and also downplay claims to particular identities (even from room to room). Auslander's investigation also permits us to recognize the blurring of the public and private realms, rejecting again the binaries that, as Prell argues from the beginning of her article, detract from more complex pictures of Jewish economic patterns and involvement.

These same sources (again, memoir literature, material culture, and photography (4)) can provide evidence for a gendered analysis of production, by pointing to women's and children's activities in production, trade, and business. For scholars of European-Jewish history, the memoirs of Glickl of Hameln continue to be a well-mined source (even if the earlier prejudiced assessments by Max Weber and Werner Sombart recall the very reason Jewish economic history remained long underdeveloped). (5) Yet Glickl's stories of trade, travel, and kinship networks that helped congeal business networks were not unique, just as her need to continue to provide for the family once widowed reflected the lot of countless Jewish women on both sides of the Atlantic. My own earlier research revealed several cases of Jewish women who took over the family business--coffeehouses in Frankfurt--after being widowed. The economic survival of the family demanded significant participation from women (and children) in the productive sphere. These sources remind us that the history of the family and the economy are inherently intertwined, with all members serving as producers and consumers in turn.

If Prell ends her essay with a call to "seek an organic understanding of economy that encompasses family, community, religion, and politics" (510),we must seek this in a wider spectrum of sources and perspectives. The task is not merely to reinstate women into studies of the economy by exploring consumerism and consumer patterns, but to be mindful of gender and the family in all realms of production and consumption. From memoirs to photographs to even cookbooks, sources on economic history are plentiful and can, when read carefully, offer us ways to see and understand the intersections between gender and the economy.

(1.) Paul Lerner, The Consuming Temple Jews, Department Stores, and the Consumer Revolution in Germany, 1880-1940 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).

(2.) Guy Miron, '"Lately, Almost Constantly, Everything Seems Small to Me': The Lived Space of German Jews under the Nazi Regime," Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society 20, no. 1 (2013): 121-149, 1Z9.

(3.) Leora Auslander, "Reading German Jewry through Vernacular Photography: From the Kaiserreich to the Third Reich," Central European History 48, no. 3 (2015): 300-334.

(4.) Nicole Hudgins, for example, uses two large collections of (non-Jewish) workingclass photography to explore how the images challenge depictions of the working class. Finding in the sources statements of agency, the photos offer glimpses into family life and the economic activities of men, women and children. See Hudgins, "A Historical Approach to Family Photography: Class and Individuality in Manchester and Lille, 1850-1914," Journal of Social History 43, no. 3 (2010): 559-586.

(5.) See Werner Sombart, Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben (Leipzig: Bunckner & Humblot, 1913) and Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Routledge Press, 2001 [orig. 19051)
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Author:Wobick-Segev, Sarah E.
Publication:American Jewish History
Date:Oct 1, 2019
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