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Gender and Economics Through a Trifocal Lens: Production, Distribution, and Consumption.

I am honored that Riv-Ellen Prell has included my zooi book Shylock's Children in a body of scholarship that, over the past two decades, has integrated economics into modern Jewish history and Jews into the economic history of modern Europe and the United States. If one includes work on early modern Europe, the "economic turn" in Jewish history goes back quite a bit further, to Jonathan Israel's pioneering European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550-1750 (1985), and produced seminal works such as Jonathan Karp's The Politics of Jewish Commerce: Economic Thought and Emancipation in Europe, 1638-1848 (2008) and Francesca Trivellato's The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period (2012). One important difference between the literature on Jews in the economic systems of early and late modernity is a shifting of emphasis from distribution (Jews in commerce) to production and, more recently, consumption. Prell's overarching critique--that much of the scholarship on Jews in the modern economy neglects women by overlooking the family as an economic unit--might be even more relevant to early than late modernity, and is applicable to all three branches of economic activity.

My own book, like Karp's, was about political economic discourses and practices that were overwhelmingly the work of men. If they thought about women at all, they conceived of them as objects to be assigned specific tasks in order to render Jews more productive, moral, and socially acceptable. My book, as Prell points out, did not seek to make an original contribution to the history of what Jews did for a living--on this subject my analysis was heavily synthetic--so much as what Jews thought about their economic position. Women were indeed actively involved in the embourgeoisement of Jewish life in the home and in philanthropic associations. But they did not contribute (at least not until the fin de siecle, and then only sparingly) to the public discourse by Jews in the press and in communal and inter-communal organizational reports.

If we move from sensibility to activity, however, the story is different. In any time and place, and for any population, whether defined by nationality, ethnicity, or religious community, both men and women have been economic actors. Women and men often encountered modern capitalism differently, because women were more likely than men to work within the confines of the family home, which, whether nuclear or extended, functioned as an economic unit (hence the word "economics," from the Greek for "household management"). I would, however, blur somewhat the distinction that Prell draws between men and women, because women (including Jewish women) could encounter capitalism in many ways, some of which more closely approximated the experience of men than others.

Women's economic functions differed most from men when men produced commodities or objects for barter or sale and women engaged in unremunerated domestic labor. This labor was no less an economic activity than that of men, and even if it was not measured in monetary terms, it had an implicit monetary value. If women did not provide uncompensated labor, someone else would have needed to, and that person would have been a servant or slave: the former of whom received a wage, in money or in kind, and the latter of whom had been purchased at a rate commensurate with predicted productivity. Women's economic activity was not always explicitly market activity, yet women in early capitalist societies encountered the market in various ways, such as cottage production, or through assisting, co-managing, or solely-managing a family business. This latter practice was common among Jews in Eastern Europe well into the nineteenth century.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jewish women increasingly worked outside the home as wage laborers or white-collar, salaried employees. Some became teachers and social workers, and a few became physicians. Their encounter with the modern economy still differed from that of men because of perceptions of women that justified lower wages, gender-segregated work, and patriarchal authority. Therefore we should view the relationship between gender and capitalism as a spectrum, or a series of Venn diagrams, rather than concentric circles depicting women working in the home and male earners beyond it.

The same observation is valid for consumption. As Prell observes, a number of recent works highlight the significance of Jewish women as arbiters of taste, choosing the contents of a home, as well as their own clothing and appurtenances, which are indications of achieved or desired social mobility. As Sarah Abravaya Stein noted in her book Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce (2008), female consumers shaped and sustained a major industry--the ostrich plume trade--and one could say the same today of the cosmetics industry. Throughout Europe, North America (and, as Stein noted in another book, in late-Ottoman Turkey), Jews who aspired to acculturate paradoxically produced distinct patterns of consumption. (1) The significance of consumption, however, goes beyond the formation or display of taste and lifestyle. No less than production, it has been deeply political. The boycott is to consumption what the strike is to production: both are acts of refusal to engage in exchange (money for goods, or labor for wages). Almost forty years ago, this journal published a pioneering article by Paula Hyman on Jewish women's political activism in the form of a boycott in 1902 of kosher meat due to substantial price hikes. (2) This withheld consumption, effected by lower-class Jewish immigrant women, shows us that there is more to the study of consumption than consumerism.

A history of consumption perforce includes women, yet much of that history can justifiably remain androcentric. Shachar Pinsker's new monograph A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture (2018) uses the cafe to offer a fresh perspective on what modernity meant for Jews throughout the Ashkenazic cultural sphere, from Imperial Russia to Austria-Hungary, Germany, the United States, and Palestine, from the late nineteenth century until World War II. Cafes were second homes for young Jewish immigrant men, who formed intense, homosocial networks of political activists and artists, fueled by stimulating caffeine as opposed to stupefying alcohol (which was to be had at the decidedly non-Jewish tavern). Pinsker presents cafes as linked in a global communication and business network, which he refers to charmingly as "the silk road of Jewish modernity." Women were present on that road, especially in the interwar period, but it was travelled mostly by men.

Distribution, production, and consumption are equally important components of economic life, and women have been no less present than men in any of them. There is more to Prell's critique, however, than the observation that the economic activity of Jewish women is inseparable from that of men. She also speaks of a gendered quality to the economic discourse that was central to Shylock's Children. Here, I offered some contributions, although they could have been much more fully developed. For example, the economic views of the Galician maskilim of the second quarter of the nineteenth century were heavily gendered, as they aspired to a bourgeois masculinity characterized by men taking on proprietary roles in Jewish businesses and ensconcing women in the house to rear children, manage household affairs, and be a source of comfort and support for their husbands. Modern economic antisemitism was steeped in stereotypes of stingy yet avaricious Jewish men and spoiled Jewish women. Prell provides examples of American Jews internalizing and expressing those anxieties, and my own work demonstrates the same behavior among western and central European Jews. My forthcoming biography of Theodor Herzl points out his misogyny, which frequently took the form of depictions of women, particularly Jewish ones, as bejeweled, materialistic, and snobbish. (3)

The study of Jewish economic history needs to incorporate all genders and to adopt a gendered perspective. But the two projects are not the same. The incorporation of women into the study of distribution, production, and consumption gives the family its proper place in the study of economic history--although it has hardly been the only place for women, especially in the twentieth century. A gendered methodology opens the way to fruitful explorations of, and comparisons between, the work and consumption behaviors of men and women alike. The body of work that Prell has evaluated has opened up a new field of study for historians of Jews, and I hope that our students and colleagues will follow the path that Prell has illuminated.

(1.) Sarah Abravaya Stein, Making Jews Modern: The Russian and Ladino Press in the Russian and Ottoman Empires (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 2003.

(2.) Paula Hyman, "Immigrant Women and Consumer Protest: The New York City Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902," American Jewish History 70, no. 1 (1980): 91-105.

(3.) Derek J. Penslar, Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020).
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Author:Penslar, Derek J.
Publication:American Jewish History
Date:Oct 1, 2019
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