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Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism, 1880-1920: From Caste to Class.

Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism, 1880-1920: From Caste to Class. By Eli Lederhendler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xxiii + 224 pp.

There was a long-standing "myth" about nineteenth-century eastern European Jewry, represented primarily by Mark Zborowski's and Elizabeth Herzog's book Life is With People (1952), which pictured shtetlekh filled with relatively stable, mostly poor, intensely faithful Jews who wanted nothing more than to live righteous lives, earn a modest living, and educate their sons in Torah and Talmud. But despite the critical acclaim accorded Life is With People, and notwithstanding its many reprintings, Zborowski's and Herzog's version of life in the Jewish "little-towns" of eastern Europe gave way in the face of systematic and intense research in the late twentieth century to a more complex and nuanced portrait of a heterogeneous group life for Jews in the Russian Empire, inside and outside the Pale. (1)

Professor Eli Lederhendler agrees with much of what recent historians and anthropologists have had to say about Jews in eastern Europe and especially about those who migrated to America. But in Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism, 1880-1920: From Caste to Class, he challenges important parts of what he thinks is a new "myth." He seems to accept the following facts: since as early as the seventeenth century, shtetlekh had not been stable, if they ever were; there were skeptics as well as believers living in them, restless gymnasium students alongside Yeshiva bochers; and, for a time, some moderately prosperous Jews, even a sprinkling of rich ones, residing inside and outside of the small towns, mostly among a mass of kleine menshn. He is also aware that class-consciousness was manifest not only in attitude--arrogance on the one side, deference or resentment on the other--but also in institutions, even, for example, in separate shuln for the workers and some up-scale models for the "aristocrats."

In a methodical, meticulous, and often brilliant way, however, Lederhendler, in Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism, begins to depart from the more modern "myth." He agrees, of course, that by 1897 more than half the Jews in eastern Europe lived in cities and, as Ezra Mendelsohn in Class-Struggle in the Pale (1970) demonstrated so masterfully, that many worked in factories. But he is not so sure that a Jewish proletariat actually developed, or that Jewish labor organizers--or, for that matter, most Jews--had brought with them from the shtetlekh to the urban areas their Judaic, prophetic, communal, mutual-aid values and belief systems.

Lederhendler's new book is a contribution to the historical dialogue that posits that eastern European Jews, remaining in small towns in the rural hinterlands, grew poorer and poorer in the face of modernization in the economies of the Russian Empire. That the elimination of middleman positions, the growth of railroads and of farmers' cooperatives, and the prohibitions against Jews entering certain vocations and professions radically destabilized Jewish old world communities is undeniable. But Lederhendler contends that this impoverishment of the Jewish masses and this "breakdown" of traditional Jewish culture prevented Jews from adhering to many scripturally ordained mitzvot as well as to the commands of tsedakah, communal responsibility, interdependence, and general mutuality.

He agrees that Jews, like many other poor people in Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Russia, were set in motion by an absence of economic opportunity in the old world compared to the openness of industrializing countries in the new, especially the United States. He is, however, less convinced that, while all groups were on the move, Jews were even more so because of the additional push of antisemitism and the pull of religiocultural needs to "achieve" or "accomplish." His disagreement leads him some distance from the thesis that those who came to America--the students and youngsters, and the handful not so young; the radicals and political neophytes; the men and women, some with work experience, others without--brought with them the already changing but still rich Yiddish-speaking culture of eastern Europe. Nor does he give more than a small affirmative nod to the general idea, widespread among historians, that the Jews also brought with them an internalized experience with urban living, commerce, education with numbers (even if by rote), and, perhaps above all in terms of their success in America, takhlis, the impulsion to be practical, to defer immediate gratification for long-term goals.

Lederhendler, in order to debunk this second "myth," brings all of his scholarly ammunition and erudition to bear. Jews, it seems to him, were not very different from others who crossed the Atlantic looking to better themselves--except perhaps that they had been far more profoundly "de-classed": not in the Marxist sense, as when members of the aristocracy or clergy, for want of a better word, "defrocked" themselves to join the workers; but in the sense that Jews had been made luftmenshn, that is, vocationless and without status or self esteem, and most importantly, according to Lederhendler, deprived of "social capital." By this he means the "ability to successfully assert and deploy one's personality and self-regard in the context of relationships with others" (xix). Jews had been completely deprived of this important social tool in eastern Europe, he argues; and only in America, where the immigrants established a "brand-new economic footing," did they regain honor and begin to build a novel kind of social belonging (xix).

The venerable historian makes a good case, backed by an admirable gathering of statistics as well as impressionistic evidence, that class (or more precisely the lack thereof) was a more important factor than the cultural baggage immigrants brought with them to America. Jews stopped being immigrants and became Americans, the author concludes, by acculturating, inevitably, to the economic and cultural framework and mobility dynamics of the United States. Jews who emigrated to America "were not so much transferring as transcending their past work experience while they became reoriented to finding their places in a relatively more open economic system" (4i). In the process of explaining this, Lederhendler challenges the importance of those studies that have given immigrants more "agency" in the process of remaking themselves. Jews, as well as other immigrants, he argues, had much less wiggle room than we have presumed to synthesize values and behaviors from the old culture with the new, or to make conscious choices, even small ones, within the environmental "determinism" of their new situations.

He also questions the social justice orientation of the immigrant population; and, when he does give some credence to the radical labor movement, for example, he, like Tony Michels in A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (2005), sees it as something that developed within an American interplay rather than as a cultural residue from the old countries reinforced by industrialization in the new. Perhaps many of the studies Lederhendler cites, including the work of Hadassa Kosak, Arthur Liebman, Susan Glenn, Deborah Dash Moore, Judd Teller, et al, did focus a bit more than was warranted on culture and too little on class, but none of these historians in the last half-century have neglected class altogether. In trying to make his case, Lederhendler, rejecting Faulkner's aphorism that "the past is not dead, it is not even past," swings the pendulum much too far in the other direction.

Still, even while too often stating the obvious--"ethnics are only ethnics by virtue of being themselves in a foreign country" (xvi)--Lederhendler deftly undermines the importance of some contemporary approaches to the history of American Jewish acculturation. His dismantling of "whiteness studies," for example, in regard to Jewish Americanization (and to Americanization generally) is alone worth the price of the book. He also successfully reintroduces the central importance of class in the development of new identities, and provokes us to think again about the whole process of going from Jewish immigrant to Jewish American.

Gerald Sorin

State University of New York, New Paltz

(1.) The most concise deconstruction is Joshua Rothenberg, "Demythologizing the Shtetl," Midstream 27 (March 1981): 25-31. See also Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jew, 1862- 1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Michael Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1815-1855 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983); and Robert J. Brym, The Jews of Moscow, Kiev, and Minsk: Identity, Antisemitism, and Emigration (New York: New York University Press, 1994).
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Author:Sorin, Gerald
Publication:American Jewish History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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