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Why Structure? Contextualizing Jewish Economic Historiography.

In recent years, Jewish Studies has seen a revival of interest in economic matters. Work on the economic history of Jews in America is but a small offshoot of a growing subfield that has substantially revised our understanding of the place of Jews in the economic world of the early modern and modern periods. That subfield did not begin in 2001 with Derek Penslar's Shylock's Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe; Penslar and others built upon an older historiography with roots in the first decades of the twentieth century. One of the animating questions that has shaped much of this scholarship--both old and new--has asked whether Jewish economic experience has been driven by the particular characteristics and propensities of Jews as a group, or, alternatively, whether the vagaries of place, time, and situation have been decisive in molding the economic trajectory of Jews. Some have pointed to continuities in the Jewish economic experience across time and place as indication of distinctive group features, while others--drawing on institutional economic theory--have argued that the Jewish experience must rather be viewed within the context of the particular economy in which it was situated. This is no idle argument: it gets to the heart of the question about what, if anything, is particular to Jews.

The relative significance of context vs. culture as determinant factors in explaining patterns within Jewish economic experience is not settled. Several prominent works--Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein's The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492 (2012), Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century (2004), not to mention more popular titles like Amy Chua's The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011)--have lined up in the "cultural" camp, favoring Jewish propensities and proclivities over other explanations for the distinct economic experience of Jews. (1) This is the approach that I (in Cotton Capitalists: American Jewish Entrepreneurship in the Reconstruction Era [2017]) and Adam Mendelsohn (in The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire [2016]) engaged and disagreed with. Instead of crediting an immutable Jewish essence (or particular Jewish characteristics) as the key explanatory tools for understanding the trajectory of Jews within the American economy, we have offered economic histories that are intensely focused on the importance of time and place. We certainly do not overlook cultural factors in the economic niches we explore. When we signal our attentiveness to structural forces (and our unease with the arguments of the "cultural" camp) we do not devalue culture. Our work is textured with an acute awareness of the interplay between the cultural cargo carried by Jewish immigrants and of the culture of their neighbors and of broader American society.

This openness to both culture and structural factors reveals what I have long believed and what I have begun to argue more explicitly: this dichotomy has been drawn too starkly. We have much to learn by comparing Jews with other middleman-minorities that have exhibited features and characteristics not dissimilar from Jews. William R. Kerr and Martin Mandorff, for example, note that Korean entrepreneurship in dry cleaners is thirty-four times that of other immigrant groups, and Gujarati-speaking Indians are over one hundred times more concentrated in motel management. They argue that "occupational stratification along ethnic lines, [is] consistent with the reoccurring phenomenon of small, socially-isolated groups achieving considerable economic success via concentrated entrepreneurship." (2) Are American Jews particular or exceptional in this regard? If so, how and why? Likewise, attention to the importance of trust and ethnic solidarity adds an important layer to the new institutional economic theory. Greek merchants in Egypt's cotton industry, for example, demonstrate strikingly similar patterns of trust and ethnic solidarity to Jewish merchants in the American cotton industry.' How are Jews different? Therefore by drawing from both the middleman-minority and new institutional economic theories, and then integrating the Jewish experience into the study of other ethnic and religious minorities, I believe that we can reconceptualize our understanding of the ways in which Jews shaped, and were shaped by, the environments in which they lived. This has the power to bring historians of the Jewish experience into greater dialogue with those who study other ethnic groups, thereby increasing the relevance of Jewish studies within the academy.

Riv-Ellen Prell's provocative essay affirms my sense that these two economic theories are not sufficient to fully unlock the potential of Jewish economic history. While our present emphasis on structure engages an unsettled historiographical debate, how do we concurrently move beyond these questions and address the glaring need to write gender back into the story? I agree with Prell's point that a seemingly male-dominated niche is only possible because of the less visible roles of women. And Prell's call to focus on consumption is critical. There is much value in connecting the production side of the equation to the consumption side--which would highlight not only gender, but also race. Jews who operated general stores sold to white men and women who operated plantations, and they sold to black women and men as well. In that role, they served as cultural intermediaries--in much the same way that Hasia Diner has shown in Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way (2015) regarding peddlers. By failing to explore consumption, we not only miss a golden opportunity to understand gender, but also the economic--and broader--relationship between Jews, African-Americans, and the larger society. A new approach that accounts for this will only further enrich our understanding of American Jewish economic history, which in turn will better illuminate the Jewish encounter with America.

The broader project of those who write about Jews and capitalism is not a supercessionist one intended to dismiss culture and erase women as subjects and actors in history. I myself am a social historian who wrote Cotton Capitalists, at its heart a book exploring Southern Jewish life in the Reconstruction era. I found economic history--specifically the Jewish role in the cotton industry--to be the best lens through which to understand the ways in which these Jews shaped, and were shaped by, their particular environment. Time and place are central to this story, though I pay much attention to the highly contested relationship between Jewish traders and black sharecroppers, as well as to how the nature of a particular economic niche filled by Jews translated into their religious and social lives, and into the communities they built. I point to examples of women running stores, and likewise, I write extensively about how economic networks were buttressed by ties of marriage and family. These themes could certainly be explored in greater depth.

The good news here is that the reinvigorated field of Jewish economic history is primed for new approaches. As I have argued above, it seeks to add an otherwise missing element to discussions of Jewish history. It has its own animating debates. It has tremendous potential to unlock the contours of the Jewish experience. Yes, it needs to be attentive to matters of gender. No, it is not a behemoth dismissive of all that came before. Every focused study on a dimension of the economic history of American Jews cannot be expected to give equal attention to race, class, and gender. Indeed the same critique aimed at this subfield--where is gender?--could be (unfairly) thrown back at others--where is economy?

(1.) In The Chosen Tew: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein argue that literacy, derived of a religious imperative, was the driving engine of Jewish economic development over centuries. Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) argues that the cultural skills that Jews historically developed as "service nomads" prepared them for success in the twentieth century. Both books were awarded National Jewish Book Awards.

(2.) William R. Kerr and Martin Mandorff, "Social Networks, Ethnicity, and Entrepreneurship," Working Paper no. 16-042 (Cambridge: Harvard Business School, June 14, 2016) 1-2, 5. Hasia Diner notes that Arabs, primarily Syrian and mostly Christian, also "built up an intricate, highly articulated ethnic economy," that was also "based on internal group credit and trust born of familial and communal intimacy." See Hasia Diner, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 10.

(3.) See Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014)
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Author:Cohen, Michael R.
Publication:American Jewish History
Date:Oct 1, 2019
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