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How Can We Explain Jewish Success in America?

Thursday, December 18, 2014| Permalink

Earlier this week, Adam D. Mendelsohn wrote about the thrill of finding an interesting lead while conducting research. His most recent book, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire, is now available. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I did not set out to write a book that seeks to explain the extraordinary economic success of Jews in America. Instead I sought to write a history of Jewish involvement in the shmatte business. So how did I land up writing a book about both?

One hundred years ago, the vast majority of Jews in America were recent immigrants, part of a tidal wave of 2.4 million Jews who made their way to these shores from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1924. Most were poor. They fled persecution, but also lives that promised only poverty. The majority of the newcomers initially found work in the garment industry, the shmatte business. They were the sewers of garments in a low-wage, high volume business that made the vast majority of clothing worn by Americans. Working conditions were unpleasant, with men and women crowded together in makeshift spaces heady with glue vapors, fabric particles, steam, and smoke, and overheated by the press of bodies and the hissing of irons. Together with the marginal wages paid to workers and the prevalence of strife between bosses and laborers, this was not an ideal introduction to America.

Jump one hundred years forward, and the picture could not be more different. The descendants of these same immigrants are among the edgiest entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, the foremost bankers on Wall Street, and the leading lights in Hollywood. But those who hog the headlines (and cluster on the lists compiled by Forbes) are only a small part of a broader phenomenon. Jews are exceptionally well represented in the professions, and firmly part of the middle class. Their average earnings set them apart from almost every other ethnic group in the United States. Several leading economists, sociologists, and historians regard Jews as the single most economically successful immigrant group in American history.

So even as I set out to study the garment industry, this broader mystery tugged at my thoughts.

How within a generation or two, did they move upward so quickly from stitching in sweatshops to a position of prominence and preeminence within the American economy, and within American society more broadly.

Was it because Jews possess an innate acumen for business? Did they carry a hard-won facility with commerce, borne of a history of surviving at the margins, to American shores? Did they share a flexibility and adaptability derived from a history of mobility, dispersion, and expulsion? Or a cultural affinity toward trade, risk-taking, and money-making? Had they acquired an ease with the market, money, and salesmanship that set them apart from other immigrant groups? Were they aided by a predisposition toward learning and literacy? Did they harbor the ambition, drive, and perspective of perpetual outsiders? Were they merely the beneficiaries of fortunate timing? Or was their success a product of clannishness and conspiracy, as some less favorably disposed to Jews have suggested?

Perhaps, I decided, this wondrous story had something to do with the garment industry itself. It is uncontroversial to suggest that Jews made the modern garment industry in America. But what if, I wondered, the garment industry made the Jews?

Adam D. Mendelsohn is Director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture and Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.

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