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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Adam D. Mendelsohn

Friday, April 08, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Adam D. Mendelsohn and his book, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire, a vivid picture of how “rag picking” in nineteenth-century England and the United States served as the springboard for Jews to enter the middle and upper classes.

A warm congratulations to Adam and the other four finalists: Yehudah Mirsky, Aviya Kushner, Dan Ephron, and Lisa Moses Leff. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most challenging things about writing nonfiction?

Two things. Firstly, deciding on the right moment to switch my energies from research to writing. The temptation is so strong to keep on digging, to follow one more lead, to ferret out additional detail (pick your preferred metaphor!). I find that much of the excitement of any research project comes from this initial exploratory phase: the thrill of the chase. But at some point the hunt has to take second place to the business of writing. And secondly, I am unsettled by an awareness that any historical project is so much the product of happenstance—the survival of particular archival collections; an accumulation of authorial decisions, some made knowingly, others unwitting; the necessity of selection; the whims and interests of the writer.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

Many inspirations, but one is the sheer pleasure I get from reading books that teach me new things and force me to think in new ways. If I am able to produce work that gives similar pleasure to others, I’d be delighted. Mission accomplished.

Who is your intended audience?

This book was written with an academic audience in mind, but with the aim of making it accessible to as wide a readership as possible. I like to believe that the question I grapple with at the heart of my book—why have Jews prospered so dramatically in America— is one that Jews and others should be thinking about. If Jewish success is not solely the product of the particular cultural baggage carried by Jews to these shores, then the experience of Jews has enormous potential relevance to more recent immigrant groups.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Many projects large and small. I’m overseeing a study—the first of its kind—attempting to track the attitudes of black South Africans toward Jews. I’m annotating the candid travel diaries of a nineteenth-century Jamaican Jew. And I’m in the early stages of a project about a curious episode that took place in Ethiopia in 1868.

What are you reading now?

My reading is schizophrenic. If I’m lucky I get to read something more serious in-between recitations of Winnie the Witch and The Gruffalo to my kids. I have a guilt-inducing stack of New Yorkers sitting on my bedside table. I am a voracious reader of novels (most recently Julian Barne’s The Sense of an Ending and David Benioff’s City of Thieves). And I am busy with a brilliant new book about the concentration camp system called KL.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

Here are some that have influenced me:

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Replenishing the Earth by James Belich
Culture of the Jews by David Biale (and others)
The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I’ve always enjoyed words—as a teenager I’d peruse the dictionary for pleasure. But I only truly discovered the thrill of writing nonfiction as a university student. For me the pleasure comes both from the research and the puzzle-game of getting a sentence right.

What is the mountaintop for you—how do you define success?

Finding a fresh idea or novel perspective, and presenting it clearly and persuasively. Occasionally I’ll chance across something that is startlingly original, but is so obvious (in a good way) once it has been fleshed out.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

Pajamas help. But otherwise all I need is a problem to solve, typically a sentence that needs puzzling over. Once I get stuck in, the text takes over.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I do not for one moment imagine that I’ve written the definitive book about the economic success of Jews in America. Instead I hope to trouble the waters a little, persuading readers to think again about what role culture has played in this process, and perhaps to reassess the conventional wisdom.

Adam Mendelsohn is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, the only such center in Africa.

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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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Stumbling on Jewish Suppliers to the Confederacy

Tuesday, December 16, 2014 | Permalink

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. His most recent book, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When historians describe their profession they often liken themselves to detectives. Although the comparison is flattering to historians – the mysteries we solve are rarely matters of life and death – our methods of evidence-gathering and deduction are closer to real life crime squads than the sleuthing done by most television gumshoes. We track down leads, corroborate and cross-reference, and sift endless quantities of evidence. We dream of the source that voluntarily confesses all of its secrets, but more often pry the truth loose by building a painstaking case.

And yet there are rare moments amidst the many, many hours spent in archives when we too experience the thrill of the chase, that exhilarating sense of excitement when the mysterious and unexpected is suddenly within reach.

For me, one such moment of serendipity came when investigating the roots of Jewish involvement in the modern garment industry. After months of focusing on the role of Jewish suppliers to the Union Army – many of the uniforms worn by soldiers in the first year of the Civil War were manufactured by Jewish firms – I switched my attention to the Confederacy. Some southern Jews featured among Confederate contractors, but these were mostly small bore. Since the Confederate States of America had little of the industrial capacity of the Union, it relied heavily on materiel imported from Europe. And cursory investigation revealed little evidence that any of the major European exporters had anything to do with Jews. I discounted one such firm, Isaac Campbell & Company, on the strength of its name. The firm, based in London, was one of the leading buyers of munitions for the Confederacy, and a major blockade runner to boot. It was much written-about by historians, in part because it almost certainly defrauded the CSA on a massive scale.

But for a serendipitous lead, I would have pursued my investigation into Isaac Campbell & Company no further. That is, until I discovered that the name atop the firm was perhaps intentionally chosen to mislead. One of the services supplied Dugald Forbes Campbell, a Scottish attorney who represented the firm, was to supply a name for the masthead that may have obscured the fact that Samuel and Saul Isaac, two Jewish brothers who had started in the boot-making business, were its owners and prime movers.

Suddenly the game was on! So many new leads to chase down. And a new quarry was in my sights. This is what historians live for.

Check back on Thursday to read more from Adam D. Mendelsohn.

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