Con­sumer Cul­ture and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Jew­ish Identity

Gideon Reuveni
  • Review
By – December 21, 2017

Con­sumer Cul­ture and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Jew­ish Iden­ti­ty by Gideon Reuveni | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

In the last sev­er­al decades, social his­to­ry has dis­placed the more tra­di­tion­al fields of mil­i­tary, eco­nom­ic, diplo­mat­ic, and polit­i­cal his­to­ry as history’s most excit­ing area of study. Social his­to­ri­ans have used inno­v­a­tive tech­nolo­gies and asked new ques­tions regard­ing birth and death rates, mar­riage, immi­gra­tion, reli­gion, edu­ca­tion, gen­der, race rela­tions, urban­iza­tion, migra­tion, accul­tur­a­tion and assim­i­la­tion, mass cul­ture, and, as in the case of Gideon Reuveni’s new book, con­sump­tion pat­terns. Con­sumer Cul­ture and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Jew­ish Iden­ti­ty won the 2018 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in Mod­ern Jew­ish Thought and Expe­ri­ence, and is an exam­ple of this new social his­to­ry at its best.

This is the sec­ond book on con­sumer cul­ture by Reuveni, the direc­tor of the Cen­tre for Ger­man-Jew­ish Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sus­sex in the Unit­ed King­dom. His first, Read­ing Ger­many: Lit­er­a­ture and Con­sumer Cul­ture in Ger­many Before 1933, ini­tial­ly pub­lished in Hebrew, appeared in Eng­lish in 2006 and received pos­i­tive reviews. While main­ly focused on Ger­many, the scope of Con­sumer Cul­ture and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Jew­ish Iden­ti­ty is geo­graph­i­cal­ly broad­er than his pre­vi­ous book since it also dis­cuss­es Jew­ish con­sumer cul­ture in the Unit­ed States, Great Britain, and Israel (both before and after state­hood). Both books are deeply researched, ask impor­tant ques­tions, and can be read prof­itably by spe­cial­ists and non-spe­cial­ists alike. Con­sumer Cul­ture and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Jew­ish Iden­ti­ty will appeal par­tic­u­lar­ly to read­ers seek­ing to learn more about the evo­lu­tion of mod­ern Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, the eco­nom­ic his­to­ry of mod­ern Jews, the his­to­ry of Germany’s Jews dur­ing the decades between the two world wars, and the sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship between eco­nom­ic his­to­ry and Jew­ish history.

Much has been writ­ten about Jew­ish entre­pre­neurs and mon­ey lenders. Reuveni explores the oth­er side of the eco­nom­ic exchange, exam­in­ing not how Jews accu­mu­lat­ed wealth but rather how they spent it. The con­sump­tive prac­tices of mod­ern Jews, he argues, dif­fered from those of their Gen­tile neigh­bors, and com­pa­nies were estab­lished to pro­vide for their dis­tinc­tive needs. The rise of the mod­ern mar­ket­place and mass con­sump­tion encour­aged the eman­ci­pa­tion of Jews as well as pro­vid­ing fod­der for var­i­ous anti-Semit­ic move­ments. For some Jews, par­tic­u­lar­ly those estranged from nor­ma­tive Jew­ish reli­gious beliefs and prac­tices, con­sump­tion became a large part of their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and even fur­nished the raw mate­r­i­al for the jokes they told about them­selves. Con­sump­tion helped deter­mine and sus­tain class dis­tinc­tions among Jews, while sump­tu­ary reg­u­la­tions attempt­ed to incul­cate the virtues of dis­cre­tion and restraint among Jew­ish shop­pers. Final­ly, far dif­fer­ent from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of Jews, con­sump­tion came to be viewed as a means to hap­pi­ness. Out of these mul­ti­fac­eted aspects of shop­ping there emerged what Reuveni calls a dis­tinct ethos of spend­ing as Jews.”

No sin­gle book, par­tic­u­lar­ly one of only two hun­dred and fifty pages, could hope to do jus­tice to the many aspects of mod­ern Jew­ish con­sump­tion. The top­ic is so broad and its his­to­ry so lit­tle known, Reuveni notes, that he has done scarce­ly more than set out some pre­lim­i­nary mark­ers that will hope­ful­ly facil­i­tate the way for more detailed inves­ti­ga­tions of this impor­tant field of his­tor­i­cal inquiry.” But these mark­ers are well-lit, pro­vide accu­rate direc­tions, and point trav­el­ers toward impor­tant des­ti­na­tions. Read­ers will find par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing Reuveni’s dis­cus­sion of the role of con­sump­tion in the mod­ern Zion­ist move­ment, the imagery asso­ci­at­ed with female shop­pers, and the chal­lenges pre­sent­ed by the mod­ern mar­ket­place to tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish prac­tice and thought.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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