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.

Relat­ed Content:

Adam D. Mendel­sohn is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry and Direc­tor of the Kaplan Cen­tre for Jew­ish Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cape Town. He is the author of The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Suc­cess in Amer­i­ca and the British Empire and co-edi­tor of Jews and the Civ­il War: A Read­er and Transna­tion­al Tra­di­tions: New Per­spec­tives on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry.