Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire (Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History) Hardcover – December 19, 2014 by Adam D. Mendelsohn ( NYU Press))

This is a superb work of economic and ethnic history. There is abundant information about the relationship of Jews to the clothing industry following the waves of immigration 1880 into the 20th century, but here we see how the stage was set in the previous century. Many Jewish immigrants began as rag pickers, became peddlers of used clothing in remote but accessible areas, then established fixed stores. One of the most interesting points in this fascinating book was the importance of trade with plantation owners in the South, slaves (an enormous market for "shoddy" roughly made clothing), and tenant farmers after Reconstruction. In both cases, barter was often the means of exchange and commodities and land served as collateral. When buyers couldn’t pay, the merchants seized the land. In fact, in that fashion (excuse the pun--Mendelsohn has an eye-roll inducing penchant for them), one entrepreneurial Jew came to own 24,000 acres in Natchez, MS, which must have fanned some anti-Semitic flames. The clothing trade thus served as the way into banking and commodity trading.

While the book purports to deal with the USA and the British Empire, the latter is really there to serve as a kind of foil that reveals how different circumstances affected Jewish entry into the clothing trade specifically and the economy in general. While Jews in the US had a later and less auspicious start than those in the British Empire, (and by that Mendelsohn mostly means England, Australia and a few references to the West Indies), the "elaborate and geographically dispersed distribution chain" in the US laid a very effective foundation.

Through the clothing trade, Jews received schooling in essential skills essential for rapid advancement in a modern economy: "practice in petty entrepreneurship" and "sensitivity to the whims and wants of the market," but most importantly, "self-employment rather than wage labor" to facilitate a quick rise from the working class. The key to the success of Jews in the US was entrepreneurship in a field that required minimal investment of capital to start. Genius.

Mendelsohn showed clearly how specific economic behaviors and historical events informed each other. In places, there were points of momentous import that that needed greater emphasis, but that's to be forgiven. He admirably resisted the temptation to explore other areas of Jewish history that were outside of his thesis (we can research Judah Benjamin on our own, e.g.). This is a great read and with the emphasis on interdisciplinarity and teaching entrepreneurship in schools, this would make an excellent addition to summer reading lists.

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