Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Sarah Schmidt on Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism, 1880-1920: From Caste to Class

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)

Prof. Eli Lederhendler, chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he also holds the Stephen S. Wise Chair in American Jewish History and Institutions, has written a closely argued volume that reexamines current scholarship relating to the immigration of East European Jews to the United States from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century.

Since Lederhendler’s aim is to revise previous interpretations that define Jewish immigrants as an ethnic group, substituting instead his thesis that they were primarily an immigrant group defined by social class, much of his work reads as a polemic against scholars from numerous disciplines who have written in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. His fifty-eight pages of small-print, often lengthy footnotes, as well as twenty-five pages listing works cited, constitute a research project in and of itself, a survey of what appears to be everything even remotely related to the subject. Those who would benefit most from reading this book are academics and people with extensive prior knowledge of the historiography concerning East European Jewry both before and after the mass immigration to the United States. For them this should be an indispensable volume.

Americanization: Defined By Ethnicity or Class?

Lederhendler sees ethnicity as a predetermined “label that remains constant,” a characteristic that remains steadfast even as times and places change. Class, on the other hand, is “a grid that enables or requires one to place one’s own work, possessions…and interests in…a given socioeconomic system,” both within and beyond ethnic limits. His analysis focuses on the meaning of work in both the immigrants’ decision to migrate and their postmigration adjustment and attainment of status, or what he terms “social capital.”

Lederhendler argues that changing one’s social class changes the perception of one’s place in society, and that new forms of work available to Jewish immigrants in the United States are what helped define their place in the American class hierarchy. In other words, the economic transformation of the Jews in early twentieth-century America is the key to understanding their other adjustments to life there. According to Lederhendler, Jewish economic behavior affected their adaptation to conditions in the United States much more than their ethnicity, that is, much more than previous religious or cultural identity.

To illustrate the economic changes that the immigrants experienced, Lederhendler first focuses on the gap between the developed state of America’s industrial economy and the relatively undeveloped state of Russia’s economy and society at the same time. In Russia Jews were mostly manual laborers and, even before the assassination of “good” Czar Alexander II in 1881, Jewish petty merchants had begun to think about emigration. This was due, he asserts, not only to lack of income but also to the lack of any real social standing, that is, “class.”

In comparison, work in the New World provided the opportunity to achieve social standing both within and beyond the community. The possibility of a new social status-one unrelated to studying in a yeshiva, or having links to a prestigious family of scholars-enabled Jews to succeed in a world beyond family and the Jewish “ghetto.” Thus, according to Lederhendler, the potential inherent in the American urban industrial economy was the crucial factor in facilitating ethnic change. Perhaps even more important was the possibility of gaining “social capital-honor” through work. In the words of one immigrant, in America “heavy labor is no disgrace…. [It’s] where I can work hard…and be equal to everyone.” 

The Immigrant Experience

To prove his thesis, Lederhendler uses statistics, refers to numerous academic studies-often only to refute them-and quotes at length from immigrant memoirs. To this reader the memoirs are the most interesting sections of the book, providing a personal perspective on how it felt to be transformed from a member of a subclass that stood little chance of becoming integrated into the political economy of Russia, to becoming a member of a modern society, one based on class, in the United States.

The altered social meaning of work was the key that unlocked the door to future advancement and class status. The philosopher Morris Cohen recalled that the “chief…difference [between Russia and America] was the greater intensity and hurry. At six in the morning the alarm would wake us all up,” ensuring that his father and his brother would get to work on time. When he visited them at their factory he was “impressed with the tremendous drive which infiltrated and animated the entire establishment-nothing like the leisurely air in Minsk…where men would sing occasionally.” The poet and journalist Judd Teller noted that “the rabbi…. became almost irrelevant to the immigrant community.” Regular work and income were what counted in America, so someone with a steady job was valued more and had higher status than someone having an “old world” pedigree.

Cohen also refers to the tension generated by new opportunities for self-realization in the world beyond home and family, with work in the wage-earning world as one of its main components. For younger people “the walls of the ghetto had been removed…. What ensued was a struggle between old and new ideals…much of the proverbial strength of the Jewish family was lost.” In other words, as the immigrants began to rebuild their lives in America, they were influenced mainly by the values of American capitalism and, as a result, the Jewish ethical and social values that traditionally had defined ethnicity collapsed.

By questioning numerous studies dealing with Americanization that focus on identity politics or ethnicity, and by using a model sensitive to functional economic changes and their social outcomes, Lederhendler believes he has been able to understand better the historical discontinuities between the pre- and postmigration way of life among Russian Jewish immigrants to America a century ago. He feels that his emphasis on Jews’ economic behavior and class position within the American social system explains much about how they were able to transform their lives as Jews within the United States. No doubt there will be many scholars who disagree with him-and it will be interesting to see the “talkbacks.”