Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism

Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism

Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism

Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism


At which moments and in which ways did Jews play a central role in the development of American capitalism? Many popular writers address the intersection of Jews and capitalism, but few scholars, perhaps fearing this question's anti-Semitic overtones, have pondered it openly. Chosen Capital represents the first historical collection devoted to this question in its analysis of the ways in which Jews in North America shaped and were shaped by America's particular system of capitalism. Jews fundamentally molded aspects of the economy during the century when American capital was being redefined by industrialization, war, migration, and the emergence of the United States as a superpower.

Surveying such diverse topics as Jews' participation in the real estate industry, the liquor industry, and the scrap metal industry, as well as Jewish political groups and unions bent on reforming American capital, such as the American Labor Party and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, contributors to this volume provide a new prism through which to view the Jewish encounter with America. The volume also lays bare how American capitalism reshaped Judaism itself by encouraging the mass manufacturing and distribution of foods like matzah and the transformation of synagogue cantors into recording stars. These essays force us to rethink not only the role Jews played in American economic development but also how capitalism has shaped Jewish life and Judaism over the course of the twentieth century.


Marni Davis, Georgia State University

Phyllis Dillon, independent documentary producer, textile conservator, museum curator

Andrew Dolkart, Columbia University

Andrew Godley, Henley Business School, University of Reading

Jonathan Karp, executive director, American Jewish Historical Society

Daniel Katz, Empire State College, State University of New York

Ira Katznelson, Columbia University

David S. Koffman, New York University

Eli Lederhendler, Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Jonathan Z. S. Pollack, University of Wisconsin--Madison

Jonathan D. Sarma, Brandeis University

Jeffrey Shandler, Rutgers University

Daniel Soyer, Fordham University


Rebecca Kobrin

More than a century ago, German sociologist and economist Werner Sombart (1863–1941) marveled at two remarkable economic “exceptionalisms” in the world. First, he focused on the exceptionality of the United States, a nation that in just a few short decades had emerged as an industrial juggernaut, replete with huge mills, transcontinental railroads, and large cities. Writing in 1906 Sombart pondered why, despite this new nation’s rapid growth and expanding economic inequality, the United States and its capitalist system did not nurture a mass socialist movement among its working class like its counterparts in Europe. What exceptional forces made workers in the United States, imagined by some as a “chosen nation,” seem more content and less inclined to protest their condition? Equally as exceptional, argued Sombart, was the unique role played by the Jews, or the self-proclaimed “chosen people,” in the development and expansion of capitalism in Europe. Revising Max Weber’s vision of capitalism as linked to Protestant ethics, Sombart contended that Jews’ intrinsic proclivities made them central provocateurs in the creation of modern capitalism. Indeed, as historian Jonathan Karp points out, Sombart’s portrayal of Jews as “capitalist pioneers”—rooted in his vision of Judaism as a rational, law-oriented and acquisitive religion—molded the ways in which interwar intellectuals, anti-Semitic writers, and politicians discussed the Jews.

Sombart’s summoning of the idea of exceptionalism to describe both America’s and the Jews’ engagement with the developing economic system known as capitalism hints at the complex set of charged ideas, questions, and reflections . . .

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