Where Did the Myth of ‘Jewish Success’ Come From Anyway?

Why are Jews so successful? The question is embarrassing, because it is usually asked either by anti-Semites or by right-wing Jewish chauvinists

An anti-Semitic flier sent out by Republican candidate Ed Charamut depicting his Jewish opponent, Matt Lesser.
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Why are Jews so successful? The question is embarrassing, because it is usually asked either by anti-Semites or by right-wing Jewish chauvinists. Fine. All the more so, it deserves an answer. After a millennium on the margins of Christian and Muslim societies, Jews — and here I am, employing the most technical, precise locution available — made it big.

American Jews earn more per year, on average, than any other religious group, and we are wildly overrepresented in government, media and all the other places in which one would like to be wildly overrepresented. And yet, in comparison with their peers, the masses of American Jewry who emigrated from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century actually underachieved. Zionists who went to Palestine, after all, made not their fortunes but a state, with all its trappings: a language, nuclear missile-carrying submarines, their own oppressed minorities. Meanwhile, many of those who stayed in Russia helped overthrow the czar (the Communist Party was bizarrely, disproportionately Jewish) in the largest revolution in the history of the world. Palestine, America and Russia were very different. Yet, Eastern European Jews transformed each of them, and not just through ideas but also in concrete, tangible ways: factories and tanks, blood and iron.

These Jews, then, were shockingly effective in shaping the material world — and this despite the fact that a century earlier they had been a desperately poor, marginalized minority struggling for survival. How did that happen? One familiar story holds that when these Jews were emancipated from their ghettos, European Jews left them uniquely adapted to the modern world. These Jews were, Yuri Slezkine argued in his 2006 book, “The Jewish Century,” urban, mobile and literate, and they had cosmopolitan, international trade networks and a culture of textual learning. Though Slezkine was writing socioeconomic history, his argument taps into deeper, intuitive accounts of Jewishness. Since the Church Fathers, Judaism has been called a worldly religion whose adherents possess a unique facility for finance and commerce and opportunistically wander the globe, unfettered by national loyalties. We Jews, the story goes, have always been modern; it’s just that in the 20th century, the rest of the world caught up.

In “Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s,” Eliyahu Stern casts doubt on this familiar story. Russian Jews, he argues, did not enter modernity with an ancient, inherited tradition of material striving or economic calculation. The idea of Judaism as a religion or culture conducive to material prosperity would have seemed to them alien, if not absurd. Jewish religion and culture in the middle of the 18th century was decidedly idealist. Not only were pious Jews committed to otherworldly values, but Russianizing Enlighteners insisted that “there was no such thing as a Jewish economic policy or a Jewish economic body.” Jews had a religious tradition, but materially they were, or they ought to become, Russians — farming the land, learning Russian, entering universities and assimilating.

Rather, what Stern calls “materialism” — the ideology through which “Jews in Russia reimagined the central features of Judaism around their material distinctiveness,” was “developed in the second half of the nineteenth century.” After an introduction and a chapter explaining just how un-materialist Russian Jewry was in the middle of that century, Stern tells the stories of the materializers and how they “consciously infused land, labor, and people with metaphysical value.” Each chapter tackles a different form of materialism, each of which reimagines Jewishness more radically than the last. Materialism starts tamely, with the application of social science to Jewish life. For instance, Ilya Orshanski wrote the first quantitative analysis of Jewish poverty. The 1860s had witnessed, Stern explains, the “pauperization of the Jewish masses,” and Orshanski innovated by explaining such poverty not spiritually or philosophically, but economically. The emancipation of the serfs, he showed, had caused the price of labor to crash, even as urbanization and political unrest had upset traditional Jewish industries, like liquor distribution and handcrafts. These new methods singled out the Jews economically, describing them, Stern argues, “not only as a religious group but also as a distinct socioeconomic entity.”

While Orshanski and his peers were mainly describing Jewish economics, Moshe Leib Lilienblum went further, arguing that Judaism ought to be about such material, bodily questions. Lilienblum made a name for himself as a critic of the yeshiva world, adducing talmudic passages to prove that rabbinic stringency was an unnecessary burden on poor Jews. But for Stern, Lilienblum’s genius was not in debating Jewish religion but in imagining a new category altogether. “I am not interested in telling Jews to stop keeping the things that are written in the [sacred] books,” Lilienblum wrote. “I only want to tell you that it’s wrong to say that Jews are sick in their souls. No! It’s their bodies that are sick.” This was not to debate over religion, but to declare it irrelevant and suggest a new category entirely — the Jewish body.

But what makes a Jewish body Jewish? “Jewish Materialism” ranges broadly, from debates on Darwinism to theories of the matchmaking market. At its core, however, is that question: If you strip Jews down to their bare physicality, do they remain distinctive? Lilienblum, who complained that (Stern writes) “Jews did not economically behave like or recognize themselves as a collective,” thought they did. Indeed, although he learned much of his materialism from the Russian anarchist Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel, “What Is To Be done?” after he became a Zionist he excised Russian, leftist sources, as well as the word “materialism” itself, from his republished writings. Stern correctly describes this mixture of materialism and Jewish particularism as “philosophically incoherent.” There is a deep paradox here: Materialism led Lilienblum to take Jewish bodily survival seriously, which then eventually led him to hide his materialism.

Russian Jews discovered revolutionary Marxism and Zionism as discourses connected by their materialism. Today, we think of these two movements as opposite choices: Left or right? Universal horizons or a particular nation? Revolution here, or migration to Palestine? But it turns out that Peretz Smolenskin, widely considered the founder of Cultural Zionism, was heavily involved with materialist, Marxist writers. He was, in fact, materially involved, since he saved his struggling Hebrew newspaper by publishing articles defending “Marx, Darwin, and Chernyshevsky.” And Smolenskin was not just an opportunist. When he published Judah Leib Levin’s “four-part, sixty-page [poem] that applied Marx’s historical materialism” to Russian Jewry, his detractors complained of its Marxism and materialism. But Smolenskin defended Levin, and he wrote to him that his work was “glorious for Israel.” Only later did Smolenskin repudiate Marxist materialism, embracing the idea of a Jewish “spirit” or Geist. From this and other, similar examples of surprising intellectual overlap, Stern provocatively suggests that “Jewish nationalism [is a] side effect of Marxism.”

Stern specializes in telling surprising stories about modern Jewish life and thought. In his first book, he argued that an esoteric Orthodox genius, the Vilna Gaon, was in his own way as modern as his enlightened, assimilated contemporaries in Germany. In this book, he claims that materialism is the forgotten key to Jewish identity today; 19th-century Russian Jewry created the “most commonly articulated metaphysical sensibilities of twentieth-century Jews.” The book is deeply researched and smartly written. Unusual for an academic book, it combines sharp argument with well-told stories of its subjects’ lives.

That said, I’m not so sure about the book’s stakes. Do 20th-century Jews — or any ordinary people — really have “metaphysical sensibilities”? Does anyone but an intellectual divide the world between materialists and idealists? Although the book’s framing materials place its story in the broadest possible context, at its heart it is the story of an intellectual movement. A true materialist, trying to answer Slezkine’s questions about why Jews succeeded so phenomenally in the 20th century, would surely have to look beyond the writings of a small, philosophical elite. Is Stern chronicling a revolution in the Jewish body, or just in a few Jewish souls?

Nevertheless, for those of us who are intellectuals, a story like this one is exciting, because it unearths categories that transcend our familiar factional divisions. Instead of religious denominations or political allegiances, perhaps we should divide Jews between materialists and idealists. Moreover, politically this book offers the possibility of rapprochement across political lines, as it reminds Jewish nationalists and the Jewish leftists that they share an origin story. Zionists, Stern shows, used to care about everyone’s liberation, not just our own; and leftists used to admit that Jews are distinctive, with particular needs and collective interests. I doubt that scholarly studies need to explain all of modern Jewry. I think that it’s enough if, like this book, they give us new possibilities for understanding our own Jewish commitments.

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