Zangwill once met the query,
"Why do the Jews succeed?" with these words: "I welcome the
task of answering the question, if only for the opportunity
of explaining that they do not." And he proceeded to argue
that even if the Jews succeed as individuals, they fail
miserably as a people. The belief that Jews have a monopoly
of success has been widely credited and has become almost a
superstition. "Rich as a Jew" has grown into a proverb, and
at one time called up in the imagination golden argosies and
subterranean treasures. It was believed that Jews were
natural born merchants, that they possessed the commercial
instinct in an unusual degree and their success came to be
viewed as something uncanny or inevitable.
This singular illusion dates
from those dark ages when Jews were shut out from the arts
and crafts, and were forced by direct legislation into a few
sordid occupations. The dense ghettos, with their
poverty-stricken population, were not known to the world at
large–only the few great merchants among them loomed big.
Many Christians naturally came in contact only with those
Jews who could lend them money. Thus, as the only Jews whom
the Christians got to know were rich, it is not so wonderful
that all Jews should have been supposed to be rich or that
"rich as a Jew" should have become a byword.
Jews were forced out of other
vocations and confined to trade and commerce. Being an acute
and thrifty people, they did what the shrewd Yankees did in
Colonial days–adapted themselves to their work and gave to
it all their energy and thought.
PEDDLING SHOESTRINGS IN THE BOWERY.
The "innate commercial gift" of the
Jew is a hoax in which even the Jews joined. It was hard work and
an easy pliability to conditions that brought results.
Adaptability is the secret of the Jewish people, as can be
observed in the immigrants daily pouring into this country. This
power of easy adaptation to a new environment is possessed by the
Jews to such an extent that they can live and thrive in all
climates and under any circumstances.
But when one studies the Jew in
America–not the Jewish plutocrat, the scion of a cultured, moneyed
family in the old country, but the ordinary steerage immigrant,
who comes here to earn the bread he cannot make in his native
Russia, Rumania or Austria–one almost becomes reconciled to the
antiquated superstition that the Jew, at any rate in America,
always succeeds. The remarkable rise of the Jew as a figure in the
world of business, especially in New York, seems to prove that the
Jew is wonderfully apt in adapting himself to American conditions.
SECRET OF SUCCESS.
Herein lies the secret–if there is any
secret about it. The immigrant coming here is immediately infected
with the spirit of work which throbs all around him. No matter
what his station in life was in the old country, even if he had
never done a day's work before, nearly every Jewish immigrant is
at work within two days after landing. Edward A. Steiner, who has
followed the trail of the immigrant from the steerage bunk to the
Fifth Avenue apartment, says: "More than 75 per cent of the
immigrant Jews begin the life of freedom by the hardest kind of
manual labor, and the rest devote themselves to petty trading."
Class distinction is almost entirely obliterated; a man may have
been a magnate or a rabbi in his own village, but when he comes to
America he works at the same table or vends on the same street
with the water carrier, wagoner or shoemaker of his native town,
whom, like as not, he had never deigned to notice there. Democracy
is the first lesson the immigrant learns, and he seldom forgets
Not is he finical as to the work he
will do. Any kind of labor is good, be it ever so hard or mean,
providing it earns him a living. Frugal in his habits, temperate
and modest in his desires, and with an eye ever to the future, the
Jewish immigrant will save on almost any salary. The saying, which
had its origin among the improvident peasants of Europe, is often
heard on the East Side that the Gentile never looks to the morrow.
The Jew always looks to the morrow. There are many rainy days in
the Jewish calendar, and the Jew is ever bent on providing for
This farsighted calculation is partly
due to the ambition to be other than a laborer. The Jewish workman
is not content to remain a wage worker; he dreams of a profession
or business, even if it be only a soda stand. It is these
intensely ambitious men who rise above the ranks, and by dint of
hard work and the help of keen wits attain affluence and even
riches. Their names, which sound so uncouth to the American ear,
have displaced in little over a decade nearly all others on the
signboards in evidence on Broadway.
The trade which an immigrant will
follow here depends little on the trade he was engaged in in the
old country. Any trade is acceptable which has the best prospects
and promises the quickest results. In every sweatshop there is to
be found an erstwhile carpenter grinding on a sewing machine or a
shoemaker dexterously using the presser's iron. The head of a
large cloak and suit house in Broadway, who a few years ago,
acquired great notoriety by dropping some $10,000 at a well known
gambling house, was a carpenter when he came to America. Here he
was taught the cloak operators' trade, and worked at the machine
for some years. But he was ambitious and soon learned designing,
the most lucrative branch of the tailoring industry. Not content
to remain a salaried employee, he, in a few years, having saved
about $3000 went into the manufacturing business with a relative.
The firm today does the most thriving cloak business in the
clothing industry. It was not a case of "innate commercial gifts"
that won success. The man merely took advantage of the
opportunities that America offers to everyone who has the energy
to reach out for them.
SOME RAPID RISES.
A parallel to his career is the life
story of another cloak manufacturer, who was a shoemaker before he
came here, and became a presser, starting a rung lower than the
former. This man in turn became operator, examiner, designer and
finally manufacturer, occupying three lofts in a Broadway
skyscraper. But he did not succeed through mere saving; as
designer he evinced a keen artistic taste in the invention of new
models and patterns, and commanded the highest salary that the
trade offers. Almost every season he was sent to Paris by the
house that employed him to study the fashions at the French
capital. When the boom in real estate began in The Bronx, before
the opening of the subway, this cloak manufacturer was a heavy
buyer, and is now a large holder of Bronx property.
To be sure, it is not always hard work
that will gain a fortune. The element of chance sometimes
determines success, as in the case of a Hebrew furrier a few years
ago. This man held a little place in Sixth Avenue. He had started
and failed three times, and this was his fourth venture. After
each unsuccessful attempt he went back to his old pursuit–that of
peddler–and worked hard until a few more dollars were accumulated
and made another trial. His initial capital was little more than
$500, but his credit was excellent. Doing some long-headed
thinking, he foresaw the great plush craze some years ago. He
somehow discovered in the air that the approaching season would be
a plush season, when every woman, from millionaire's wife to shop
girl, would wear plush. He therefore invested all the money he
could borrow in plush; he borrowed right and left and bought
plush. When the season arrived he was a heavy carrier of the
plush, and his prophecy came true. The man made a fortune in the
short season. When the plush craze collapsed, as it was bound to
do, this man was again ready, and he had sold out before the crash
industry has been the making of a large number of Jewish
fortunes of modest size. A large proportion of the great New
York clothing industry (including the manufacturing of white
goods) is in Jewish hands, as well as a fair proportion of
the trading in these goods, both wholesale and retail. The
years (1893-1900) of great business activity and prosperity
for the United States caused an unusually brisk demand for
the products of this Jewish industry, and many fortunes
ranging between $25,000 and $200,000 have been made within
these years. Since the Jews have been so largely interested
in the ready-made clothing industry they have revolutionized
the tailoring trade by practically destroying the market for
second hand clothing. For the same price, and even less,
than had to be paid for second-hand clothing ten or fifteen
years ago one may procure new clothing today.
But it is not
only in ready-made clothing and dry goods that Jews have
made their fortunes. One of the largest furniture dealers
below 14th Street started when he was a "greener," as a
newly landed immigrant is called on the East Side, in the
capacity of carrier, hanging to the end of the delivery
wagon. He was apt and learned to distinguish between one
piece of furniture and another, and was made foreman in the
examiner's department and finally taken in as a partner in
the firm, whose other members were all Gentiles.
success was achieved by the originator and extensive
organizer of quick lunch counters, whose name is to be seen
on many luncheon room windows throughout the city. He
started as a frankfurter sandwich man, with a little basket
and oil stove, on Newspaper Row.
PROSPEROUS HEBREW MERCHANT OF BROADWAY.
He knew how to cater to the little "newsies,"
and they patronized him in mobs. Their pennies and his thrift
finally enabled him to open a little store nearby, where the
newsboys flocked more eager than ever, because there they could
get the best food and coffee for the least money. Within a few
years the man had opened a score of similar stores bearing his
name. Thus a fortune, which is estimated at almost a million
dollars, was accumulated.
Vending petty wares on the streets has
always been a favorite of immigrants who had followed no trade in
the old country. The peddler's basket has also been the foundation
of many a fortune. The owner of one of the largest wholesale
supply houses of peddler's wares was himself once a peddler on the
marketing streets of the East Side. His rise was rapid and his
fortune is estimated as near the seventh figure, although the man
can scarcely sign his name.
Almost every other trade and business
has a large number of successful Jews who immigrated to this
country within the last twenty years. Complaints are frequently
heard that Jews are supplanting Americans, evidently meaning
Gentiles, in business. Some have been pleased to look with great
"apprehension" at the "Jewish invasion" of the business world. The
only answer that can be given is that in this country the most
efficient man wins. Even if the apprehension is well founded it is
absurd to fear a "Jewish invasion." If all the Jews in existence
came to America they would still be in an insignificant minority,
and then there is the verdict of Zangwill. "Even if the Jews
succeed as individuals, they fail as a people."