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Secret of the Jews' Success in Trade

Intense Application to Business and Extreme Adaptability to Conditions.

From the New-York Daily Tribune, December 16, 1906:.

Hebrew lad peddling shoestrings in the Bowery.


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.


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.


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 it.

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 them.

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.


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 came.

The clothing 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.

Another marked 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.


A 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."


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