Jews as “Culture Brokers”

Friday, March 23, 2012

“What a paltry fisher town was Livorno before the admission of the Jews; what a loser is Lisbon since they have been lost to it!” 

These words, uttered in 1714 by the radical pamphleteer John Toland, depict Jews as veritable engines of prosperity. According to Toland, lands from which Jews had been expelled, like Portugal, had become depleted deserts, while even the “paltry fisher towns” that offered them refuge, like the Italian seaport of Livorno, were now bustling entrepôts.  Jews exhibit the property of prosperity because, as Toland writes, in the great division of global trade, while some men are transporters of goods, and others are manufacturers and shopkeepers, the Jews are “the Brokers of it, who, whithersoever they come, create business as well as manage it.”

The credit Toland afforded Jews was no doubt exaggerated (a reminder that the Jews’ admirers can be no less hyperbolic than their detractors). Jews were far more at the mercy of capitalism than they were its masters. Yet the notion that through brokerage and exchange they could bring positive values to the communities that welcomed them is historically apt.  In the medieval Spain of the Reconquista, Jews moving between Islamic and Christian spheres helped transmit classical Greek culture (preserved in Arabic texts) to the burgeoning civilization of the European West. Something similar occurred in Renaissance Italy, which served as a crossroads linking refugees from the Spanish expulsions, converted Jews (both sincere and counterfeit), and Jews who had resettled in Ottoman lands. As such, Jewish intellectuals in Italy absorbed and repackaged ideas flowing between East and West, between Muslim and Christian worlds, as well as between different resettled Jewish communities. Diaspora and expulsion, despite the hardships they entailed, rendered Jews into cultural go-betweens.

But it was in modern times that Jews became most proficient as cultural brokers. This process is best understood in terms of the “occupational clustering” that occurred wherever traditional restrictions on Jews had been lifted while informal but deep-rooted obstacles to their fuller assimilation remained stubbornly intact. These earlier restrictions had propelled Jews into commercial activities, as John Toland’s observations make clear. Emancipation (the granting to Jews of full legal equality, beginning in the period of the French Revolution) appeared to free them, but not entirely. Emancipation required that Jews prove themselves worthy of their citizenship, whether as a consequence of or a condition for receiving rights. This meant—outside of the purely religious sphere—that they must learn to behave like everyone else, rather than as members of an insular and distinctive group, as they were presumed to be.

Not surprisingly, this goal proved daunting. Mastering French or German was one thing, but abandoning en masse the livelihoods to which Jews had been originally confined, and had over time became accustomed, proved far thornier.  Instead, an economic branching out rather than a full transplanting occurred.  Many Jews remained in trade and finance, a visible minority of whom advanced to the higher echelons of business and banking or to novel forms of commerce like department stores.  But the new Jewish bourgeoisie that emerged in the mid-19th century, though financially prosperous, remained all the more vulnerable to being labeled parvenus and philistines—still economically “Jewish” behind the veneer of conformity. Under these circumstances, many Jews hoped that mastery of high culture would bolster their claim to be authentic Europeans.

Ironically, Jews were extremely well situated—one might almost say uniquely placed—to become cultural arbiters. The same linkage they hoped to obscure—that between their commercial origins and cultural ambitions—was precisely what enabled them to succeed so conspicuously in all dimensions of the European art world. What has been called Jews’ “insider/outsider” status (biblically chosen but not Christian; European but Asiatic; citizens of the state but members of a tribe) may have granted some Jews a unique insight into the surrounding culture. But just as important, Jews’ vast pre-modern experience as brokers and middlemen afforded them the skills and connections to make their marks as impresarios, agents, managers, critics and appraisers in the art world. The names Rothschild, Duveen, Mond, Oppenheimer and Warburg are only the most famous in a very long list of Jewish art collectors and dealers, dating from the 19th century.

As the historian Charles Dellheim points out, from a functional standpoint there was a surprising continuity between the centuries-old Jewish predominance in pawn-brokerage and second-hand goods, on the one hand, and their modern prominence in the business of buying, assessing, marketing and selling “high art.” For Jews, high culture represented not only an antidote to, but also a byproduct of their long involvement in commerce. Unfortunately, Jews’ attempt to sever that nexus rarely fooled and more often only fueled the hatred of their enemies. The Nazi dispossession of Jewish art was naked theft, to be sure, but it fit the goal of stripping Jews of their cultural garb as citizens. 

In America, with its more open and mobile character, the position of Jews was naturally less fraught. Although American elites made a pretense toward high culture, the absence of a true aristocracy ensured that national identity here would become culturally hybrid, if not middlebrow. For Jews the phenomenon of cultural brokerage proved no less intense than in Europe, but it was configured differently. America offered Jews the opportunity in a modern society to recreate roles they had sometimes played in medieval ones—as middlemen and go-betweens. In a culture where race was a core element in popular entertainment (particularly music), Jewish entrepreneurs, interpreters, critics and creators—“white but not quite”—proved able to shift readily between the segregated realms. Such examples as the Tin Pan Alley music publishers Charles K. Harris and Max Dreyfus; the “indie” rhythm and blues record label owners Leonard Chess and Syd Nathan; or the pioneering jazz critics Nat Hentoff, Leonard Feather and Dan Morgenstern, could easily be multiplied. And in contrast to their experience in Europe, by demonstrating usefulness in brokering American cultural synthesis—by presenting black music in a manner accessible to whites, for instance—Jews helped expand the contours of membership comfortably enough to fit themselves into.

Jonathan Karp, Executive Director, American Jewish Historical Society; Associate Professor History, Binghamton University, SUNY.

The Green Millionaire, New York, 1915

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