Text Context

Text Context February 2011

The Books Issue is dedicated to the idea of Jewish books and their history. Contributors look at books as windows into Jewish cultre, as bridges between people, as repostitores of knowlege and wisdom, as expressions of identity, as home.

Staff Writer
02/22/2011
Text Context February 2011

Journal Watch

12/03/2010

What is it with money? Dollars, pounds sterling, shekels, gold, wampum, dinars — all are examples of a very old convenience and newly unreliable artifacts. Coins, of course, have the most ancient provenance — Herodotus talks about the kings of Lydia establishing coinage in the eighth century B.C.E. — and coins became before too long the most notable of monetary conveniences. That is, until the dollar, nebuch.

Gelt and Innocence

A feverish love of collecting masked a family’s shameful truth: There was no money.

12/03/2010

When I was a child living in Springfield, Mass., in the 1980s, Chanukah was the Jewish Christmas. This was how I explained it to my friends in our vastly non-Jewish neighborhood, and they nodded, confused but willing to buy it. At home, we dutifully lit the menorah, my mother reciting the blessing, a gesture I remember as rare and fervent. There were also piles of gifts, in accordance with the holiday season. In retrospect, these seem garish, excessive, a symbol of all the work done in my childhood and adolescence to create the illusion of having money, in spite of the painful reality.

Trade Card, J.R. Pereyra,  Philadelphia,  July, 1803. Courtesy National Museum of American Jewish History.

Is Greed Godly?

Jews may be well represented in the annals of white-collar fraud, but halacha explicitly requires us to be honest, taxpaying citizens.

12/03/2010

Greed,” Jewish stock speculator Ivan Boesky declared in 1985, “is healthy,” a thought echoed by the fictional Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” starring Michael Douglas. It was such a great line, that it was used again in the recent sequel: “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”

Shanghai Jew

Do we have a distinct and identifiable way of doing business?

12/03/2010

On a visit to China in 2005, adopting a baby girl with a contingent of other families, my tour guide pulled me aside toward the end of our trip and popped a question that took me by surprise.

“Are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” I replied somewhat cautiously.

“Shanghai Jew,” he said with an admiring stare.

“You mean the Jews that sought refuge in Shanghai during World War II?” I asked.

“No, it’s a popular expression used in China meaning ‘clever in business.’”

Employees of the Jewish Loan Cassa, Milan,Italy, c. 1948, Courtesy American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

Training the Hand to Give

Money as spiritual practice.

12/03/2010

From my teenage years, an emblematic scene: my mother, at midnight, in her king-sized bed, alone. Her face is tear-stained, and she is surrounded by a crazy patchwork quilt of bills she cannot pay. The scene continues to haunt my brother, an executive at Chevron, so much so that he has confided his secret imaginings. When he finds himself in the lobby of a grand hotel, on the way to his corporate suite, he glances at the corner of the stairwell, somewhat insanely, noting that he might sleep there, for free, if the dark times come again.

Cast iron architectural charity container. Courtesy Moriah Gallery.

‘Where There Is Wealth’

Ragtag Maccabees or conquerors with booty?

12/03/2010

Emma Lazarus, of Statue of Liberty fame, was an ardent Zionist. The second stanza of her “The Feast of Lights,” written for Chanukah, reads:

Remember how from wintry dawn till night,
Such songs were sung in Zion, when again
On the high altar flamed the sacred light,
And, purified from every Syrian stain,
The foam-white walls with golden shields were hung,
With crowns and silken spoils…

Antique Jewish coins, Bronze Prutah of the Procurator of Judea Antonius Felix, circa 52 to 60. Courtesy of Barakat Gallery.

Too Big to Fail in 1930

History’s silence on the Jewish immigrant entrepreneurs
behind the Bank of United States.

12/03/2010

On the morning of Dec. 11, 1930, thousands of people lined Delancey Street to withdraw their savings from the Bank of United States. Rumors had circulated for days that the largest retail bank in New York, with over 440,000 depositors and $300 million in assets, was insolvent.

Front page and back cover of the Bialystoker Stimme,  Nov. 1921.

Material Pursuits

The subject of Jewish money has been a tricky minefield for hundreds of years.

12/03/2010

Did you see that anti-Semitic cover of Time? You know what I mean. The one about peace and Jews and money, which came out just before Rosh HaShanah. Many indignant folks never made it past the cover, with a Star of David made of daisies, and six black boldface words: “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace.” Many who read the text were already scandalized by the second paragraph, where the cover story was pegged to “the fresh round of talks on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Jewish Volksbank building, Ledainiai,Lithuania, 1923. Courtesy of  American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The Red Bridle

Poverty is hardly beautiful, but we are commanded not to look away from it.

12/03/2010

There is a folk saying quoted in the Talmud and Midrash, which some sources even ascribe to Rabbi Akiba, “Poverty is as fitting to the Jews as a red bridle on a white horse.” It’s sweet, if a little fatalistic. Do we really think that poor Jews are so attractive? These days, it is not a small question, as greater and greater numbers of Jews find themselves jobless. That great alphabet soup of Jewish organizations has tightened its collective belt a notch or two, so even our Jewish professionals find themselves scrambling to make a living.

Brass ‘Shul’/Temple-shaped Charity Container. Courtesy Moriah Gallery
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