Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Rest of Us The Rise of America's Eastern European Jews by Stephen Birmingham (1999)

Patterns of Jewish Immigration to the USA (from                                                                   
DatesPeriodNumber of Immigrants
1654–1838Colonial/federalFewer than 15,000
1838–80German emigration250,000
1881–1924Eastern European emigration2,000,000
1945–60Holocaust survivors250,000

The first big wave of Jewish immigrants to America were from Germany.  In Our Crowd The Great Jewish Families of New York City Stephen Birmingham  (1932 to 2015, USA) chronicled the accession of German Jews, often coming with little more than the clothes on their backs, to great wealth.  One thing I have learned in reading the works of writers like Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Iréne Nemirosky is that German, so called European Jews meaning largely those from Germany and the Austro-Hungrain Empire were a bit embarrassed by Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia, who often spoke only Yiddish and Bimingham certainly confirms this attitude.

The fate of Jews in Russia, as documented by Birmingham, rose and fell with the changing attitudes of the government, often brought on my a new Czar.  At times Jews, confined to living only in certain parts of Russia, were left relatively alone, at times they were subject to terrible restrictions and bloody pograms.  In 1881 Russia entered into a very anti-Semetic period.  To migrate out of the country, leaving all you knew, was a terrible gamble taken by most Russian Jews only when life was intolerable in their home country.  Between 1881 and 1915 about two million Russian Jews immigrated to the USA, most all came in through Ellis Island and stayed in New York City.  Jews settled in the Lower East Side of the city.  Soon their were Yiddish newspapers, theaters, and stores catering to their needs.

Birmingham's books concentrate on the rich but he does a good job of bringing the rough poor streets of the lower East side to life.  He tells the story of the Russian immigrants through focusing on individuals who through hard work, determination, luck and pluck became very wealthy.  

The first mode of business for a Russian Jew, a man would often come alone and bring his family when he could pay their passage, was often the pushcart.  It was a business you could start with just a little capital.  

Soon many vendors had fixed stalls then the more sucessful had small stores some of which grew into giant department stores.  

One of the focus of Birmingham is on the role of the Russian Jewish immigrants in the entertainment industry. Here he focuses on David Sarnoff.   We learn of the rise of early motion picture moguls Louis Meyer and Samuel Goldwyn.

There is a fascinating chapter on the role of Russian immigrants in the alcohol business.  I learned how Seagrams Seven was named!  In any place like the Lower East Side where people are from a culture that did not put much faith in or even feared the police, gangsters stepped up to provide protection. Birmingham focuses on the career of Meyer Lansky.  

I was happy to see he mentioned Helena Rubenstein.  She migrated from a Polish shtetl to Australia but became very rich selling her beauty cream in New York City with the help of Russian Jewish backers,  I not long ago read and posted on a very good biography of Rubenstein and everything Birmingham said about her was in accord with her biography.  This made me feel he probably had most of his other facts right.

The Rest of Us is very well written and a pleasure to read.  It does focus on Russian Jewish immigrants who became rich but all those interested in Jewish and American history will profit from this book.

This book is published by Open Road Media.  The next time you are looking for something to read, especially if you prefer E reading as I do, take a look at their very well done webpage.  They have on offer books by over 2000 authors, all very well described and fairly priced.

They offer all of Stephen Birmingham's books.

Mel u

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