Jewish economic history—too long stigmatized—opens up surprising insights into the past, and the present too.
When I began the research that would eventually lead to the publication of Money, Power, and Influence in Eighteenth-Century Lithuania—a study of the Jews’ economic past in eastern Europe—I felt as if I was swimming against the tide in the study of Jewish history. The field I was working in, Jewish economic history, had been in the doldrums since the mid-twentieth century. The use of economic motifs in the vicious anti-Semitic propaganda that led up to the Holocaust had made it a topic that many felt too hot to handle. Moreover, the rise in popularity of first social and then cultural history had opened new vistas in understanding the complexities of Jewish non-Jewish interaction in the Diaspora that seemed to render insignificant issues of the Jews’ economic life.
I was convinced that this was not the case. I believed (and still do) that the study of Jewish economic life is a key field through which to examine the relations which developed between Jews and surrounding societies. This is because an integral aspect of most economic activity is that it engages the individual in a broad network of relationships and interests. The line stretching from owner of the means of production to producer, and from there to distributor (and those servicing the market), and thence to consumer, is often a very long one. It crosses and re-crosses seemingly impenetrable social barriers of class, ethnicity, religion, and gender (not to mention physical segregation where that exists), connecting those it touches in the most natural way. The study of Jewish economic history is therefore a means of understanding one of the most important mechanisms of social integration that functioned wherever Jews lived—even in societies where their integration was frowned upon.
The study of Jewish economic life is a key field through which to examine the relations which developed between Jews and surrounding societies.