Those who only know the story of Tevye, the pious Jewish milkman, through the “bittersweet,” “life-affirming” 1964 Tony award-winning musical Fiddler on the Roof or its screen adaptation tend to think of this classic as a celebration “of the timeless traditions that define faith and family.”
But as the Russian-born University of California Berkeley Soviet historian Yuri Slezkine points out, the Sholem Aleichem stories that the musical is based on offer pointed insights into the paths that the children of those who had grown up in the in the shtetls, ghettos, or as itinerant peddlers of the Pale of Settlement pursued into modernity.
Tevye’s five named daughters each pursue a distinct path. One weds a Russian revolutionary, and Jews did make up a disproportionate share of those who became employees of the Soviet state. Another, abandoned by her husband, drowns herself, and many married Jewish women who immigrated to the United States (as many as a tenth in New York City), did find themselves discarded. A third assimilated, marrying a non-Jew. Yet another weds a tailor, and Jews did make up an outsized share of those who became shopkeepers or entrepreneurs.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, post-secondary education has placed a renewed stress on ethnic studies and cross-cultural competence “to build bridges of understanding between people” and “address issues of inequality and bigotry.” A major source of controversy is over what such requirements should include.
A California statute approved by the governor in August 2021, requires all Cal State University undergraduates to take at least one three-unit course with a focus on African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/a Americans and Native Americans. This bill supplants a somewhat similar mandate adopted by the Cal State board of trustees, which called for a three-unit course on ethnic studies and social justice that included Jewish, LGBTQ and disability studies.
At roughly the same time, Northern Arizona University adopted a requirement that its students to take four “diversity perspective” courses, that must include a course in Global Diversity, U.S. Ethnic Diversity, Indigenous Peoples, and Intersectional Identities. Oddly, foreign language courses do not meet any of the diversity course designations.
As colleges and universities seek to prepare students to function effectively in increasingly diverse and globally-interconnected environments, I’d like to argue in behalf of a more inclusive, comparative, historically-informed approach to ethnicity. A recent book by Boston University historian Charles Dellheim, entitled Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern, underscores the power of such an approach.
Dellheim’s rich, deeply engaging, compulsively readable study tells the story of the Jewish art dealers, artists, collectors, patrons, art historians and critics, and connoisseurs who devised the system for buying and selling Old Masters and contemporary art works, who championed modern art, and who ultimately became victims of Nazi plunder.
His is a remarkable tale of figures like Paul Rosenberg and Bernard Berenson whose rise to prominence in the art world was wholly unpredictable, with some beginning their careers literally as junk dealers, horse traders, and small-scale grain merchants. In other words, these individuals were in no way the heirs of the Rothschilds and other moneylenders. Nor did they come from prominent Sephardic families. As Dellheim makes clear, nothing in these people’s past predicted their success in the art world, since “the people of the book” had a historic animus toward visual imagery and artistic icons.
Desperate to achieve financial success and a degree of belonging in their adopted societies, these figures advanced through “hustle,” “scheming,” and even “deception,” “backstabbing,” and “ruthlessness,” and ultimately, against all odds, became arbiters of high culture and attained substantial if precarious status and wealth. Indeed, in Dellheim’s book’s most disconcerting chapter, he examines the evidence of whether Georges Wildenstein, the patriarch of a prominent family of art dealers, collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
The Jewish arts dealers success provoked hostility not just from vicious political antisemites, but from a number of prominent artists including Degas and Renoir.
The larger issue that Dellheim explores in his extraordinary book is the complex connection between Jews, modernity, and modernism. In 1850, Richard Wagner, writing under a pseudonym, published an essay on Jewishness in music, in which the German composer and conductor not only dismissed Jews as incapable of producing works of art that transcended the shallow and derivative — as imitators, parasites, profiteers, and commercializers — but equated Jews as the quintessence of modernity and its ills.
Modernity was not Jewish in any simple sense. Picasso wasn’t Jewish, nor was Matisse (though Modigliani and Chagall were). But Jews did play an outsized role in modernism. Certainly, modern American academic and popular culture is unimaginable without those of Jewish descent. In politics, too, whether socialist or liberal, and in trade unionism, Jews occupied leading positions as theorists and activists.
It is not an accident that a number of the ur texts in modernist literature (including the works of Kafka, Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, and James Joyce’s Ulysses) treated Jews as a embodiments of the modern condition: “urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible.”
Late 18th and 19th century Jewish emancipation gave Jews unprecedented opportunities to migrate to cities or to new countries, enter universities and the professions, and find economic niches that contributed to remarkable degrees of social and economic mobility. Indeed, the Jewish strategies for success— including advancement through education and professionalization, entry into small-scale retailing, and Zionism, and reliance on extended family networks — offered, in the eyes of many prominent Black leaders from Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington to Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, models for emulation – even though in retrospect it’s apparent that these analogies proved to be profoundly misleading.
Dellheim’s account, which combines business history, social history, and cultural and intellectual history, offers a fresh and exciting approach to ethnic studies that moves far beyond the three dominant paradigms: Histories of discrimination and oppression, histories of resistance and struggle, and histories of collective achievement.
Several powerful themes run through this book:
1. The Complexities of Identity
To be regarded as Jewish, an individual did not need to be a believer or to affiliate with a synagogue or temple, engage in Jewish religious practices, or even identify as Jewish. Rather, many of the individuals that Belonging and Betrayal studies were atheists or Christian converts or the children of converts. Yet precisely because they were regarded as Jews by outsiders, Dellheim demonstrates, Jewish identity profoundly influenced their mindset, behavior, and opportunities.
Adding further to the complexity of Jewish identity were divisions within the Jewish community itself, such as Ashkenazi and Sephardic or orthodox and reform, as well as a pervasive impulse to identify with particular national cultures, German, French, British, or American.
2. Cultural Determinism – and its Inadequacies
There’s a tendency to backdate Jewish success in the arts and scholarship to certain cultural dispositions: To unusually high levels of literacy, to traditions of close reading, to extensive experience in various forms of trade. But as the Dellheim book makes clear, some Jewish families embraced the art world not out of cultural traditions, but because it represented one of the few niches that Jews could enter without significant competition from gentiles.
Building on an argument advanced by Thorstein Veblen in a 1919 essay “The Intellectual Pre-Eminence of Jews in Modern Europe,” which attributed Jewish overrepresentation among leading scientists and scholars to their marginal social and academic status and their isolation from existing conventions, Dellheim shows that part of what drove Jewish achievement was somewhat similar to “What Makes Sammy Run,” that go-getting drive and determination that grows out of a complex mixture of marginality, narcissism, self-doubt, even self-hatred, and a desperate drive for achievement and acceptance.
Dellheim’s protagonists’ exceptional drive for success might also be seen, in part, as a secularization of earlier religious impulses. A number of his leading characters found salvation in the religion of art, much as many Jewish scholars sought redemption in the religion of science or social science or literature, and Jewish activists looked for deliverance in the struggle for civil liberties and civil rights or trade unionism or radical politics.
Jewish history should, I think, have a place in any gen ed ethnic studies curriculum, not simply because every student should be aware of the Holocaust or familiar with the full diversity of U.S. society, but because the Jewish experience provides a window into a host of essential issues:
▪ Acculturation and Assimilation
American Jews, like Italian and Irish Americans, we are often told, over time became fully white. Even more than other European immigrant groups, Jews have been financially successful, fully integrated into the mainstream institutions of American society, and disproportionately represented within the dominant establishment.
And yet, Jewish status remains ambiguous. The Jewish electorate votes very differently than the descendants of other European immigrants. At the same time, stereotyping persists, Jews remain the target of most religiously motivated hate crimes, and generalizations about Jewish control of media and banking continue.
Ethnic identity is relational. That is, ethnic groups understanding of themselves hinges on camparisons. There is a great deal to be learned about why Jews in the United States didn’t face the virulent antisemitism found in Europe, and why, in the 20th century, Jews experienced outsized success. Students would benefit enormously from exploring the economic advancement and anti-discrimination strategies pursued by American Jews and whether the experience of certain recent immigrant groups resembles that of Jews.
▪ Jews as Economic and Cultural Intermediaries
Jews, like Armenians, the Parsis in India, the Eta in Ashigaga and Tokugaway Japan, and overseas Chinese, Koreans, Lebanese, and Syrians, occupied a distinctive economic role, serving as economic intermediaries who mediated between dominant and subordinate groups.
Like many other middlemen minorities, a concept originally formulated by the sociologist Edna Bonacich, many Jews served as traders, small-scale merchants, and money lenders, and resided in ethnic enclaves (or ghettoes). Barred from landowning, treated as sojourners or perpetual aliens, and possessing a distinctive vernacular (Yiddish), Jews, like other intermediary groups, were stereotyped and caricatured, as “devious, acquisitive, greedy, crafty, pushy, and crude,” and always remained vulnerable to persecution.
Especially in the United States, many Jews during the 20th century served not just as economic but as cultural intermediaries. As the historian Stephen J. Whitfield has shown, in popular song, comedy musical theater, symphonic music, and film and television, Jews had a disproportionate influence, and, more than any other group, interacted closely with Black American culture.
▪ Cultural Influence
Cultural innovation has, historically, taken place on the margins. Think here of the Scottish Enlightenment of the mid-18th century or of Rap and Disco in the 1970s. Especially in the United States, we need to recognize the ability of small, marginalized groups to shape cultural values, aesthetics, and sensibilities.
But cultural innovation also depends on infrastructure: on the existence of institutions that can popularize, promote, and disseminate innovative forms of cultural expression. As Dellheim decisively demonstrates, the legitimation and triumph of modern art depended on a host of dealers, critics, interpreters, art historians, and gatekeepers who were disproportionately Jewish. This interplay between creators and exponents, propagators, and evangelists is essential to understanding cultural transformation.
The story of Jews has been told in many ways: as a story of displacement and tragedy, and of endurance, creativity, and unexpected success. This was certainly true of Dellheim’s art dealers and patrons, who achieved status and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, only to see their collections pillaged and dispersed. Some of their art works, to be sure, were recovered. Yet, despite public impressions to the contrary, most were not.
We might end this post by asking whether the 21st century has brought an end to what Yuri Slezkine called the Jewish century as a result of assimilation, intermarriage, diminishing birth rates, disaffiliation, ideological rifts, and the allure of competing identities.
It does seem unlikely that Jews will ever again occupy the outsized position that they once held as scholars, theorists, physicians, scientists, playwrights, composers and lyricists, and authors. And yet, the immense contributions of those of Jewish descent to postmodernism and their ongoing contributions to the arts, literature, theater, the sciences and technology certainly suggest that any obituary would be grossly premature.
If we are to truly understand the history and nature of group prejudices, the structural and systematic barriers to success, and collective strategies for economic advancement and civil rights, let’s resist the temptation, at the gen ed level, to relegate the study of ethnicity to distinct enclaves. Inclusive, comparative, and historical perspective are essential.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.