“The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire”by Adam D. Mendelsohn—Immigrant Successes

the rag race

Mendelsohn, Adam D. “The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire”, (The Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History) NYU Press, 2014.

Immigrant Successes

Amos Lassen

Between 1820 and 1924, America felt a large Jewish immigration. Many of these new Jewish immigrants were poor and really had very small incomes. Today the children of those immigrants are very, very successful. Finding out how this happened is what Adam Mendelsohn tells us in this book. It seems that those Jews are the embodiment of the America dream. We have always wondered how this success from such poor backgrounds came to be— how can we explain their dramatic economic ascent? Have Jews been successful because of cultural factors distinct to them as a group, or because of the particular circumstances that they encountered in America? 

One answer that Mendelsohn discovered was that the Jews who came to America were helped their association with the rag trade. Many Jews became involved with rags and this granted them some success of financial freedom. But there was something else here as well; the rag trade shaped both their societal status and the clothing industry. 

Here we see the differences here in the United States to those that went on in England at the same time. Comparing the history of Jewish participation within the clothing trade in the United States with that of Jews in the same business, we see the social and economic outcomes for Jews in both places. 

Involvement in the clothing trade left a significant legacy for both American economic and modern Jewish history.  I remember all too well how my parents would talk about their friends in the schmatta business. Mendelsohn gives us the connections between that involvement and the economic ascent of Jews in America. Mendelsohn drew his research from the historiographies of Britain, Australia, and the United States and then brings together the different historical threads to give us a wonderful look at the those who were involved in the rag trade. Jews came here after leaving their culture behind in the “old country”.

Jews were able to move from working in the sweatshop to success in other areas and in society. Early differences in Jewish settlement and the structure of the garment trade brought divergent Jewish trajectories in both the United States and Britain. As they made money from their careers, they moved into almost every aspect of American and British life.

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