Monday, September 29, 2014

From Court Jew to Head of the Fed1,2

   As is well known,  Jews in just about all European countries, from the Middle Ages well into the 19th century, were not permitted to own land, thus barring them from becoming farmers; nor were they admitted into guilds, the necessary portals to the crafts and professions of the times.  So, faute de mieux, Jews became merchants—many on a small scale functioning locally, with a minority becoming serious businessmen engaged in long-distance trade.  Some of the latter came to serve members of the nobility high and low, thus becoming what came to be known as Court Jews. 
   An important function of most Court Jews was to secure loans for their bosses, since Christians were forbidden to charge interest, a prohibition partly based on a variety of not all that univocal Biblical passages, partly inspired—via the Scholastics—by Aristotle who had declared that money is sterile and not at all like cows who beget more cows.
   The status of Court Jews was privileged, if only because they were exempted from many of the restrictions everywhere imposed upon Jews.  But their lives were also precarious, dependent as they were on masters who were in debt to them, with more than one Court Jew tried for (mostly) presumed crimes and jailed or executed.
   Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) may not have been the first Court Jew to distance himself from his court by founding a bank, but he is surely the most important.  Ranked 7th in the Forbes list of the 20 most influential businessmen of all time, not only for founding the House of Rothschild—with branches in London, Paris, Vienna and Naples, already during his own lifetime—but for his insight into the principles of banking, “introducing such concepts as diversification, rapid communication, confidentiality and high volume.”
   If the Jewish banker was thus born, he flourished as late as the middle of the 19th century, when Bismarck, Prussia’s capo, acquired his own banker, Gerson von Bleichröder, recommended by a Rothschild who was not available because he served rival Austria.  Under the leadership of his boss, this latter-day Court Jew not only oversaw Prussia’s financial affairs, but was crucially active in the unification of Germany.
   Was he the last in the line of Court Jews?  Yes and no.  Today, in the New World, the equivalent role of national banker is the head of the Fed, or, more formally, the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.  Shortly, Ms. Janet Yellen will assume that office.  As the 15th head of the Fed, she will crown a distinguished academic career to become the first woman in that job,  but also the sixth who is Jewish.
   Before commenting on the role of  today’s descendents of the banker as Court Jew a brief account of those six will be needed.  The first Jewish chairman of the Fed was Eugene Meyer (1930-1933), son of Alsatian Jews who bought the Washington Post after leaving that position, to be followed as its publisher by Phil Graham, the husband of his daughter, Katharine, who assumed that role after Phil’s death.
   The second Jewish head of the Fed was Arthur Burns (1970-78) born in Galicia (with the name Burnseig) who, precociously,  translated the Talmud into Polish and Russian at the age of 6, if the Wikipedia article is to be believed.  He is the first who came to the Fed job after a career in the academy, where he notably persuaded his Rutgers student, Milton Friedman, to pursue the study of economics.
   The third Jewish Fed chairman is Paul Volcker (1979-1987), although that might be considered a case of cheating, since Judaism can claim him only on technical grounds.  Volcker’s father was not Jewish nor was he brought up as a Jew.  But since his mother was born Jewish and according to Jewish law children inherit that ethnicity from their mother, he can be claimed as a Jew, according to one way of reckoning.  Volcker’s classy education did not induce him into an academic career, but led him to a number of private sector and government roles before becoming the inflation killer as head of the Feds.
   The successor to Volcker, Alan Greenspan (1987-2006) missed by a few months the distinction of having served the longest in that position.  He and I would have been classmates at George Washington High School in Manhattan, had I not opted for the shops of Brooklyn Tech.  For a while, Greenspan studied economics under Arthur Burns at Columbia, but later received his PhD from New York University.  Like his predecessor, he did not follow an academic career, but served as consultant and in high-level posts in Republican administrations before being appointed to head the Fed by President Reagan.
   Ben Shalom Bernanke was brought up in Dillon, SC, in one of very few Jewish families of a town with fewer than 7,000 inhabitants.  After the local high school, however, came Harvard and doctoral studies under a group of economics stars at MIT, leading to a thoroughly academic career that concluded after six years of the economics chairmanship at Princeton.  Like Alan Greenspan, Bernanke was appointed to chair the Fed by both a Republican and a Democratic administration.
   Brooklyn-born Janet Yellen, to take over the Fed in 2014,  also had a distinguished academic career, most significantly at the University of California at Berkeley, combined with various economics-related governmental posts, most recently as second in command of the institution she will now head.
      In a way, these six—or five-and-a half—are Court Jews, smart, self-made energetic if not downright driven.  Not they so much, but the “Court” has become very different.  The current bankers are no longer high class servants of the rulers of the day, but, as servants of the commonweal, they are related in complex ways to more than one contemporary institution.  Appointed by a president, most likely after having been approved by his Treasury Secretary and subject to confirmation by the Senate of the United States.  Once in office, though immensely influential, the Chairman of the Fed—will it henceforth be the Chairperson?—oversees a Board of Governors no member of which is a patsy.  And, finally, that powerful officer has to deal with institutions that Meyer Amschel Rothschild did not have to be concerned with: a vigilant press and an alert and vocal Congress and public.
   Forty percent of all heads of the Fed have been Jewish.  Not surprisingly, that has led to a certain amount of anti-Semitic chatter.  But this state if affairs would be better seen as the distillate of more than a thousand years of anti-Semitism that prevented Jews from assuming many of the  professions they might have chosen, pushing some of them to become merchants and bankers.  Deeply ingrained habits die hard.
1Written December 2013
2 For a quite different look at how Jews made a living, see the next post, “My Son the Doctor.”

My Son the Doctor
I am reading a book about shtetls in the Ukraine during the Soviet period, a good deal of it based on extensive interviews with 95 people, a small number born before 1920, just about all the others after 1920 and through the 1930s.[1] I’m nowhere near done with it—my Kindle says I’m at 22%[2]--but it has already served to raise my consciousness, as it was put in the 1960s, that is, made me fully aware of something that I knew but was never focused on. I’m referring to the way in which Jews are typecast—not just by non-Jews, but by Jews themselves.
   Last December I wrote a piece “From Court Jew to Head of the Fed,” that makes use of such a stereotype. While it has now been posted, let me here say briefly that it traces—lightly—the role of Jews as bankers at European courts to the founder of the house of Rothschild to the six Jewish heads of the Federal Reserve. Lord knows that it was and is common to regard Jews as practitioners of a variety of “trades” that centered on money, with two causes prominent: they could not own land—and could thus not be farmers—and they were not admitted into the guilds—and therefore were unable to be craftsmen.
   All that is true enough, but, and this is now important to note, for a limited piece of geography. Not being a historian of the Jewish people (or a historian of anything else, for that matter) I see things from the perspective of the locale about which I know a little, Western Europe, especially Germany—or, rather its predecessor states, since there was no Germany until 1871. Now I read about the concentration of Jews in those little towns always referred to in Yiddish as shtetl, which to me, as a speaker of German, sounds just like Städtle, for “little town.” There, according to an 1926 ethnographic report about a number of shtetls, the Jews “were working as stonemasons, coachmen, carpenters, bathhouse attendants” but also “as street beggars, ex-convicts, ex-convicts, prostitutes, pimps, an entire mass of petty and even pettier trades . . . and two or three wealthy people.”[3]  
   While the entire chapter discusses what shtetl Jews did for a living, the account of the so-called Tulchyn district gives some revealing statistics. “Within the general category of artisans, certain handicraft fields . . . were overwhelmingly dominated by Jews: 132 of 144 barbers were Jewish (92 percent); 108 of 140 coopers (75 percent); 80 of 82 glaziers (98 percent) 102 out of 141 coachmen (72 percent); and 1,372 of 1,639 tailors (84 percent).” There were also Jewish professionals—lawyers, judges, doctors, dentists—but the numbers are very small compared to those of artisans. The entire chapter expands on the same theme, looking at different areas: a great many artisans, a handful of professionals and only a tiny number of agricultural workers.
   There is no talk of guilds anywhere. At a young age, the kids began to learn their trades from their fathers. Crafts tended to be family affairs. That was one reason why the home, usually small and crowded, also served as the place of work, the second reason being the almost pervasive shtetl poverty.
   Indeed, poverty and persecution were the causes of massive immigration from Eastern Europe to America. This is how what came to be known as The Lower East Side in Manhattan was populated to the gills, so to speak. A Yale-New Haven Curriculum Unit puts it well: From The Shtetl To The Tenement . . .1850 – 1925. And Veidlinger points out that that is where, earlier than the period of his study, ambitious shtetl-dwellers had gone to become educated and move up in the world. Not a large fraction of the original arrivals made it beyond becoming garment works and shopkeepers. Delancey Street was not teeming with professionals during the first quarter of the 20th century.
   But some of the next generation and more of the one after that moved to other sections of New York City and to its suburbs. They were able to do so, thanks to the fact that they had come to the land of opportunity, which here meant, above all, schooling. In those days the City Colleges: CCNY, Brooklyn College and the rest did not charge tuition and everyone with a good high school record was admitted. (Really good, but not necessarily spectacular.) Thus a certain level of smarts and Sitzfleisch for studying got you a bachelor degree. Many of my high school teachers in the early 40s were Jewish and Italian, probably second generation arrivals in America.
   And others became accountants, lawyers, and of course, physicians. From shtetl barbers and glaziers, working out of a poor hovel of a home to airy apartments in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, and on the upper West Side of Manhattan. No, there has not yet been a Jewish president, but it is not surprising that mother should be proud of her son the doctor. Surely that joke of endless variations is the descendent of the East European shtetl via the tenements of Hester and Essex Streets and the shops of Downtown Second Avenue.

A Jewish President calls mom and asks her to come to the White House for a Passover Seder. She would rather not and refuses to go. The President, her son, says she will get Secret Service escort and a ride in Air Force One - just pack a bag. Eventually she agrees to come. At the curbside with her luggage, waiting for the Secret Service, her neighbor asks; "So; where are you going?" "You know my son the doctor; I'm going to his brother’s house."

[1] Jeffrey Veidlinger, In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
[2] Still, I’m further along than that suggests, since 100% often takes you far beyond a book’s text, through notes, appendices, and a many-page index.
[3] The quotation is from the beginning of Chapter 3, “Social Structure of the Soviet Shtetl” with the first section entitled “There were Such Great Tailors.”

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Book to Come

   I’ve been pulled away from tending my blog by an exciting project. When my mother passed away in 1989, a small box with letters, labeled “Rudy" came into my possession. I was too busy to look into it then and subsequently forgot it. Still, it moved with me to Mexico more than two years ago and a couple of months ago I actually looked into that box. What I found, among less interesting items, were 148 letters I had written home to my parents during the year I was in the United States Navy, July 1945 to July 1946, when I was eighteen and then nineteen years old. My father, who was a very orderly person, had collected them—in their envelopes—and put them more or less in order. Imagine, one hundred and forty-eight letters sent in the course of one year!
   But that large number is not the only thing that surprised me. To start at the bottom: the handwriting—I had access to a typewriter only infrequently—is very legible; it was then much better than it is now. Second, those letters are well-written: mostly correct spelling, mostly whole sentences, indeed, literate. They are a testimony to my high school education. I had graduated from Brooklyn Tech(nical High School) just before my stint in the Navy and even though my chief  interest there was in various shops I took in the so-called Mechanical Course, we had to do a fair bit of writing. And the only way you learn to write is by writing. Finally, those letters are surprisingly interesting. They give an account of life in the Navy, from boot camp, at the end of World War II,  and to my very varied doings after training.
   I soon resolved to publish the letters as a book. They are now all transcribed and have been lightly sprinkled with footnotes to explain those references that I could recall.
   Now and then I wrote in German—the very first letter begins with a lengthy German paragraph; I've translated all the German in footnotes. It was only six years since my family had arrived in New York from Heidelberg and Nazi persecution of Jews. While English soon became my best language, even if not my first, the same cannot be said of my parents, who were plus and minus forty years old when hit by English, not a mere twelve, as I was.
   This forthcoming book—its working title is A Sailor Writes Home from His Time in the U.S. Navy  (subtitle:) Letters of 1945-1946: Aftermath of World War II (suggestions most welcome) should be of some interest--almost three quarters of a century after the events described. Or so I hope, because I was lucky to have quite a varied, if short, “career” in the Navy. I  here give only a brief overview.
   From boot camp I was sent to Chicago for some schooling from which I signed out so I could see something of the world. For my glances at different places I was shipped to China—among many other new recruits, to replace sailors who had served long stretches during the war. The LST 919 became my new home, so that I participated in its various missions in the China Sea, until we journeyed homeward from Taku with a “load” of Marines who had been stationed in China. From San Diego, where we landed, to the Puget Sound where did all the dismantling that needed to be done before the ship could be decommissioned. While the 919 went this way, I went that way, sent back to Long Island where I was discharged.
   My job aboard ship was that of a Quartermaster and there are numerous accounts of what I did in the wheelhouse of the LST. But since even in the Navy life isn’t all work, but includes play, my letters also give accounts of sessions of liberty—that allowed me to go to the opera in Chicago and to have minor adventures on shore in various cities in China and finally in Seattle and environs. I was never bored during my Navy year  and when those letters come out as a book—as both my first and my last one, to quote the paradox that opens my draft of the introduction—I am hopeful that its readers won’t be bored either.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Women in Art

   After a forty-year reign of Milton Esterow, ARTnews has become ARTNEWS. With her first issue (September 2014), the new editor-in-chief, Sarah Douglas, has also launched a very handsome new design. Much hangs from the fact that the magazine is now three quarters of an inch wider, giving ARTNEWS a classier look and feel. Gone are pages with three narrow columns.  The pervasive format now is a page with two columns that are a bit wider than in the prior layout: calmer, easier on the eye. Gone, too, are quite large and very black headlines; they have been replaced by classy capitals, big enough at five sixteenth of an inch to stand out, even though they are elegantly slim. There are other modifications going in the same direction; even the ads—of which there are of course many—strike me as calmer. The new totality is quieter without being reticent and very handsome. The new broom has swept well.
   Because of the new look I went through the issue more alertly, even though Ms. Douglas noted in her Editor’s Letter that its content had been determined before she came aboard. In doing so, I became fully conscious of a fact of which I had been vaguely aware before this. Let me get to my point by citing a few statistics.
   The September 2014 issue consists of thirty-six articles and reviews that are signed by their authors. Of these, twenty-nine were written by seventeen women, since five of the authors wrote more than one piece, with Barbara Pollack and Barbara MacAdam, ARTnews old timers, writing five of them between them. Seven of the articles were written by men, with none writing more than one. To show that I can do elementary arithmetic, this comes to 80.5+% feminine authorship, compared to 19.4+% pieces written by males.
   This ratio is very similar to that put before us by journalists and others who keep track of ratios of male and female incumbents in leading roles: CEOs, engineers, etc.  Except! that the sexes (OK: genders) are reversed. Here, for art reporting, the big number holds for women.
   My explanation for this fact—for what it’s worth—is not very flattering to the cadre who are doing such a splendid job reporting on what goes on in the world of art. There are vastly more female elementary school teachers than there are men in those jobs. It’s a fair analogy, even if the reasons are not cheerful. Both jobs call for a considerable amount of competence, if different, to be sure, and dedication. Neither, however, is paid all that well; indeed, neither job may pay enough to afford a life of reasonable comfort. So, I have no doubt—without having any actual knowledge—that a significant portion of those teachers and art reporters are what used to be called second earners. While I am ignorant of the background of most of the male authors, I’d bet that writing for ARTNEWS is for them not what they actually live on. There is room for progress!
   On a related front, it was good to see that Linda Nochlin’s upbeat interview thirty-six years after her famous 1971 ARTnews article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In the extensive conversation with Barbara MacAdam—for years associated with that publication and now co-executive editor. Find that conversation here: It’s not just that Linda (we were colleagues at Vassar many moons ago) has mellowed, but, as you’d expect, she was totally au courant with the art scene of the day (the conversation took place in 2007). Maybe she had notes in front of her, but whether or not, her recital of a great many women artists now at work was impressive. She didn’t simply rattle off a lot of names, but characterized the work of most of the ones she mentioned. The upshot—not really news for a reasonably alert observer of the art scene—was a picture of a lively and very varied population of women artists.
   Has the millennium of gender equality been reached? No, not as yet. The vast majority of those who buy works of art are men who express their attitude by paying higher prices for their purchases when the creators are men than they do for the work of women artists.

   Finally, Linda Nochlin did not promote any of the post-1971 women artists into the “great” category that was the subject of her original article. But in many ways, her optimism in that interview makes that issue moot. It is clear—though she did not say so—that she thinks the structural reasons that, through decades, indeed centuries, prevented (or made it extremely unlikely) for a great woman artist to emerge have largely if not entirely disappeared. If so, that’s the good news. But alas, the removal of obstacles is only a necessary condition for bringing about such a desired goal. The sufficient condition for the appearance of a great woman artist is to have a female genius be born. And that is beyond anyone’s control. Even Rembrandt’s parents were just lucky.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Israel:  The Alternatives to a Two-State Solution

   Various sources report that Benjamin Netanyahu is still in favor of a two-state solution, tepidly.  For him that means: the longer it takes to come to pass the better.  Given the endless impasse in the road toward that two-state agreement, it becomes appropriate to consider what would be the case were that second state, the Palestinian one, never to come about.
   There are two possibilities.  The first is a true binational state.  It would give Palestinians more or less equal political roles: Netanyahu and Abbas (or their successors) colleagues, so to speak?  That is not likely to happen.  But if, however improbably, it were actually to come about, the differential in birthrates would at some time in the future convert Israel, the Jewish state, into an Arab state—with a Jewish minority.  That would be déjà vu all over again, since before the creation of Israel, that had been the case for Jews everywhere since ancient times.
   The population pressure would not be eliminated if the current “arrangement” drifted into a One State “solution” (scare quotes most appropriate!) dominated, as is the case now, by the Jewish component.  The Palestinians, as is the case now, would continue to chafe under such conditions and would be highly likely to combat it in various ways, violent and otherwise, rather than become resigned and take significant steps to improve their lot, economically and in other spheres of life.  Moreover, it might well be advantageous for them to put their victimhood front and center, since there are significant signs now that they are the recipients of sympathy from an ever larger portion of the rest of the world.  While this sympathy is unlikely to be converted into significant material advantages for the Palestinians, it will certainly increase markedly the world’s hostility toward the Jewish rulers of such a skew bi-national Israel.

   It is time for Netanyahu and other Jewish leaders who put obstacles in the way of that Two-State solution—especially by continuing the practice of “settlements” (scare quotes because that mild term masks the perniciousness of the practice)—to confront what would happen if the Two-State solution were not to bring to a conclusion the long-running strife in the Middle East.