Thursday, March 13, 2014

Our Crowd by Stephen Birmingham

This richly researched study of an American Jewish aristocracy shows that the USA is truly a land of opportunity, and reinforces the idea that assimilation, the disappearance of Jewish identity is associated with its high society and culture.  Mr. Birmingham traces the fantastic rise of some prominent 19th century German Jewish immigrants from poor beginnings to astronomical wealth.  It is a study of timing and opportunity, being in the right place at the right time with the appropriate ambition and talent.  The family names of Seligman, Lehman, Guggenheim, Schiff, Loeb and Warburg are highlighted in this very readable study.

The Lehmans started out in the South as cotton brokers and survived the Civil War to eventually develop a commodity trading house that evolved into the investment house of Lehman Bros.  The Guggenheims started out peddlers and sold successfully copper polish and eventually developed the mining business in states like Colorado.  Jacob Schiff as a young German immigrant joined the investment banking of Kuhn, Loeb and eventually eclipsed the founders' success as a result of his vision of the railroad industry and representing one the most successful railroad barons.  Joseph Seligman and his brothers started out as pre-Civil War peddlers, yet developed an investment banking house that practically mirrors the famous and most powerful Rothschilds by placing brothers strategically in European cities.

Jacob Schiff's leadership in the Jewish community is so profound that he becomes the address for philanthropy during the wave of massive Eastern European immigration of 1880's through almost the first quarter of the twentieth century.  His rigid principles and integrity serve him well.  WWI, however becomes a curious dilemma for him when he makes a stipulation that his loan to Britain and its allies may not in anyway be utilized by Czarist Russia.  Schiff, angry at Russia's treatment of Jews had loaned money to Japan to successfully win its war against Russia earlier. He can not bring himself to see that such a hard line stipulation would be interpreted as German sympathies.  He is falsely accused of hoping for a German victory.

Otto Kahn, also a partner of Kuhn, Loeb, is an example of opulence and the culture of New York City because he nurses to health the NYC opera company.  According to the book, the street, 5th Ave. of NYC basically begins as a row of Jewish built mansions.

In most of these cases Jewish identity becomes blurred or becomes unimportant with the generations that inherit the incredible wealth.  The lure of materialism and hedonism along with the desire for social acceptance seem to ravage these once religiously identified orthodox Jewish families to become a secular almost Protestant group - when asked about her Jewish identity, one heiress replied that perhaps she was once married by a rabbi.

This book, nevertheless, demonstrates that the USA has been a tremendous land of opportunity open to all and lacks the profound anti-Semitism of European history.  This book shows that some prominent Jews play a key role in building up its cities and developing the culture of America.

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