Workers of the Diaspora

Workers of the Diaspora

BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
Jewish Workers in the
Modern Diaspora

Nancy L. Green, ed.
University of California Press, 1998 256 pp
$40 cloth $14.95 paper

Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work:
A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York

by Nancy L. Green
Duke University Press, 1997 426 pp
$59.95 cloth $19.95 paper

THESE TWO books, both the work of Nancy Green (an American professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris) belong to different genres and each has a very different focus, but it is where they overlap that they are perhaps most interesting. Jewish Workers in the Modern Diaspora is a collection of documents, many translated into English for the first time, selected to give an immediate sense of what day-to-day life was like in the densely packed Jewish quarters of Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Paris, London, and New York in the years 1880-1939. Drawing on newspaper articles, leaflets, poetry, and fiction, it provides an important supplement to The Jew in the Modern World, the by-now standard anthology of Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, which concentrates more on political and intellectual than on social history. In contrast, Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work is a monograph in which Green compares the history of the garment industry (with emphasis on women’s clothing) in New York and Paris from the late nineteenth century until today. Equipped with an impressive scholarly apparatus, Ready-to-Wear is a readable history with a happy minimum of social science jargon. Mixing technical and statistical detail with local color, it belongs to the same species (to take a classic example) as David Landes’s history of the Swiss watch industry, Revolution in Time.

Both of Green’s books revolve around a shared fulcrum: the mass migration of the Jews from Eastern Europe and their proletarianization in the burgeoning cities of the West. In the one case, the immigrant experience is set in the context of modern Jewish history; and in the other it is taken as a salient example of how wave after wave of migrants have fed into, and been fed by, the garment industry in the two world centers of ladies’ fashion: Paris and New York City. Or, as Green puts it, the Jewish tailor can serve as “a metaphor for other immigrants in the garment labor market.”

BASED ON a consistently comparative approach, the two works are designed to highlight both similarity and difference, whether within the increasingly dispersed Jewish diaspora or within the ever-lengthening line of migrations to the West from across the globe. Set against this backdrop, the sheer scale of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe is astonishing. Proportionately, the only other exodus from Europe that surpassed it was that of the Catholic population from Ireland. Four million Jews moved westward between 1830 and 192...


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