Honorable Mention, 2019 Saul Viener Book Prize, given by the American Jewish Historical Society
A vivid history of the American Jewish merchants who concentrated in the nation’s most important economic sector
In the nineteenth century, Jewish merchants created a thriving niche economy in the United States’ most important industry—cotton—positioning themselves at the forefront of expansion during the Reconstruction Era. Jewish success in the cotton industry was transformative for both Jewish communities and their development, and for the broader economic restructuring of the South. Cotton Capitalists analyzes this niche economy and reveals its origins. Michael R. Cohen argues that Jewish merchants’ status as a minority fueled their success by fostering ethnic networks of trust. Trust in the nineteenth century was the cornerstone of economic transactions, and this trust was largely fostered by ethnicity. Much as money flowed along ethnic lines between Anglo-American banks, Jewish merchants in the Gulf South used their own ethnic ties with other Jewish-owned firms in New York, as well as Jewish investors across the globe, to capitalize their businesses. They relied on these family connections to direct Northern credit and goods to the war-torn South, avoiding the constraints of the anti-Jewish prejudices which had previously denied them access to credit, allowing them to survive economic downturns.
These American Jewish merchants reveal that ethnicity matters in the development of global capitalism. Ethnic minorities are and have frequently been at the forefront of entrepreneurship, finding innovative ways to expand narrow sectors of the economy. While this was certainly the case for Jews, it has also been true for other immigrant groups more broadly. The story of Jews in the American cotton trade is far more than the story of American Jewish success and integration—it is the story of the role of ethnicity in the development of global capitalism.
"Michael R Cohen's...well-written book, reveals how the incomers familial and, so to speak, tribal links with northern financiers and others across the world, modernised business in the South indeed, that these few hundred Jews played a key role in building the cotton economy of the South towards its crescendo in the 19th and 20th." ~The Jewish Chronicle
"This model study exposes the previously unknown Jewish ethnic network that filled a critical niche in the southern cotton trade during the second half of the nineteenth century. A major contribution with broad implications for students of economic history, Jewish history, and the history of the American South." ~Jonathan D. Sarna, author of When General Grant Expelled the Jews
"Historian Cohen (Tulane) presents a different perspective, examining the role of Jewish merchants in the antebellum South as they transitioned from peddlers to shopkeepers and extended credit and goods to local cotton producers[Making] excellent use of the R. G. Dun credit reports and the American Jewish Archives, Cohen effectively argues that ethnic networks were important to these small Jewish businesses as they participated in the cotton economy." ~Choice
"For a few decades after the Civil War, Jewish Americans played a key role in the southern cotton economy, infusing European and New York capital into the fields of a region still devastated by war, while organizing the trade in a crop central to the nation. Charting the rise and fall of this southern cotton complex, Cohen emphasizes the role of dense ethnic networks in fostering the all-important trust in which trade and credit were embedded. An important contribution to American economic history." ~Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton
"Michael Cohen masterfully narrates how Jewish merchants provided much needed credit in the South following the Civil War. This eloquent study reminds us that we cannot fully understand the Souths economic revival in the age of reconstruction without looking at the critical role played by immigrant Jewish merchants." ~Rebecca Kobrin, Knapp Associate Professor of American Jewish History, Columbia University
Solomon Schechter (1847–1915), the charismatic leader of New York's Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), came to America in 1902 intent on revitalizing traditional Judaism. While he advocated a return to traditional practices, Schechter articulated no clear position on divisive issues, instead preferring to focus on similarities that could unite American Jewry under a broad message. Michael R. Cohen demonstrates how Schechter, unable to implement his vision on his own, turned to his disciples, rabbinical students and alumni of JTS, to shape his movement. By midcentury, Conservative Judaism had become the largest American Jewish grouping in the United States, guided by Schechter's disciples and their continuing efforts to embrace diversity while eschewing divisive debates.
Yet Conservative Judaism's fluid boundaries also proved problematic for the movement, frustrating many rabbis who wanted a single platform to define their beliefs. Cohen demonstrates how a legacy of tension between diversity and boundaries now lies at the heart of Conservative Judaism's modern struggle for relevance. His analysis explicates four key claims: that Conservative Judaism's clergy, not its laity or Seminary, created and shaped the movement; that diversity was―and still is―a crucial component of the success and failure of new American religions; that the Conservative movement's contemporary struggle for self-definition is tied to its origins; and that the porous boundaries between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism reflect the complexity of the American Jewish landscape―a fact that Schechter and his disciples keenly understood. Rectifying misconceptions in previous accounts of Conservative Judaism's emergence, Cohen's study enables a fresh encounter with a unique religious phenomenon.
This path-breaking and provocative volume challenges Conservative Judaism's founding myth and rewrites its subsequent history. The most important study of early Conservative Judaism in more than half-a-century, it should be required reading for all students of American Judaism and for anyone who cares about the Conservative movement's past, present, and future. Jonathan D. Sarna, Brandeis University, author of American Judaism: A History
An insightful work of social history grounded in diligent archival research. Michael R. Cohen explores the mission, trials, achievements, and frustrations of the rabbis who gave birth to the Conservative Movement in American Judaism. He exposes the challenges a Jewish religious group faced in molding a faith community, respectful of tradition yet attuned to the demands of modern society. Jeffrey S. Gurock, Yeshiva University
Conservative Judaism has found its historian for the twenty-first century. In The Birth of Conservative Judaism, Michael R. Cohen has written a boldly argued, lucid history of the origins of what he rightly calls a new American religious movement. Repudiating earlier historians who retrojected Conservatism's origins to nineteenth-century Europe or to acculturating immigrants, Cohen turns our gaze to where it should have been all along—to the charismatic teacher Solomon Schechter and the generation of rabbis he trained to perpetuate his vision and forge a new path into the future of American Judaism. Pamela S. Nadell, American University
A fascinating new history Lawrence Grossman, Jewish Ideas Daily
...should quickly become the standard work on the emergence of the movement. Matthew Lagrone, H-Judaic
In this first book, Cohen distinguishes himself as an innovative and significant young scholar of American Judaism. Jonathan B. Krasner, American Historical Review
Cohen's arguments are complex, subtle, and based on a careful reading of the sources. Religious Studies Review