On March 18, 1986, New York City’s Landmark Commission granted landmark status to the Jewish Daily Forward Building on East Broadway. Resisting the city’s gentrification trend, the commission argued for the Forward building’s preservation in light of the deep imprint left by the newspaper it published, The Jewish Daily Forward, on its neighborhood and the larger city. The Yiddish newspaper published in the Forward building, claimed over two hundred thousand readers in the 1920s, and was the most widely read foreign-language newspaper in New York and throughout United States. As it shared the news, this newspaper also sought to persuade Jewish immigrants to embrace socialism and to fight to reform America’s capitalist ethos. The Forward Building stood as a testament to the impact of Jewish immigrants and their leftist political agendas on the very landscape of American capitalism.
As the Landmark Commission noted, built to a towering height of twelve stories in 1912, the Forward Building was intentionally designed to overshadow the first “skyscraper” of the Jewish Lower East Side, Sender Jarmulowsky’s bank. Several blocks away, the rusticated limestone, twelve-story Jarmulowsky Bank—called the Temple of Capitalism for the easy credit it offered to immigrants seeking to buy businesses, real estate, or ship tickets—stood as a symbol of the great promise of American capitalism and the gifts it bestowed on those who embraced its risky ways. The editorial board of The Jewish Daily Forward did not believe that American capitalism in its present form could be harnessed for the greater good. Nor did it want its readers to see the Jarmulowsky Bank as the brightest beacon on the Lower East Side. Thus, as the commission report emphasized, the Forward took great care to ensure that “the heights of its new office building . . . [cast a long shadow over] Sender Jarmulowsky’s bank, capitalism’s major monument on the Lower East Side.”
The two buildings represented the debate concerning how Jews should engage American capitalism. The debate remains inscribed on the landscape of the Lower East Side. Many scholars have examined Jewish immigrants’ critical participation in socialist politics in America, but far fewer have considered the role Jews played in the practical development of American capitalism through their numerous banks, business ventures, and other financial enterprises. Sender Jarmulowsky’s bank was one of many businesses developed by Jewish immigrants as they inserted themselves into America’s economy. His bank not only inspired many Jews to believe in the promise of American capitalism, but it also formatively shaped how banking regulators thought about commercial banking and immigrant entrepreneurs in early-twentieth century America. Far from operating on the margins, Sender Jarmulowsky’s bank and its failure in 1914 would reshape the practice of commercial banking in New York City, the financial capital of the United States.
Werner Sombart (1863–1941) would be surprised by the scant attention paid to Jewish entrepreneurs like Jarmulowsky, who embraced capitalism, in the annals of American Jewish history. Over a century ago, the German sociologist and economist marveled at two remarkable “exceptionalisms” in the world: America’s exceptional development into an industrial juggernaut and Jews’ exceptional talent for capitalist endeavors. Sombart wondered why, despite the rapid growth and economic inequality, the United States and its capitalist system did not nurture a mass socialist movement among its working class like its counterparts in Europe. He asked: What exceptional forces made workers in the United States seem more content and less inclined to protest their condition? Equally exceptional in Sombart’s eyes was the unique role of the Jews in the development and expansion of capitalism in Europe. Revising Max Weber’s vision of capitalism as linked to Protestant ethics, Sombart contended that Jews’ intrinsic proclivities made them central pioneers in the creation of modern capitalism.
Perhaps it was the anti-Semitic overtones of Sombart’s writings that discouraged the study of the specific patterns and strategies utilized by Jews in their encounter with America’s dynamic economy. No one looked closely specifically at how Jews made money or how they pursued earning a living in America. Where scholars shied away from exploring the ways in which Jews shaped American capitalism in the early twentieth century, journalists appear to have been fascinated by the topic as exemplified by Fortune Magazine’s 1936 survey of Jewish economic activity in America. Responding in veiled ways to Sombart’s claims, the article concluded that “there is no basis whatever for the suggestion that Jews monopolize U.S. business and industry.” Jewish participation in the American economy took place in a few limited industries such as clothing manufacturing, retail, entertainment, and scrap metal collection. Fortune acknowledged that in their marginal niches Jews “were highly visible.” For example, Jews constituted just under 4% of the population of the United States in 1936, but they constituted 90% of participants in the scrap iron industry; 95% of the entrepreneurs in waste management of nonferrous scrap metal, paper, cotton rag, and rubber; 85% of owners of factories specializing in the manufacture of men’s clothing and 95% in women’s clothing. Through these niches, immigrant Jews left their imprint on the contours of American capital.
Since Fortune conducted this survey over seventy years ago, few others have ventured to analyze or ponder the specific niches or ways in which Jews molded America’s distinctive type of capitalism. Did Jews alter the course of American capitalist development, as Sombart argued Jews had done in Europe? Perhaps they did not alter it as much as Sombart claimed, but Jews played a critical role in molding certain sectors of the economy, enabling some to ascend into America’s middle and upper class with astonishing speed. How and with what methods and strategies did the masses seek to achieve mobility? How did men like Sender Jarmulowsky amass enough capital to build the first “skyscaper” for the Jewish Lower East Side?
One can start looking at the streets and concrete constructions of the Lower East Side. There, Sender Jarmulowsky’s bank and the Forward Building—both landmarks completed in 1912—bear testament to the divergent approach of Jewish immigrants to American capital. In the years following the erection of these buildings, many Jews took to the streets to strike and form unions; but equally as many invested in real estate, founded sweatshops, or formed new businesses ventures. By the mid-twentieth century, American capitalism would be reconfigured by war and emergence of the United States as a superpower. But we cannot forget, as these buildings demonstrate, that the immigrant Jewish experience offers fresh perspectives on the contested trajectory of American capitalism in the early twentieth century.