I was in the mood for a little Jewish history so I used Overdrive to borrow an ebook of Stephen Birmingham’s “The Rest of Us”: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews. Originally published in 1984, a Kindle version was released in 2015 and for the last couple of years I’ve flirted with borrowing a copy but never got around to it. Not knowing much about Birmingham’s book I went in with modest expectations. I’m happy to report “The Rest of Us” impressed the heck out of me, so much so it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.
Jews had been immigrating to the United States for years, even before America was a nation. These larger waves of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth like many immigrants were initially looked down upon by many Americans, including their fellow Jews who’d arrived decades earlier from Germany. Most were dirt poor, spoke no English and possessed few, if any marketable skills. (Thankfully most, if not all were at least literate.) However, after only a generation or two their contributions in fields as diverse as motion pictures, radio, beauty products and even organized crime were unrivaled.
One wonders how such a modern miracle could occur. While the crowded and impoverished tenements of New York City were no picnic, and anti-Jewish prejudice abounded, relatively speaking it was heaven when compared to Imperial Russian with its murderous pogroms, state-sponsored anti-semitism and grinding poverty. In a freer country like the United States creative and ambitious forces pent up for generations could be unleashed. While imperfect by today’s standards, institutions like public schools, welfare agencies and a fledgling third-tier City College of New York helped recent immigrants and their native-born children master English, receive public assistance and get an education. Lastly, timing could have been everything with the Jews of Eastern Europe arriving at the turn of the 20th century and thus being in right place at the right time to explore new and promising technologies like motion pictures and radio. Those who’d established or helped establish flourishing organized crime syndicates were poised to enter the bootlegging trade once Prohibition was established, with many of the same players instrumental into turning the once sleepy desert town of Las Vegas into a gambling and entertainment Mecca after the Second World War.
If you love rags to riches stories, this book is for you. David Sarnoff went from a teenager selling newspapers on the streets to New York to a young radio operator banging out morse code messages (legend has it he was at his post taking incoming messages from the Titanic when it went down) to the head of RCA. When a young Szmuel Gelbfisz left Warsaw he was so poor he couldn’t bribe the border guards to let him enter Germany. After escaping containment he swam the Oder River, made his way across Germany and eventually to America where he became a successful glove maker, then salesman and eventually VP of sales. With several of his co-religionists he decided to produce feature-length motion pictures. Years later the world would know him as movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. Israel Isidore Beilin, who came to America as a five years old would become Irving Berlin, and despite not knowing how to read sheet music was a huge contributor to the Great American Songbook with such hits as “White Christmas, “Easter Parade” and “God Bless America.” Lastly, when nine year old Meier Suchowlański arrived from Russia who would have thought years later as Meyer Lansky he would build a vast international criminal empire and be cool as hell while doing it.
“The Rest of Us” isn’t just great Jewish history, but also American history. Please consider it highly recommended.