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Rebecca Kobrin

On August 30, 1914, a riot erupted in front of one of the most revered Jewish businesses on New York City’s Lower East Side, Sender Jarmulowsky’s Bank. Fears of long protracted war had prodded thousands of Jews living on the Lower East Side to run to their bankn, the Yiddish moniker for businesses that took deposits, made loans, transmitted money overseas and sold ship tickets in installment, to withdraw their saving. Unable to return all their depositors’ funds, the Jarmulowsky bank, was forced by New York’s Banking Superintendent to shut its doors, along with five other banks. The failure of these East European Jewish immigrant banks left an imprint far beyond the Jewish community, as the system of American banking regulation took shape in direct response to risks taken by immigrant bankers and the desire to avert their failures in New York City, a city that functioned as America’s financial capital. While scholars and writers have long charted and celebrated the rapid success of Jewish immigrants in America, Jewish immigrant failure, like failure in general in American history, has received practically no attention. As historian David Hollinger points out “the failure to conduct a straight-forward historical and social-scientific study” of what enabled immigrant Jews to economically succeed so quickly in the United States has perpetuated the mystification of Jewish history and subtly reinforces invidious distinctions between descent groups in American society.” In a nation that worships success, the failure to grapple with Jewish financial failure has obscured the many paths by which Jews critically reshaped the ever-shifting contours of American capitalism. 

The goal is to use these early-twentieth century Jewish immigrant bank failures as an aperture to rethink how failure can be deployed as an analytical category in Jewish, economic and American history. The need to understand more fully failure is particularly critical for American Jewish historians because, as historian Scott Sandage observes, “failure is not merely the dark side of the American dream; it is (in fact) the foundation of it.”

Rebecca Kobrin ist Professorin für amerikanische jüdische Geschichte am Harriman-Institut der Columbia University.