Chapter VI



Jews are constantly telling me what a grievous disadvantage they find themselves under in conducting their business because they happen to be Jews.  The word "happen" is theirs, not mine.  They forget to make a very important distinction, which can only be made if you have been honest enough to observe it.  Being a Jew is a disadvantage only if you are a Jew doing business within the Jewish tradition.  But you can be a Jew who conducts his business honestly and decently.  I have met one or two such Jews in my life.  I have never known them to suffer of racial prejudice.

But most Jews (unless they deal exclusively with their own kind, in which case Heaven help them!) find themselves up against the rock of gentile prejudices even before they have had any dealings at all with the gentile.  It certainly cannot be fair, it will be argued, to condemn a man even if he is guilty, before he has had a chance to show his hand.   The answer is that there is no law compelling the gentile to wait till he has been cheated before he steps out of the way of the Jewish trap.  The average Jew displays his disposition on his face, the result of his peculiar up bringing on the principle:  Leolom Tickach, always take.  It has brought the old wolf so much into his face the gentile has to be a born ass to let himself be bitten.

About two years ago, Harry Montor of the Seven Arts Syndicate came to ask me for an interview.  "There is really only one question I want you to answer," he said.  "You've developed quite a publishing business.  Have you found being a Jew an obstacle to your career?"

My answer, syndicated as The Strange Career of Samuel Roth, was easy to give.  I had not found being a Jew an obstacle to me either in the publishing business or in any branch of the life I had lived.  In spite of my naturally indolent attitude towards studies, I was graduated from a gentile grammar school with honors.  I obtained entry for my poetry and prose into the best newspapers and magazines, just by submitting my work through the mails.  I got a scholarship in Colombia University, not by passing examinations, or exerting influence, but by submitting to the scholarship committee a few immature but ambitious sonnets.  I lived in Hartley Hall on the Columbia campus the quietest and most beautiful months of my life.  But for America's entering  the war, I would still be there.

Yes, the goyim were always generous to me.  But, on the other hand, I never tried to fool them or even court their favors.  In grammar school, I made no effort to become friendly with my gentile teachers or with the students in my classes who were not Jews.  John Erskine and Carl Van Doren, whose gracious interest made possible my Colombia scholarship, knew that they were helping a Jew because it was almost the very first things I told them.  My very first contribution to Columbia Spectator was the review of a Jewish book.  It was a very strict principle with me.  If I found it at all necessary to deal with a goy, I made certain to warn him in advance that I was a Jew and liable to change shape and eat him at a moment's notice. 

Discrimination against Jews at the University was plentiful, of course.  But I do not remember that anyone discriminated against Irwin Edman, Frank Tannenbaum or myself.  The very contrary to the usual was true, I know, in my case.  I was liked rather than avoided for my aggressive Jewishness.  After I publicly announced that I would join no fraternity to which Jews were not admitted, I believe I received more pressing invitations to join than many a popular gentile in my class.  I advance the suggestion that it is altogether possible for a Jew to live at peace with the Christian world about him, if he begins by presenting his proper credentials, and does not try to establish with it a basis of equality which does not exist.  Being born a Jew is a misfortune, like being born a Pigmy.  I have never known a Pigmy to advance his fortunes in the world by affecting stilts.  But a Jew can make a beautiful position in the world for himself merely by being honest.

Israel Zangwill made it a point of honor to impress his nationality on all the people he dealt with, although the overwhelming Jewishness of his physiognomy should have made that unnecessary.  He liked to tell how on board the ship, that took him to America the first time, he had the good fortune to become acquainted with an eminent economist who was to occupy the chair in economics at one of the great eastern universities.  The economist labored under the disadvantage of a bad case of spinal curvature, but Zangwill found him one of the pleasantest of companions and the days and nights passed swiftly for both of them because of their numerous animated conversations.  When finally the Statue of Liberty was sighted in New York harbor, the economist suggested to Zangwill that they might, if he wished it, continue their lively discussions on shore.  "But you understand that I'm a Jew," interposed Zangwill gravely.  "Yes," replied the economist, "and you understand, of course, that I'm a hunchback."  I do not imply that there is necessarily dishonest in the attitude of a Jew who undertakes a business relationship with a gentile without warning him in advance that he is a Jew.  In most cases when he fails to do this, the Jew is merely exercising his constitutional right as a citizen of a free republic.  No one can blame the Jews for being reluctant to give up without a struggle the civil privileges which during the last hundred years they have wrested, by main force of wheedling and wit, from unwilling constitutional governments.  I am, however, advancing the opinion that if we exercise our newly acquired rights more cautiously, our chances will be better not only to keep them but possibly to gain even new ones.  The presence in the American constitution of articles granting the Jews equality in the face of the law does not alter the fact that to the average American, a Jew is still a Jew, and subject to great suspicion.

Suppose the American constitution does give us equal rights with Gentile American citizens?  Does that alter the fact that every once in a while another great American industry joins in the boycott of Jewish labor?  Does our theoretical equality makes it easier for Jewish students to enter American colleges?  Constitutional rights that have been granted can also be taken away.  The increasing hostility of America to its Jewish citizenry would seem to indicate it as the height of folly for American Jews to rest nonchalantly on their constitutional rights.

During my days as a bookseller on West Eighth Street, I became friendly with a man who employed more than four thousand people.  It was known of him also that he did not permit Jews to work in any branch of his business.  "Will you tell me why?" I once asked him.

"Just business," he said, "Jews are not dependable, and they are untrustworthy."

"Would that explain their success in business?" I asked.

"I don't know what explains a Jew's success in business," he replied.  "But have you ever heard of a Jew who made a success of another man's business?"

I was silent.

He smiled. "When you find such a Jew," he said "send me a wire collect, and I'll begin hiring Jews immediately."

"Have you never employed a Jew, then?"

"Sure, many of them. By accident. They come around to our employment department, give Christian names, and get away with it - until I spot them.  At the works they say that I've got an unfailing eye for Jews.  They never escape me."

I protested that this seemed both remarkable and unbelievable.  I, a Jew, very frequently mistook a Jew for a gentile!

"Being a Jew isn't it enough, Roth.  You've got to have a nose for Jews.  You've got to be able to smell them out.  If I can't spot it in their features, I can find their Jewishness in their conversation."

"What about Jews with Harvard accents?"

"You've got me wrong.  I didn't mean their accents at all.  Most American Jews talk like Americans, and less with their hands than regular Americans do.  I have a more infallible way of recognizing a Jew in my employ.  When a Jew talks to his employer he usually looks over his head."

I think I know exactly what this man meant.  Isaac looks over the head of his employer to the invisible Lord God of Israel.  Since all the wealth before him was really meant for the enrichment of Israel, there must be at hand some nice easy way to get out of the crude hands of the goy in actual possession.  He cannot help this dishonest feeling.  It is almost as instinctive with him as it is instinctive for the gentile who sees him to pass by him.  That's how poor Isaac has been brought up.  And what a little Jewish boy has learnt, to quote a contemporary patriotic Jewish drama, he never forgets.

What is this Jewish upbringing!  To know it you have to enter and live in, a Jewish home.  I only knew one Jewish home intimately, the one in which I was, so to say reared, and so I shall give you some inkling of it.  It was typical of all Jewish homes, rich or poor alike.

The Hebrew of the rabbis was all I had been permitted to learn in Poland.  My father's respect for what might be learned outside of the Pentateuch being very scan, it was lucky for me that public school attendance in New York City was compulsory.  I was enrolled in the public school of my district.  But that did not mean the end of my Hebrew studies.  To continue those I was compelled to go to cheder (Hebrew school) for two hours after school every afternoon.

My father had to pay so much every week for my Hebrew schooling.  What he paid came out of the slender means by which we were fed and clothed.  And what poverty we lived in, those days!  My father drudged heavily and bitterly for the little money he earned.  For some fifteen or eighteen dollars he found once a week in his pay envelope he had to rise four o'clock mornings to go to work, and he stuck to his machine till nearly ten o'clock at night.  The agony his livelihood cost him made a miser out of my father.  He could not bear to part with the greenbacks which came to him with so much anguish of body and spirit.  But not once did I hear him complain of the cost of my Hebrew education.

It was really heartrending.  He grudged my poor mother every penny he allowed her for the bare necessities of life and the rental of the insect-ridden apartment we occupied on Broome Street.  If he found in the ice-box, when he came home, apart from what had been left for his supper, a little butter, an egg, or some barley, he quarreled about it interminably with my mother, and was certain to cut down her allowance the following day.  Yet when it came to parting with cheder money, no questions were asked. Why? 

The explanation for this is simple enough.  Without the aid of a local police to enforce it, Hebrew education is compulsory among Jews.  To fail to force me to go to cheder would have meant complete social ostracism for my father and mother.  The Jewish boy must learn enough Hebrew whereby to read his prayer book on Saturday mornings in synagogue, and for the ceremony of Bar Mitzvah, his thirteenth birthday, when he is installed as a full-grown member of the Jewish community, with full responsibilities of a citizen.  To have failed in this important preparation is, in Jewish life, an act of high treason to the Jewish nation.  That is how it happened that, against my own wishes I spent the precious hours after school, learning Hebrew [20].

If you stop an American Jew and ask him why he plagues his children with Hebrew studies (after the already exhausting sessions of the public schools) he will give you one of two reasons.  He will either plead that he is giving his son the religious education he needs to complete his equipment for a successful career, or that he thinks it is important to supplement the cultural training his son is acquiring in the public school with the cultural Jewish training that is traditionally just as important to his son.

The first answer is given by the simple ignorant Jew, the sort of Jew my own father was.  The answer is sincere and honest enough, for it was transmitted to him by a hundred thoughtless generations.  But fundamentally it is untrue.  The amount of Hebrew a child needs to know for purely religious purposes, he learns in two years, before he is six years old, before he is required to begin his secular education.  And religion is not taught in the Hebrew schools.

Hebrew instructors are not religious and do not bother to teach religion.  I was a cheder student when a child, and I was never taught religion.  When I grew older I held a position with the Bureau of Jewish Education maintained by funds publicly collected from the Jewish community of New York.  I do not think I violate any confidences when I assert that neither its chief executive nor any one of his dozen department heads were believers in the Jewish religion.

The cultural reason sounds more plausible but has even less foundation in fact.  If the Hebrew schools foster Jewish culture, where is this culture?  Now culture is either creative or absorptive.  Creative Jewish culture we have not in America even in its lowest form.  As for absorptive culture - which consists of the contemplation of culture created by others, and so transmitted through time and space - there is almost none of that in America either.  What have we of Jewish culture in America, really?  The national anthem, a few field songs from Palestine, and some anemic  modern adaptations of themed from the Old Testament.  The few serious Hebrew works imported into the United States from Europe and Asia Minor are for the absorption of the few European Jews who have made of America a sort of haven of despair in their old age.

The cultural argument is the rankest sort of pretence.  Do the  thousands of French families in the United States compel their children to study French after school so as to preserve with them the inheritance of French culture?  Or is there any reason to believe that the French think any less of their culture than the Jews think of theirs?  How many German schools do the fifteen million Germans in the United States maintain to help their children keep the inheritance of German culture?  The preservation of Jewish religion and culture are merely excuses for something else, a smoke-screen.  What the Jew really wants and expects to achieve through the instrumentality of the Hebrew school is to cultivate in his son the sharp awareness that he is a Jew and that as a racial Jew - apart from all the other races - he is waging an old war against his neighbors.  The young Jew must learn to remember that before anything else he is a Jew, that, before any other allegiance, comes his allegiance to the Jewish People.  He may be a good American if it is good business to be a good American.  He may even pose as a good Chinaman.  But no obligation he contracts with a non-Jew is to be considered valid if it violates the interests of this most important obligation of his.

The first thing the young Jew learns is that he is a Jew.  The second thing he learns is that being a Jew makes him different from the members of all the other peoples on the face of the earth.  Sanctity, because of the ever presence of the synagogue as a background is inevitably part of his impression of his function as a Jew.  If the family in the midst of which he is reared has shed all of its religious feathers, then a sense of superiority takes the place of the feeling of sanctity.  The third thing he learns is that, as a member of a nation of priests, it is his business to make for himself a high place in the world, some position from which he will be able to compel the world to pay him tribute. 

Most desirable for the young Jew, he is told impressively, is it, for him to become a member of one of the professions - to become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, even a salesman or an agent.  To be compelled to go to work, to do manual labor for one's livelihood, is the very worse state the young Jew can fall to, something to make him really ashamed and humiliated.

This attitude of the Jews towards manual labor is historic.  The Jewish apologists have a neat explanation for it.  In most of the countries of the Diaspora the Jews were not permitted to own land or to work on it.  Nor were they permitted to work for Christians.  And since Jewish merchants could give employment only to a fraction of the great numbers of young Jews, the rest had to turn for careers to salesmanship, money-lending and the other promoting aspects of trade.  This does not explain why Jews have never, like other peoples, gone into a wilderness and built up a land of their own.  Nor why in England, in the thirteenth century, under Edward I, they did not take advantage of the offer by which Edward promised to give them the very opportunities Jews had been crying for for centuries.

After imprisoning the whole Jewish population in his domain for criminal usury and debasing the coin of the realm, Edward, before releasing them, put into effect two new sets of laws:  the first made it illegal for a Jew in England to lend money at interest.  The second repealed all the standing laws which kept Jews from the normal pursuits of the kingdom.  Under these new statutes Jews could even lease land for a period of fifteen years and work it.  Edward advanced this as a test of the Jew's sincerity when he claimed that all he wanted was an opportunity to work like other people.  If they proved their fitness to live like other people, the inference was that Edward would let them buy land outright and admit them to the higher privileges of citizenship.  Did the Jews take advantage of Edward's decree?  This way.  To get around the laws against usury they invented such new methods of skinning the peasants and the nobles that the outcry against them became greater than ever, and Edward had to expel them to avert a civil war.  It was not recorded that one Jew took advantage of the new right to till the soil.

During the Napoleonic era there was a rabbi in Metz, Aaron Worms by name, who felt deeply the shame of the traditional Jewish attitude towards manual labor.  He took the trouble to publicly rebuke the people for it, and, as an example, apprenticed his son Eijah to an artisan.  But it was a vain gesture, as has been the effort of every Jew of integrity to civilize his people.  For his pains, there were Jews in Europe who called him an apostate - and worse.  The Jew's feeling of superiority to manual labor has become second nature with him.  It has been inborn and inbred in him as carefully and painstakingly as the virtues of a life of useful labor are inbred in the lives of the children of the rest of the nations.

The Jewish boy's progress through school is observed with the most hawk-like watchfulness.  Does he show himself argumentative?  Deep of voice?   Cunning of device?  It is immediately taken for granted that the Law is his natural, God-given profession.  Plans are made to finance his way through the best possible law-school.  There may not be money for other things in the house or with which to pay legitimate debts.  But there will be money, and plenty of it,  forthcoming for Willie's tuition and upkeep in law school.  Aptness in science, on the other hand, marks Izzie for the medical profession.  It is not, of course, as simple to make a doctor as it is to make a lawyer, for at least three times as much time and money is required.  To make a doctor out of Izzie, practically the whole family is set to work;  it is sometimes even necessary to marry him off in advance so as to get him the help-in-advance of a goodly dowry.  A facility with figures, in the same manner, points to a career in engineering and accountancy.  Every promise is noted and capitalized.

Now there would not be so much harm in the Jews taking in such immense droves to the practice of the cardinal professions if they approached them in the proper spirit.  But the Jew does not, cannot, turn to the law with anything like reverence for the profession or for its splendid traditions.  Willie sets his jaw grimly to the task of competing with several thousands of other Willies for the few scraps of pickings in law lying about loose, and Izzie's attitude towards medicine is not much more cheerful or respectful.  The attitude of a young Jew towards his profession is really like that of a gangster towards a new racket.  The real end is the amount of money it is likely to yield him in exchange for the smallest investment of labor and enthusiasm.  But more of this when we take up the Jews as doctors and as lawyers.

Does poor Simon bring home bad marks from school?  He is continually warned, by parents and neighbors, that unless he shows decided improvement he will without doubt forfeit the support of his family in the direction of a career.  It is pointed out, with the most painful emphasis, that unless he picks up in his studies, he will sink into the horrible ignominy of having to work for his livelihood.  So deeply is it impressed on the growing Jew that to have to work with his hands is the most awful humiliation of life, that, no matter what becomes of him, he inwardly determines that he will not submit to work.

The easiest business for the young Jew not apt enough to enter one of the major professions, is selling newspapers.  Almost all the news stands in America are owned by Jews.  The news stand, however, is only a stepping stone.  Once he has saved up a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, the Jew sells his news stand (to some other Jew beginning a similar career) and buys into a business where the chances of monetary profits are greater.  He takes to selling haberdashery, hosiery, and real estate.  Businesses in which the margin of profit is limited by established prices do not interest him.

But you must have some money with which to buy even a news stand.  The young Jews who have no money at all to start with, and certainly no legitimate positions to fill [21], take to selling.  They sell kitchen utensils from door to door, things which have no standard price, "blind articles," they are called, on which the return in profit is from five hundred to a thousand percent.  These young Jews have created an amazing variety of things to sell.

There was always a strong streak of perverseness in my nature.  After being graduated from Public school, in which I showed no aptness for arguments or science, but did write a history of the world in rhymed couplets, I was expected to at least find a position in an office.  I went to work instead, in a smoking-pipe factory where the air was full of an evil-smelling dust, most obnoxious in my division where the stems were cut.  The factory was on Avenue B and Seventeenth Street, the very heart of the East Side, but there was only one other Jew working in that factory, a Galician Jew who was foreman.  When he learned that I was not only a Jew but a graduate from public school, he decided that I must be out of my mind.

What becomes of the young Jews who cannot attain to one of the professions, have not the money with which to buy a news stand or the mental resourcefulness to create a selling line?  Most of them remain on the street-corners of their neighborhoods and become the petty thieves, hold-up-men, strike-breakers, back-store crap-shooters, street-corner mashers, dope peddlers and dope smugglers, white slave traffickers, kidnappers and petty racketeers of every peaceful community in America.

Certainly Jews are not the only people who become gangsters, to make civilized life on this continent creepy with a thousand species of repellent crime.  The Irish, Greek and Italian immigrants contribute their substantial share.  There is, however, this difference between their respective contributions.  The Irishman, the Italian and the Greek become criminals out of sheer necessity, and remain so only as long as the necessity lasts.  As in every other thing the Jew touches, he immediately conceives of it as a career.  The Irish, Italian and Greek gangsters are skin sores on the social body.  Eventually, with a little application of remedy, they can be cleared away.  The Jewish gangster imbeds himself deeply in the flesh of society.  He becomes a permanent if not a fatal tumor.





[20]  When I became a Zionist in 1912, I had forgotten the little Hebrew I had learnt; but, having resumed Hebrew studies of my own free will, I found them delightful and instructive.

[21]  There was a time when young Jews in great number took to jobs as street-car conductors.  That was before the car companies installed efficient check-up systems for fares collected.  Today the only Jews found as conductors in street-cars are Jews who were reared in orphan asylums where the prejudice against real work is not so assiduously cultivated.