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Sunday, March 13, 2005

"The Jews of..."

Everyone has heard of various groups, reknowned for their financial acumen and trading ability, being referred to as "the Jews of (wherever)", for instance the Cubans have often been described as "the Jews of the Caribbean". According to Amy Chua's World on Fire the Ibos are referred to as 'the Jews of Nigeria' (which is something Abiola Lapite disagrees with).

Anyways, in the comments to this post at GNXP Danny Pinkus pointed to an excerpt from Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century, which compares the Jews to other traditional entrepneurial ethnic groups (Slezkine uses the term 'mercurians' to describe them), such as the Greeks, the Armenians, the Lebanese (particularly the Maronites), the Parsis, and the Chinese. The Jewish Century is a book I've been meaning to buy ever since I read this interview with him. Anyways, there's lot of interesting stuff in that sample chapter, with the following just a small excerpt:

In the eyes of the rural majority, all craftsmen were crafty, and all merchants, mercenary (both--as was Mercury himself--derived from merx, "goods"). And of course Hermes was a thief. Accordingly, European traders and artisans were usually segregated in special urban communities; in some Andean villages in today's Ecuador, store owners are often Protestants; and one Chinese shopkeeper observed by L. A. Peter Gosling in a Malay village "appeared to be considerably acculturated to Malay culture, and was scrupulously sensitive to Malays in every way, including the normal wearing of sarong, quiet and polite Malay speech, and a humble and affable manner. However, at harvest time when he would go to the field to collect crops on which he had advanced credit, he would put on his Chinese costume of shorts and under-shirt, and speak in a much more abrupt fashion, acting, as one Malay farmer put it, 'just like a Chinese.' "

Noblesse oblige, and so most mercurial strangers make a point--and perhaps a virtue--of not doing as the Romans do. The Chinese unsettle the Malays by being kasar (crude); the Inadan make a mockery of the Tuareg notions of dignified behavior (takarakayt); the Japanese Burakumin claim to be unable to control their emotions; and Jewish shopkeepers in Europe rarely failed to impress the Gentiles with their unseemly urgency and volubility ("the wife, the daughter, the servant, the dog, all howl in your ears," as Sombart quotes approvingly). Gypsies, in particular, seem to offend against business rationality by offending the sensibilities of their customers. They can "pass" when they find it expedient to do so, but much more often they choose to play up their foreignness by preferring bold speech, bold manners, and bold colors--sometimes as part of elaborate public displays of defiant impropriety.

What makes such spectacles especially offensive to host populations is that so many of the offenders are women. In traditional societies, foreigners are dangerous, disgusting, or ridiculous because they break the rules, and no rules are more important in the breach than the ones regulating sexual life and the sexual division of labor. Foreign women, in particular, are either promiscuous or downtrodden, and often "beautiful" (by virtue of being promiscuous or downtrodden and because foreign women are both cause and prize of much warrior activity). But of course some foreigners are more foreign than others, and the internal ones are very foreign indeed because they are full-time, professional, and ideologically committed rule breakers. Traders among sharers, nomads among peasants, or tribes among nations, they frequently appear as mirror images of their hosts--sometimes quite brazenly and deliberately so, as many of them are professional jesters, fortune-tellers, and carnival performers. This means, as far as the hosts are concerned, that their women and men have a tendency to change places--a perception that is partly a variation on the "perversity of strangers" theme but mostly a function of occupational differences. Traders and nomads assign more visible and economically important roles to women than do peasants or warriors, and some trading nomads depend primarily on women's labor (while remaining patriarchal in political organization). The Kanjar of Pakistan, who specialize in toy making, singing, dancing, begging, and prostitution, derive most of their annual income from female work, as do many European Gypsy groups that emphasize begging and fortune-telling. In both of these cases, and in some merchant communities such as the Eastern European Jewish market traders, women are vital links to the outside world (as performers, stall attendants, or negotiators) and are often considered sexually provocative or socially aggressive--a perception they occasionally reinforce by deliberate displays.

|| RPH || 7:35 PM || |