Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How Jews Became Merchants

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                         

On their way to Jerusalem in 1096,   the 1st Crusaders were riding through France and Rhineland  slaughtering Jews.  Rashi, born in France in 1040, was studying  in Worms, Rhineland before this happened.  He was 56 when the Crusaders came through.   He died in Troyes, France during other Crusades.  Worms was a big trading center.  Many Jewish merchants lived there.  

Merchants from the Middle East started off as being mentioned in the Tanach.  The society was agricultural and  merchants are mentioned in Zechariah. 14:21 where he is telling that so many offerings will be brought to Jerusalem that all the vessels of Jerusalem will be needed to cook them, and there will be so many vessels that there will be no need for merchants who sell cooking utensils.  Merchants were described as doing what merchants do today. Also in   Prov, 31.:24 where it says, "She makes a cloak and sells it, and delivers a belt to the peddler."   Then there was the itinerant merchant called a rokhel who specialized in spices, mentioned in Song of Songs 3:6. "Who is this ascending from the wilderness, its way secured and smoothed by palmlike pillars of smoke, burning fragrant myrrh and frankincense, of all the perfumer's powders?' 

 Israel bordered the Mediterranean Sea, the Syrian Desert, the Brook of Egypt, and from the river Arnon to Mt. Hermon including most of Syria and covered about 58,000 sq miles under King David and King Solomon, his son.    Josephus said that Jews had no taste for trade.  He was writing for the Romans and possibly didn't want them to know their long history of being merchants.  

 Jewish merchants of importance were already  found at Alexandria, Egypt  and other cities in the early Roman Empire. "The history of the Jews of Alexandria dates from the foundation of the city by Alexander the Great, 332 B.C."It is curious to notice that they were often employed as soldiers in Egypt, and even attained to high military positions. Ptolemy I., Lagi, is said to have distributed 30,000 Jewish soldiers over the land as garrisons.. Jewish camps have been found in several places in Egypt, which were without doubt the barracks of those Jewish troops;   Those soldiers needed the benefit of Jewish merchants.  

By the Dark Ages, Jews had become merchants and were the go between between the Christian and Islamic worlds. For one thing, they spoke many languages.   They were playing an important part in international trading.  This was found in 9th century documents.  Jewish merchants from Baghdad were trading with India and China during this time.  "The Radhanites  were medieval Jewish merchants. Whether the term refers to a specific guild, or a clan, or is a generic term for Jewish merchants in the trans-Eurasian trade network is unclear. Jewish merchants were involved in trade between the Christian and Islamic worlds during the early Middle Ages(approx. 500–1000). Many trade routes previously established under the Roman Empire continued to function during that period largely through their efforts. Their trade network covered much of EuropeNorth Africa, the Middle East,Central Asia and parts of India and China."

Worms, Rhineland was the center of trade and of Jewish studies as well as the homeland of the first kings of England.  "  The Germanic tribes controlled Worms when they were brought into the Roman Empire.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, the cityh was under many Germanic tribes.  When it was under the Franks, the city became Christian and Worms became a center of the Holy roman empire.  It was the seat of both the Emperor and the Bishop.  

We find RASHI, the most famous Biblical and Babylonian Talmud commentator of Ashkenazi Jews born in 1040 CE in Troyes, France.  No doubt traders followed the Roman paths to France with a sea route on the Mediterranean following the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans.  

The father of many English Kings and Queens was Robert the Strong (III of Worms) Rhineland before it was called Germany. His grandfather, Robert of Hesbaye, Count of Worms, and father, Robert "Rutpert" III Count of Worms and Rheingau, were all from Worms.   The kings thereafter were born in France. That would be starting with Robert I,(Robertians) King of West Francia b: 866.  

 About 100 years after Rashi died, the Rabbi of Worms, Germany, a descendant,  lived in what had become the center of Jewish learning.  with Jews who had arrived in the 10th century. Rashi himself had also studied in Worms in 1055-1065.   By the 11th century the community was well established. 

Emperor Henry IV(11 November 1050-7 August 1106) the Holy Roman Emperor,  was given financial assistance (loans) and rewarded them with privileges in 1074 and 1090. He had been a king from a different family line.   One privilege was freedom of commerce, security of property and imperial protection.  When the first Crusade in 1096  came through, they slaughtered the entire community.  It was re-established only to be destroyed again in the Black Death of 1349 and then they were kicked out in 1615. The Spanish Inquisition of 1492 had a global affect of cruelty and lack of rights on the Jewish people that permeated to all nations eventually.   They must have returned later for they  then had restrictions in 1641 and a massacre by the soldiers of Louis XIV in 1689.  Finally, when the French Revolution took place, they were emancipated.   

In western Europe except in Spain, the Jewish merchant was eclipsed after the Crusades starting in the 11th century  with the 1st Crusade in 1096 CE when Jews were forced into money lending because it was felt to be beneath the dignity of Christians to dabble in such things. In all there were 8 Crusades.  All forms of incomes were taken away from the Jews except money lending.  To top it off, Jews in northern France and the Rhineland were massacred by the Crusaders as they rode through the land on the way to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims.

It was during the Middle Ages that all the rich people in Europe such as the priests, burghers and  Jewish merchants were approached for loans.  The Catholic Church was against all forms of interest .  By the 12th -13th century this was the decree.  At the same time, Jews were kicked out of northern Europe from trading and handicraft productions.  Money lending was left for the Jews to do.  Then the Jews were highly over- taxed and they saw their profits depleted.  Money lending for them had become a profession and was taken over as a government monopoly which the Jews had to manage for the royal treasury.  Rates of interest were carefully monitored and regulated.  If one went to a rare Gentile moneylender, one found their rates to be exorbitant.  In southern Europe, moneylenders was practiced by only a few Jews, however.  In Central and northern Italy, the Jews were responsible for establishing Jewish communities in the 13th and 14th centuries.  They removed the economic restrictions on the Jews, so it was not a characteristic occupation there.
However, Shakespeare wrote his famous play in the late 1500s that was set in Venice, Italy, called "The Merchant of Venice,"  the merchant being a Jew, Shylock.  His lines say a lot:  Here, Shakespeare got serious.  
"He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction." 

 A description of the play found today is : Shakespeare's next comedy, the equally romantic Merchant of Venice, contains a portrayal of the vengeful Jewish moneylender Shylock, which reflects Elizabethan views but  appears highly  derogatory to modern Jewish audiences.  That's a sad comment in that he wrote it to be a comedy, making fun of the Jewish merchant.  That is a description of anti-Semitism.  

Here I see   he is saying that he's being treated badly because he is Jewish and that they are both humans.  They will react in the same manner,  He has learned how to get even from the Christians  but Shylock says he will improve on the lesson.  He's giving a threat.   Considering that Italy had not many Jewish merchants at that time, one wonders why Shakespeare wrote this.  Shakespeare was baptised c26 April 1564 and died April 23, 1616 in London, England. 

 Looking at the history of Jews at this time, I note that  1497 was the year that Jews were expulsed from Sicily and Sardinia, an island of Italy  as well as from Portugal.  This was the continuation of the Spanish Inquisition.  In 1502 all Jews of Rhodes, Greece (an island)  were forcibly converted, expelled or taken into slavery. "But in 1309 the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem conquered Rhodes. They built strong fortifications to protect the island, turning it into an important administrative centre and a thriving multinational medieval city. In 1523 Rhodes was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, and the Greeks had to settle outside the city walls. In  1541 Jews were expelled from the Kingdom of Naples.  
Undeveloped areas of Europe were places like Poland where the Jews continued to play an important part as merchants till the time they immigrated to England and the United States.  There were Jewish traders there from the 17th century on.  The communities made up of hidden Jews that had fled the Spanish Inquisition, then called Marranos  considered merchants as their economic basis of living.
In the USA, many Jewish merchants from the Pale of Settlement in the early 1900s started life with a pushcart and were walking  merchants.  They saved their pennies and were known to later be opening local stores, of of which grew into department stores.  This helped to open up the South and the West of the USA.  Meier and Franks Department Store in Portland, Oregon is one example.

An area of achievement "which is unquestionably the product of Jewish genius is the retail industry as we know it.  That industry was begun by the German Jews who came here in the 1840’s and peddled clothing and household items from door to door all over the South. These peddlers moved all the way from New York to the Santa Fe trail and settled in remote areas of New Mexico and Utah. There they established department stores, a Jewish invention of the greatest consequences for American life, ipso facto. When the great Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigration came here after 1881, these Jews expanded these enterprises and became the founders or developers of such enterprises as Sears, Roebuck, which was indeed founded by Richard Sears but reached its  eminence through the genius of Julius Rosenwald. Both Gimbel’s and Macy’s are legendary Jewish success stories.


  " Then there were the Jewish storekeepers and department store founders who not only became wealthy but who were elected governors of their states. Included were the governor of Idaho, Moses Alexander, Arthur Seligman of New Mexico, and, believe it or not, Simon Bamberger of Utah, and  Herbert Lehman of New York  Successful Jewish merchants were also elected to the U.S. Senate in the 19th and early 20th century.  David Levy Yulee became senator from Florida as did Ernest Gruening, the territorial governor and the first senator of Alaska.  Again, the list goes on and on. 

Consider also that the stock market as we know it today was largely founded by Jewish immigrants who came here with nothing and created enormous wealth, not only for themselves but for America generally. It all started from being merchants and honing their craft." .  

Resource: The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia,_Holy_Roman_Emperor  Jewish acheivements
Facts About Israel, Division of Information, Ministry for foreign affairs, Jerusalem
"The Source, " by James  Michener

No comments:

Post a Comment