By Harriet P. Gross
We all know that Emma Lazarus, who wrote the famous poem that graces the Statue of Liberty, was Jewish. Don’t we? And that lots of the “huddled masses yearning to be free” who accepted her invitation to enter the United States’ “golden door” were Jewish, too? They may not have found the streets paved with gold, but many of them found gold in other places.
As a people, we probably count for no more than 1 percent of the world’s population, but we can be proud of our impact. Take a look at the trio of men who can easily be cited as the globe’s most influential in the past couple of centuries: Einstein. Freud. Lenin. Science, medicine and history would have been vastly different without them.
And so would the mercantile industry of our own country. Here’s something I learned a long time ago, that has much to do with what I mentioned last week: the inability of many Jews, in many parts of the world, for many years, to own property. Or to work in many trades, either. What can men and women do then to feed their families?
Shakespeare made much of Shylock the moneylender. Years and years ago, in much of Europe, Jews were encouraged to enter that business because the church forbade its members to make interest-bearing loans. Yet people sometimes needed to borrow. They would bring things as security for the currency they required, and so the pawnshop was born.
Then, what if those things were not redeemed? Ah — they became the possessions of the one holding them. Pawned clothing turned into a source of literal material for making items that could be sold; learn to reshape garments, and one was now a tailor, a dressmaker. The tools were minimal, and portable: a needle and thread, and a skill that could go anywhere, as necessary. It’s not a surprise that when those “huddled masses” arrived in America, they huddled again in sweatshops, and our country’s garment industry was born.
Selling could also take place on streets, from carts. And when those peddlers could, they stabilized themselves in shops. It’s no surprise, either, that so many great names in department stores, and of the clothing sold in them, are Jewish ones. Altman. Gimbel. Magnin. Kuppenheimer. Strauss. In a way, the church helped, or forced, this to happen.
Here’s another interesting connection: In the fourth century, a young priest in Turkey became legendary by helping out a poor family in a way the time and place required: by providing dowries for its three daughters, without which they would not be considered marriage material. In the dark of night, Nicholas tossed a bag of gold for each of them through a window of their house, and tradition says the bags landed in the shoes the girls had left on the floor. Of course he became famous, was revered and was eventually sainted. In America, “stockings are hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon will be there”; but in some other countries, children still find holiday gifts in their shoes on Christmas morning.
Guess what? That’s not all! Those three bags of gold moved from being the stuff of legend to solid reality: Three gold balls became the symbol of — pawnbrokers, who would display them outside their shops! And in the tradition of the church, Santa Claus — a quick verbal shorthand for “Saint Nicholas” — is the patron saint of pawnbrokers. And also of merchants.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” as Lewis Carroll had Alice in Wonderland say; the Jewish-Christian connection goes on. There was a time, not like our own, when many foods were strictly seasonal. Fruits, especially. An orange in winter was an expensive rarity. So oranges — precious gold balls that they were then — became treasured Christmas gifts, fillers of shoes and stockings. Another little factoid buried in history.
So why am I talking about all this now, in the heat of summer? Because of Israel’s famed Jaffa oranges. Isn’t it amazing that people once denied land of their own, when they finally secured some, were able to grow the most delicious balls of gold on earth and send them all over the earth to be enjoyed?
On my recent Israel visit, I enjoyed many wonderful oranges — even though the Jaffas are no longer such important exports as they once were. (But I also ate what I’m sure are the most delicious dates on earth!)