Why Are Jews Businessmen?

 

Lots of things in life rely on instability to thrive.  Think of “Necessity is the mother of invention,” or even, “No pain, no gain.” But mankind (and womankind, especially) also have a deep and visceral fear of insecurity and risk.  Stability is planning for the long haul, while instability means being able to improvise and function “in the moment.” No person can live a good and full life at either extreme – those who live to avoid all risks are not living, and those who embrace all risks will not live for long.

But for some reason, Jews are more risk-tolerant than the average person. Why?

I think this is because the Jewish people are forever involved with sha’ar, gates. It is a blessing to Avraham:

I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall inherit the gates of their foes.

Gates? That is odd. After all, one might think that we are supposed to end up with land or possessions. But gates?

Gates are interesting places. Gates are a doorway into a new world (“This is the gate of heaven!”).  Lot welcomes the angels at the gates. Avraham buys the burial place at the gates – that is where deals get done. Hamor and Shechem go to the gates of the city convince the men to become circumcised. Mordechai (and the blessed husband in Proverbs) “sits among the elders at the gates.” When a widow shames her brother-in-law for not preserving his brother’s name, she spits on him and throws a shoe at him “at the gates.” The gates of a city is where all the action happens: interaction with outsiders, the marketplace for goods, services, and ideas (the forum is in or near gates). Judges sit at the gates, and so do businessmen and traders of all kinds.

But unlike private property, gates are not owned, at least not by individual people. They are places of action and interaction, not ownership. And the events at the gates are the least predictable. By contrast, a farmer has a limited range of expected action and reaction based on what nature throws at him. But anything can go down at a gate – a new rumor, a riot, an invasion. Gates are sources and breeding grounds for chaos. In part, this is because a gate is where people meet each other, and people, not nature, are always the X Factor in the world. Nature is cyclical, but people can actually change and grow.

Classical Jewish professions include dealing in law, finance, and commerce of all kinds. Indeed, outside of medicine, every stereotypical Jewish profession would be practiced at the gate of a city. There are historical reasons for this (for much of the last few thousand years, Jews were forbidden to own land in many countries).  But I think there are temperamental reasons as well. Jews seem more comfortable in those worlds than are many other people.

Why? What makes Jews more willing to be traders or financiers?

I think the answer is found in the text, when G-d tells Avraham why he is getting this blessing.

Because you have done this and have not withheld your son … your descendants shall inherit the gates of their foes.

What is the connection? Why does being willing to sacrifice your son mean that your descendants will inherit the gates of their enemies?

I think the answer comes down to risk tolerance. Here is why: Avraham takes a huge risk when he trusts in G-d. He has no idea how it will play out, but he is willing to take that risk anyway. The wordplay reinforces this: the word for “withheld” is the same root word as “darkness.” In other words, Avraham’s decision was made in the dark. He was aware of that he had no idea what the future held, but he was prepared to do what he thought was best, and pray that G-d would sort things out.

This is an essential ingredient for Jewish businessmen. It is a reason why solo entrepreneurs in commerce and finance and real estate continue to succeed, long after corporations would logically have forced them from the field: Jews are willing to take risks that rational companies, companies who always need more information before they take a risk, will delay or outright avoid. Yet it is through businesses like that that wealth is created: trade allows for expansion, and Adam Smith observed that trade, each person’s desire to maximize their own assets, grows wealth much better than does keeping your wealth locked away. The Hebrew word for “gates” also means “to multiply,” a reminder that wealth is multiplied through trade.

Entrepreneurial business is a leap of faith, and the road never leads where you think it is heading. It is not for the faint of heart – or those without faith.  Business risks are often unique and the waters are fouled with the mines of unknown, unforeseeable, and unintended consequences, just waiting to explode. Few people choose that kind of risk if a nice, safe options are at hand.  But Jews do.

It all connects. Avraham is blessed to inherit the gates of his enemies – that Jews will prosper in the gates of sometimes-hostile host nations and peoples – because Avraham was willing to take a risk with inadequate information and faith. In both cases, we do all that we can, and then we believe that G-d will help everything turn out all right, somehow. Because that is precisely what has happened for thousands of years, and continues to happen to this day.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter collaboration]

Published in General
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 19 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Good post, iWe.

    In ancient and medieval times, the gates were the most important military objective of a walled town. The fortifications by the gate were therefore as extensive as the inhabitants could afford to make them. Only the keep would be formidable. Once you’ve taken the gates, you are in charge of who or what can get in or out.

    • #1
  2. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    iWe:

    Classical Jewish professions include dealing in law, finance, and commerce of all kinds. Indeed, outside of medicine, every stereotypical Jewish profession would be practiced at the gate of a city. There are historical reasons for this (for much of the last few thousand years, Jews were forbidden to own land in many countries). But I think there are temperamental reasons as well. Jews seem more comfortable in those worlds than are many other people.

    Excellent as always.

    Add Science and Philosophy—both, I think, require more than the usual amount of risk taking to be successful. But, beyond that, education is a requirement for those professions. Mobs and governments can steal every bit of wealth and property you can amass, but they can’t take one’s knowledge. But to your point, investing in years of education is also a risk.

    • #2
  3. Kevin Schulte Member
    Kevin Schulte
    @KevinSchulte

    It is that blessing from days of old and the actualization of it through the ages that brings so much contempt to the Jewish people. I think. 

    ” She hated her because she was beautiful . ” 

    • #3
  4. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Another insightful iWe post.  I have another answer.  Jews grow up studying the Torah, large portions of which are densely filled with rules and regulations.  Jews maintain strong family ties and perform a public coming of age ceremony in which they have to read holy text in what is generally a foreign language.  

    Jews thus develop analytic and learning skills that Gentiles may not, and they do so in a context of faith and family.  They have faith in themselves, their culture and their God. Their upbringing trains them to be this way.  It makes sense that people raised this way would be entrepreneurial, scientific and cultured.

    It also leads them to be survivors.  The Ammonites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, etc, from the Old Testament are all forgotten.  The Jews are with us still.

    I’m a Baptist who has functioned professionally for 45 years in the worlds of medicine and classical music.  I can’t imagine a world without the contributions of Jews.  What a poor world this would be.

    • #4
  5. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    iWe:

    There are historical reasons for this (for much of the last few thousand years, Jews were forbidden to own land in many countries).  But I think there are temperamental reasons as well. Jews seem more comfortable in those worlds than are many other people.

    I think the history of being forbidden from owning land is a much bigger factor, however …

    1. Ancient Israelites were a semi-nomanic herding culture rather than a sedentary farming culture, and ancient Judea wasn’t the most fertile of lands.  They needed to trade in order to acquire vital carbohydrates, let alone manufactured goods.
    2. Ancient Judea was at the crossroads of empires, so it was a virtual inevitability that any nation that settled there would be overrepresented by proficient merchants to take advantage of all the traders (and armies) passing through.
    3. Judaism has always placed an exceptional focus on literacy, because every Jewish man was expected to read the Torah for himself.  Any culture with a near-total male literacy rate is going to be overrepresented by merchants and lawyers.
    • #5
  6. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    Jews thus develop analytic and learning skills that Gentiles may not, and they do so in a context of faith and family.  They have faith in themselves, their culture and their God. Their upbringing trains them to be this way.  It makes sense that people raised this way would be entrepreneurial, scientific and cultured.

    I have believed this since I was kid. 

    It’s kind of like learning to play an instrument or speak a second language in children. It opens pathways in the mind that will never open as easily again. 

    • #6
  7. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    iWe: It is not for the faint of heart – or those without faith.

    Oh, yes.  My 19 years as a business owner (ten solo) has been a continuous roller coaster ride.  Rarely can I forecast more than six months into the future.  I have to leave the further future in G_d’s hands.

    • #7
  8. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    My brief answer to the question posed by the title of the OP:

    Because of the long-time persecution of the Jews, they were often compelled to keep their assets liquid, in the form of cash or easily transportable goods, rather than in farms and other real estate.

    • #8
  9. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    The prohibition on Christians charging interest gave Jews a big opportunity also. It was also a reason why they were scapegoated, easy for the local lord to get out of his debt if the moneylender got run out of town.

    • #9
  10. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    “Indecent Exposure” is a Hollywood expose, but despite the title it has nothing to do with #metoo, but with a long-forgotten Seventies scandal at Columbia Pictures. Near the beginning of the book the author briskly addresses the issue of the prominence of Jewish people in creating Hollywood history.

    I’m paraphrasing: “Moviemaking is an intrinsically risky activity, with huge losses and breathtaking rewards. Over the long term, the savviest, most successful players have been risk-taking, entrepreneurial Jews. Decades after the last of the old line studio bosses are long gone, the second language of film is still Yiddish”. 

    • #10
  11. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    “Indecent Exposure” is a Hollywood expose, but despite the title it has nothing to do with #metoo, but with a long-forgotten Seventies scandal at Columbia Pictures. Near the beginning of the book the author briskly addresses the issue of the prominence of Jewish people in creating Hollywood history.

    I’m paraphrasing: “Moviemaking is an intrinsically risky activity, with huge losses and breathtaking rewards. Over the long term, the savviest, most successful players have been risk-taking, entrepreneurial Jews. Decades after the last of the old line studio bosses are long gone, the second language of film is still Yiddish”.

    I have heard this said of the New York book publishers as well.

    • #11
  12. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    iWe: But for some reason, Jews are more risk-tolerant than the average person. Why?

    How do we know this is true and not just an impression?  I guess it depends on what you consider risk taking.  Your common criminal is a pretty high risk taker.  Italian gangsters are extremely high risk takers.  Police officers are somewhat risk takers.  Construction workers are risk takers, especially those that work on skyscrapers and bridges.  I would like to see some sort of definition of what it means to be “risk-tolerant” and then some demographic statistics to support it.

    That said, are Jews more into building businesses than other ethnicities?  Here too, are we relying on an impressions and stereotypes rather than some hard statistical data?  I knew lots of Jews who were my teachers and college professors.  Obviously they didn’t have businesses.  My wife’s side of the family is Jewish and as I think through her family members, I can’t think of one that owns or has owned a business.  In fact the only one who does is her cousin and she married a non-Jew who already owned the business.  Now some of her family members did take up business as a career and work managing businesses, but they don’t own those businesses.  And lots of non-Jews do that too.  

    As I my mind’s eye circumambulates my New York neighborhood, I see lots of Italian pizzerias and Greek diners and Hispanic bodegas and Chinese resataurants.  Personally I’m very skeptical that Jews are any more or less risk takers than any other ethnicity and any more or less likely at starting businesses.  As someone who lives among many ethnicities and has half my family Jewish (on my wife’s side), it’s not my experience.

    Now, iWe being an Orthodox Jew, perhaps his experience is skewed.  I would think that Orthodox Jews, given their life rules are more inclined to businesses since it would allow more freedom to live the Torah requirements.  That could be.  But all that talk about historic trends going back to the Middle Ages and before, frankly I think that bears zero impact to today’s life choices.  For anyone.

    • #12
  13. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    “Indecent Exposure” is a Hollywood expose, but despite the title it has nothing to do with #metoo, but with a long-forgotten Seventies scandal at Columbia Pictures. Near the beginning of the book the author briskly addresses the issue of the prominence of Jewish people in creating Hollywood history.

    I’m paraphrasing: “Moviemaking is an intrinsically risky activity, with huge losses and breathtaking rewards. Over the long term, the savviest, most successful players have been risk-taking, entrepreneurial Jews. Decades after the last of the old line studio bosses are long gone, the second language of film is still Yiddish”.

    Hollywoodism  is an interesting documentary about Judaism and moviemaking.

    • #13
  14. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Manny (View Comment):

    iWe: But for some reason, Jews are more risk-tolerant than the average person. Why?

    How do we know this is true and not just an impression? I guess it depends on what you consider risk taking…. I would like to see some sort of definition of what it means to be “risk-tolerant” and then some demographic statistics to support it.

    I would consider business risk as the kind of risk tolerance I am talking about (the “gates” of other nations).

    That said, are Jews more into building businesses than other ethnicities? Here too, are we relying on an impressions and stereotypes rather than some hard statistical data?  … Personally I’m very skeptical that Jews are any more or less risk takers than any other ethnicity and any more or less likely at starting businesses. As someone who lives among many ethnicities and has half my family Jewish (on my wife’s side), it’s not my experience.

    Good question. Your counterexamples are your own impressions, not data, either.

    I am not sure what metric you like.

    Success in business?

    30 Jews are in the top 100 richest Americans. Jews are <2% of the population.

    Jews are disproportionately represented on the roster of the richest business people, with 10 Jews among the top 50 (20%), and 38 (19%) Jews among first 200 world’s wealthiest.

    Startups?

     Israel — a country of 7.1 million, only 60 years old, surrounded by enemies, in a constant state of war since its founding, with no natural resources– produces more start-up companies than large, peaceful, and stable nations like Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada and the UK.

    Hollywood is risky:

    Hollywood, a.k.a. the American film industry, was “founded and for more than thirty years operated by Eastern European Jews,”

    Founding Las Vegas was pretty risky, too

    Vegas Jewry received another boost in 1946, when Meyer Lansky, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Morris Barney “Moe” Dalitz, Gus Greenbaum, Dave Berman, Morris Lansburgh, Morris Rosen, Sam Cohen, and other well-known – notorious – underworld figures helped kick-start the transformation of this otherwise sleepy desert rest stop into the nation’s “vice and dice” capital.

    Owning a professional sports team is pretty risky, too. Here is a ridunkulous list.

     

     

    • #14
  15. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    OK, but there were Rockefeller, Mellon and his brother, Payne Whitney, F. W. Vanderbilt, George F. Baker, Thomas F. Ryan, Vincent Astor, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, etc…  Lists are lists.  Maybe data could say that Jews in the 20th century were successful at business, just like Italians in the 15th century were great at art or Germans in the 18th century were great at musical composition.  Circumstances can skew certain groups to excel at a particular endeavor at a particular time and place.  But to say that Jews are successful at business because they more risk tolerant than other groups is not convincing at all.  At least not to me.

    Look, I particular don’t like stereotypes.  They are almost always wrong, and in the long run are more damaging than not, even if one is arguing for a positive stereotype.  What appears as a positive stereotype can with a flip of a perspective be taken to be a negative stereotype by someone else, but more importantly if you believe in positive stereotypes by similar argumentation you can be made to believe in negative stereotypes.  And that’s the start of dehumanization.

    • #15
  16. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Manny (View Comment):
    Look, I particular don’t like stereotypes.  They are almost always wrong, and in the long run are more damaging than not, even if one is arguing for a positive stereotype.

    Stereotypes exist for a reason: there is truth in them.

    Start from the obvious and move down…

    Tall people are more likely to be able to reach high shelves. Stereotype?

    People who walk like criminals are more likely to actually be criminals. Yes?

    Classically book-smart people are more likely to go into professions or academia.

    People with athletic builds are usually better athletes than people who are not built that way.

    People with better senses of rhythm are better musicians. Stereotype?

    The person who wears a hoodie up on a hot day is not up to anything good. 

    Cultures that celebrate education produce more successful people. 

    Are all of these stereotypes? Are any of them actually wrong?

     

     

    • #16
  17. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    iWe (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):
    Look, I particular don’t like stereotypes. They are almost always wrong, and in the long run are more damaging than not, even if one is arguing for a positive stereotype.

    Stereotypes exist for a reason: there is truth in them.

    Start from the obvious and move down…

    Tall people are more likely to be able to reach high shelves. Stereotype?

    People who walk like criminals are more likely to actually be criminals. Yes?

    Classically book-smart people are more likely to go into professions or academia.

    People with athletic builds are usually better athletes than people who are not built that way.

    People with better senses of rhythm are better musicians. Stereotype?

    The person who wears a hoodie up on a hot day is not up to anything good.

    Cultures that celebrate education produce more successful people.

    Are all of these stereotypes? Are any of them actually wrong?

     

     

    The only two that I see as a stereotypes are: (1) People who walk like criminals are more likely to actually be criminals. And to be frank I don’t know how a criminal walks.  (2) The person who wears a hoodie up on a hot day is not up to anything good.  That would be strange but it can easily be a generational thing.  My 12 year old son who does not know about hoodies and criminal activity loves to wear his hoodie up.  I don’t think he’s done it on a hot day but I can imagine circumstances where he might.  The other things you list are attributes of a specific category of vocation or in the case of height a geometry.  That’s not a stereotype.

    • #17
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Hollywood is one of the most wide open industries in American history. Anybody, from any ethnic group, can start or buy a company. Non-Jews have always been among them–Walt Disney, Darryl Zanuck, Rupert Murdoch are examples. Any conservative can do exactly what the Left did–roll the dice making and releasing a hit film, resulting in changing the culture–and some have; Philip Anschutz with the Narnia series. Lots of conservatives, on Ricochet and elsewhere, are constantly whining and crying that they don’t like today’s movies. They believe there’s a vast potential audience of people who hate Hollywood and are ready for more traditional stories. 

    So why don’t they get off their behinds, open their wallets, get in the ring and compete? “Because (sniff, sniff, snivel) we might lose money at it! Life is so unfair!”

    In other words, they have low risk tolerance. Maybe this isn’t the only Jewish cultural advantage; high intelligence, a passion for education and hard work; they count for something too. But there are plenty of non-Jews with those traits as well. In the end, they succeeded here because they dared to try, and few others did. 

    • #18
  19. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    I’ll just say it. I like Jews. I like my Jewish relatives way better than my non-Jewish relatives. lol I think they have a superior culture except for the fact that they vote Democrat all of the time. lol Jewish chicks are hotter. I prefer the religion, but I am no big expert. etc. etc. 

    • #19