Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Purchasing Power: Consumer Culture and the Making of Jewish Identity

Dr. Gideon Reuveni


Antisemitic stereotypes of Jews as Capitalist have paralyzed research into the economic dimension of the Jewish past. The figure of the Jew as trader and financier haunted the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But the economy has been central to Jewish life and the Jewish image in the world. Jews were not only moneymakers but also money-spenders. This project is the first to investigate the crucial and neglected axis of consumption, identity, and Jewish history. It aims to examine the role and place of consumption within Jewish society and the ways consumerism generated and reinforced Jewish notions of belonging from the end of the nineteenth-century to the interwar period. This examination will show how the advances of modernisation and secularisation in the modern period increased the importance of consumption in Jewish life, making it to a significant factor in the process of re-defining Jewishness.

By assuming a “consumerist” approach to Jewish history, this project will move research beyond the common binary divisions in the history of Jews that tend to oscillate between approaches stressing the inclusion of Jews and those which highlight their exclusion. It will suggest that as consumers Jews were able to develop a self-understanding based on heterogeneous elements taken from a diversity of cultural representations and practices facilitating a feeling of belonging to a wider consumer community, yet still retaining a clear sense of Jewish distinctiveness.

The method of investigation employed in this project therefore has a dual function. It seeks, first, to examine how Jews were perceived and targeted as consumers. And, secondly, it investigates the role consumer culture plays in Jewish culture and society. The sources that will be used for this purpose consist of a variety of materials, ranging from advertisements, material on marketing strategies by commercial companies, published scholarly work, as well as diaries and literary representations. Each section of the project will deal with different questions and will rely on different type of sources thus providing a comprehensive picture of Jewish consumer culture in the early twentieth century.