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Since the dawning of the Modern Age, Mercurians have taken center stage. In fact, Slezkine argues, modernity is all about Apollonians becoming Mercurians -- urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible. Since no group has been more adept at Mercurianism than the Jews, he contends, these exemplary ancients are now model moderns. The book concentrates on the drama of the Russian Jews, including emigres and their offspring in America, Palestine, and the Soviet Union. But Slezkine has as much to say about the many faces of modernity -- nationalism, socialism, capitalism, and liberalism -- as he does about Jewry. Marxism and Freudianism, for example, sprang largely from the Jewish predicament, Slezkine notes, and both Soviet Bolshevism and American liberalism were affected in fundamental ways by the Jewish exodus from the Pale of Settlement. Rich in its insight, sweeping in its chronology, and fearless in its analysis, this sure-to-be-controversial work is an important contribution not only to Jewish and Russian history but to the history of Europe and America as well.
MERCURY'S SANDALS: THE JEWS AND OTHER NOMADS
Let Ares doze, that other war Is instantly declared once more 'Twixt those who follow Precocious Hermes all the way And those who without qualms obey Pompous Apollo.
-W. H. Auden, "Under Which Lyre"
There was nothing particularly unusual about the social and economic position of the Jews in medieval and early modern Europe. Many agrarian and pastoral societies contained groups of permanent strangers who performed tasks that the natives were unable or unwilling to perform. Death, trade, magic, wilderness, money, disease, and internal violence were often handled by people who claimed-or were assigned to-different gods, tongues, and origins. Such specialized foreigners could be procured sporadically as individual slaves, scribes, merchants, or mercenaries, or they could be permanently available as demographically complete endogamous descent groups. They might have been allowed or forced to specialize in certain jobs because they were ethnic strangers, or they might have become ethnic strangers because they specialized in certain jobs-either way, they combined renewable ethnicity with a dangerous occupation. In India, such self-reproducing but not self-sufficient communities formed a complex symbolic and economic hierarchy; elsewhere, they led a precarious and sometimes ghostly existence as outcasts without a religiously sanctioned caste system.
In medieval Korea, the Koli such'ok and Hwach'okchaein peoples were employed as basket weavers, shoemakers, hunters, butchers, sorcerers, torturers, border guards, buffoons, dancers, and puppeteers. In Ashikaga and Tokugawa Japan, the Eta specialized in animal slaughter, public executions, and mortuary services, and the Hinin monopolized begging, prostitution, juggling, dog training, and snake charming. In early twentieth-century Africa, the Yibir practiced magic, surgery, and leatherwork among the Somalis; the Fuga of southern Ethiopia were ritual experts and entertainers as well as wood-carvers and potters; and throughout the Sahel, Sahara, and Sudan, traveling blacksmiths often doubled as cattle dealers, grave diggers, circumcisers, peddlers, jewelers, musicians, and conflict mediators. In Europe, various "Gypsy" and "Traveler" groups specialized in tinsmithing, knife sharpening, chimney sweeping, horse dealing, fortune-telling, jewelry making, itinerant trading, entertainment, and scavenging (including begging, stealing, and the collection of scrap metal and used clothing for resale).
Most itinerant occupations were accompanied by exchange, and some "stranger" minorities became professional merchants. The Sheikh Mohammadi of eastern Afghanistan followed seasonal migration routes to trade manufactured goods for agricultural produce; the Humli-Khyampa of far western Nepal bartered Tibetan salt for Nepalese rice; the Yao from the Lake Malawi area opened up an important segment of the Indian Ocean trade network; and the Kooroko of Wasulu (in present-day Mali) went from being pariah blacksmiths to Wasulu-wide barterers to urban merchants to large-scale commercial kola nut distributors.1
Outcast-to-capitalist careers were not uncommon elsewhere in Africa and in much of Eurasia. Jewish, Armenian, and Nestorian (Assyrian) entrepreneurs parlayed their transgressor expertise into successful commercial activities even as the majority of their service-oriented kinsmen continued to ply traditional low-status trades as peddlers, cobblers, barbers, butchers, porters, blacksmiths, and moneylenders. Most of the world's long-distance trade was dominated by politically and militarily sponsored diasporas-Hellene, Phoenician, Muslim, Venetian, Genoese, Portuguese, Dutch, and British, among others-but there was always room for unprotected and presumably neutral strangers. Just as an itinerant Sheikh Mohammadi peddler could sell a bracelet to a secluded Pashtun woman or mediate between two warriors without jeopardizing their honor, the Jewish entrepreneur could cross the Christian-Muslim divide, serve as an army contractor, or engage in tabooed but much-needed "usury." In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Armenian merchants presided over a dense commercial network that connected the competing Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal, Russian, and Dutch empires by making use of professionally trained agents, standardized contracts, and detailed manuals on international weights, measures, tariffs, and prices. In the eighteenth century, the clashing interests of the Russian and Ottoman empires were ably represented by Baltic German and Phanariot Greek diplomats.2
Internally, too, strangeness could be an asset. By not intermarrying, fraternizing, or fighting with their hosts, outcast communities were the symbolic equivalents of eunuchs, monks, and celibate or hereditary priests insofar as they remained outside the traditional web of kinship obligations, blood friendships, and family feuds. The strictly endogamous Inadan gunsmiths and jewelers of the Sahara could officiate at Tuareg weddings, sacrifices, child-naming ceremonies, and victory celebrations because they were not subject to the Tuareg avoidance rules, marriage politics, and dignity requirements. Similarly, the Nawar peddlers allowed the Rwala Bedouin households to exchange delicate information with their neighbors; the Armenian "Amira" provided the Ottoman court with trustworthy tax farmers, mint superintendents, and gunpowder manufacturers; and Jewish leaseholders and innkeepers made it possible for Polish landowners to squeeze profits from their serfs without abandoning the rhetoric of patriarchal reciprocity.3
The rise of European colonialism created more and better-specialized strangers as mercantile capitalism encroached on previously unmonetized regional exchange systems and peasant economies. In India, the Parsis of Bombay and Gujarat became the principal commercial intermediaries between the Europeans, the Indian hinterland, and the Far East. Descendants of eighth-century Zoroastrian refugees from Muslim-dominated Iran, they formed a closed, endogamous, self-administered community that remained outside the Hindu caste system and allowed for relatively greater mobility. Having started out as peddlers, weavers, carpenters, and liquor purveyors, with the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century they moved into brokering, moneylending, shipbuilding, and international commerce. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Parsis had become Bombay's leading bankers, industrialists, and professionals, as well as India's most proficient English-speakers and most determined practitioners of Western social rituals.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, more than two million Chinese followed European capital to Southeast Asia (where they found numerous earlier colonies), the Indian Ocean, Africa, and the Americas. Some of them went as indentured laborers, but the majority (including many erstwhile "coolies") moved into the service sector, eventually dominating Southeast Asian trade and industry. In East Africa, the "middleman" niche between the European elite and the indigenous nomads and agriculturalists was occupied by the Indians, who were brought in after 1895 to build (or die building) the Uganda Railway but ended up monopolizing retail trade, clerical jobs, and many urban professions. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, and Goan Catholics from a variety of castes, they all became baniyas (traders). Similar choices were made by Lebanese and Syrian Christians (and some Muslims) who went to West Africa, the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The majority started out as peddlers (the "coral men" of the African "bush" or mescates of the Brazilian interior), then opened permanent shops, and eventually branched out into industry, banking, real estate, transportation, politics, and entertainment. Wherever the Lebanese went, they had a good chance of facing some competition from Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Indians, or Chinese, among others.4* * * * * *
All these groups were nonprimary producers specializing in the delivery of goods and services to the surrounding agricultural or pastoral populations. Their principal resource base was human, not natural, and their expertise was in "foreign" affairs. They were the descendants-or predecessors-of Hermes (Mercury), the god of all those who did not herd animals, till the soil, or live by the sword; the patron of rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens; the protector of people who lived by their wit, craft, and art.
Most traditional pantheons had trickster gods analogous to Hermes, and most societies had members (guilds or tribes) who looked to them for sanction and assistance. Their realm was enormous but internally coherent, for it lay entirely on the margins. Hermes' name derives from the Greek word for "stone heap," and his early cult was primarily associated with boundary markers. Hermes' protégés communicated with spirits and strangers as magicians, morticians, merchants, messengers, sacrificers, healers, seers, minstrels, craftsmen, interpreters, and guides-all closely related activities, as sorcerers were heralds, heralds were sorcerers, and artisans were artful artificers, as were traders, who were also sorcerers and heralds. They were admired but also feared and despised by their food-producing and food-plundering (aristocratic) hosts both on and off Mount Olympus. Whatever they brought from abroad could be marvelous, but it was always dangerous: Hermes had the monopoly on round-trips to Hades; Prometheus, another artful patron of artisans, brought the most marvelous and dangerous gift of all; Hephaestus, the divine blacksmith, created Pandora, the first woman and source of all the trouble and temptation in the world; and the two Roman gods of the boundary (besides Mercury) were Janus, the two-faced sponsor of beginnings whose name meant "doorway," and Silvanus, the supervisor of the savage (silvaticus) world beyond the threshold.5
One could choose to emphasize heroism, dexterity, deviousness, or foreignness, but what all of Hermes' followers had in common was their mercuriality, or impermanence. In the case of nations, it meant that they were all transients and wanderers-from fully nomadic Gypsy groups, to mostly commercial communities divided into fixed brokers and traveling agents, to permanently settled populations who thought of themselves as exiles. Whether they knew no homeland, like the Irish Travelers or the Sheikh Mohammadi, had lost it, like the Armenians and the Jews, or had no political ties to it, like the Overseas Indians or Lebanese, they were perpetual resident aliens and vocational foreigners (the Javanese word for "trader," wong dagang, also means "foreigner" and "wanderer," or "tramp"). Their origin myths and symbolic destinations were always different from those of their clients-and so were their dwellings, which were either mobile or temporary. A Jewish house in Ukraine did not resemble the peasant hut next door, not because it was Jewish in architecture (there was no such thing) but because it was never painted, mended, or decorated. It did not belong to the landscape; it was a dry husk that contained the real treasure-the children of Israel and their memory. All nomads defined themselves in genealogical terms; most "service nomads" persisted in doing so in the midst of dominant agrarian societies that sacralized space. They were people wedded to time, not land; people seen as both homeless and historic, rootless and "ancient."6
Whatever the sources of difference, it was the fact of difference that mattered the most. Because only strangers could do certain dangerous, marvelous, and distasteful things, the survival of people specializing in such things depended on their success at being strangers. According to Brian L. Foster, for example, in the early 1970s the Mon people of Thailand were divided into rice farmers and river traders. The farmers referred to themselves as Thai, spoke little Mon, and claimed to speak even less; the traders called themselves Mon, spoke mostly Mon, and claimed to speak even more. The farmers were frequently unsure whether they were of Mon ancestry; the traders were quite sure that their farmer clients were not (or they would not have been their clients). Everyone involved agreed that it was impossible to engage in commerce without being crooked; being crooked meant acting in ways that farmers considered unbecoming a fellow villager. "In fact, a trader who was subject to the traditional social obligations and constraints would find it very difficult to run a viable business... It would be difficult for him to refuse credit, and it would not be possible to collect debts. If he followed the ideology strictly, he would not even try to make a profit."7
To cite an earlier injunction to the same effect, "Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury: Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it" (Deut. 23:19-20). This meant-among other things-that if thou set thine hand to credit operations, thou had to play the trespasser (or submit to domestication through various "clientelization" and "blood brotherhood" techniques).
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.' "8
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).
Excerpted from The Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine Excerpted by permission.
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|Ch. 1||Mercury's sandals : the Jews and other nomads||4|
|Ch. 2||Swann's nose : the Jews and other moderns||40|
|Ch. 3||Babel's first love : the Jews and the Russian revolution||105|
|Ch. 4||Hodl's choice : the Jews and three promised lands||204|
Posted January 29, 2012