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Startup People

Why Jews have always been entrepreneurs

David Sax
June 12, 2020
 H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images
Sidewalk merchants on the Lower East Side of New York City during the 1950s H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images
 H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images
Sidewalk merchants on the Lower East Side of New York City during the 1950s H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Here’s a story my father loves to tell. It’s the early 1970s, he is one year out of law school, and recently transplanted with my mother from dying Montreal to booming Toronto. Dad is finishing up the mandatory year of “articling” work that all new lawyers must undergo before passing the bar, and he has secured a coveted spot at a large, prestigious, and deliciously old-guard WASP firm, where he is one of only two Jews in the place (and, he likes to point out, the shortest person there). On the appointed day, my father, the son of a scrappy shmatte business hustler, sits down in the corner office with one of the partners, to hear whether he will be getting a full-time position at the firm.

“Unfortunately not, Mr. Sax,” the gentleman says, commanding the room in his Saville Row suit and erect Boy Scout posture. “You are simply too … how shall I put this?” he pauses to think. “Ah yes! Entrepreneurial.”

Entrepreneurial? My father believes he meant “too Jewish,” but honestly, it really made no difference. The man was right. This buttoned-up firm, with its storied traditions, rigid hierarchies, and culture entombed in legacy was no place for a go-getter like him. He wanted to forge his own path, find his own answers, and do the work he wanted, and the stench of that ambition followed him everywhere, like garlic follows a man who ate a pickle.

That’s just what my father did, striking out on his own in a small office in Chinatown, fighting for clients and deals, working his ass off, scrapping, succeeding, failing, changing course, and blazing his own path, day after day, year after year, to this very day. Like so many of our kind, my dad is a born entrepreneur.

If this sounds familiar, well, it should. Many of us have parents, grandparents, spouses, siblings, and other mischpuchim who are self-starting, self-employed entrepreneurs, and other words used to describe the lone wolves hunting their livelihoods. Why does it seem somehow appropriately Jewish to be an entrepreneur?

First, the notion of that independence is baked right into the tradition and faith. Yes, we are a God-fearing people, diligently obeying laws and mitzvot, unquestionably preparing to slit that kid’s throat—but not without a question (or a few hundred) for the unquestionable deity. “Why this? Why not that? Why can’t I just? What if? But why?” The people Israel are not sheep. The word means God-wrestlers, and we have been pushing the limits of the supreme authority from day one.

Our greatest heroes and prophets embody this. Adam and Eve, giving up the complacent life of guaranteed property and income for risky new markets. Joseph, who instituted a hostile takeover of the family business, and then somehow found fresh success after that was taken away. Moses, the ultimate pitchman, who convinced an entire people that the solution to all their problems lay just a bit farther in the desert.

Each generation of Jews has found fault with the status quo, tossed their hands in the air in frustration, and gone on to build a new synagogue (or JCC, or yeshiva, or sect, or denomination), including that famous rabbi from Nazareth, who was fed up with the way the old guard was doing things.

Second, our communal proclivity toward entrepreneurship has been carved out by history—a history that, until relatively recently, was stateless, homeless, and untethered. Wandering has never been conducive to steady employment, especially when you are legally barred from owning property, joining professional guilds, or doing the majority of respectable jobs. So what do you do, if you find yourself living in third-century Rome, or 17th-century Poland, or early 20th-century Miami (where the signs clearly say “No Jews”)? You do whatever business you can. Trade sugar, scrap metal, feathers, cloth, dates, diamonds. You strap a bunch of stuff to a wagon and head out, making a buck where you can. You find opportunity in the cracks between the places that you are banned, and you push at those cracks with your hustle and chutzpah, until they spread into chasms.

We are, and will always be, an immigrant people. We arrived with nothing, and built something. We came with a few kopeks and a needle and thread, and made a dress, sold it, made a few more, sold those, and lo and behold, we built a whole district of shmattes! We bought a house, renovated it, sold it, bought another, and lo and behold, we built entire suburbs! My great-great-great-great grandfather arrived in Canada from Germany nearly two centuries ago, and sold tobacco. His kids sold furs. Their kids sold shmattes. Their kids sold screwdrivers. No one in the family worked for anyone but themselves, right down to my brother and me.

But the ultimate reason entrepreneurship is so very Jewish is that it forms the heart of our communities. We are a people scattered across centuries and continents, and yet we all tie ourselves together with the local baker and deli owners and spice-seller in the shuk. We all have that self-made garmento cousin we know and love, whether they are a polished variant like Donna Karan, or someone like my mother-in-law Fran, who was selling women’s accessories from a folding card table until just a few years ago (and was itching to get into the hand sanitizer supply business in April). They are the ladies at the Hadassah bazaar, and the Hasidic jewelers who sold me my wife’s engagement ring in New York. The shvitzy developers and the hard-working plumbers who build their houses, the Israeli tech-titans, and the shifty taxi drivers who take them to work. From the Rothschilds to the Roths (who run a child’s bouncy castle rental business somewhere near Long Beach) we are a people of entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship isn’t just a way to earn a living. It is a value that we have instilled in ourselves and our communities, one generation at a time. As my father and mother did to me, so shall I to my children, who see my wife and me working for ourselves, and know that it is always possible to go out on your own. To not sit back, ask for permission, and accept your lot in life. To not hold back on your ideas and opinions. To wrestle with something wider, because that’s who we are.

And now, as the job losses mount, and uncertainty grips every corner of this world, we need to keep the Jewish tradition of entrepreneurship alive, and even deepen it. It has saved us before. It was always the refuge we turned to when no other avenues were open. No one is going to rescue us. We have this in our blood. We all have an idea, a product, a service, something we can start selling to make a living, continuing that unbroken line of entrepreneurship, from generation to generation.

I am a Jew. I am an entrepreneur.

David Sax’s latest book is The Future Is Analog: How to Create a More Human World, out this month.