Reflections on a Jewish merchant
I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about my great-grandfather, Moses Strouse. Not because I am interested that deeply in family trees or have ever visited ancestry.com, but because I am drawn to sociology and am deeply disturbed about the 21st century transitions to large, faceless franchises and stores.
Moses Strouse was a Jew from Germany, and he and his sons wound up—of all places—in Columbia City, Ind., not far from Fort Wayne. In all likelihood, they were wondering where to live in between trains from Ellis Island to Chicago, and one stop in a tiny hamlet seemed as good as the next. What did these Jews know about farming? Not too much, so they built a shop, and became clothiers and tailors to gentiles, redolent of how a more famous Strauss—Levi Strauss—invented blue jeans and sold them to gentile gold miners in California earlier in the century.
Moses probably didn’t know it, but he was both a sociological statistic—and an emissary of tolerance. Jews left Germany in the 19th century both for economic reasons and anti-Semitic ones, but they weren’t systematically persecuted as they were soon to be in the 20th century. They were simply looking for a better life in the New World, much as many from the Old World were.
Strouses’ Men’s Wear, the store he, my grandfather and grand uncles ran for nearly a century, was emblematic of the bucolic melting pot of national life. We tend to think of the “melting pot” as tenement housing in urban areas; ethnicities piled upon one another. The bustling, buzzing, swarming streets of Los Angeles and Brooklyn; the Puerto Ricans and the Chinese; the Italians and the Irish all come to mind—not farmers. But in sleepy Columbia City, Ind.,—and in hundreds of similar villages all over the Midwest, the South and the frontier—Jewish merchants set up shops, lived among farmers, created stakes for themselves in the lives of others, and became something they were not in their former lands: respected.
The Strouses were “town Jews.” When my mother became a bayonet twirler in Columbia City High School, I don’t think another Jewish girl graduated from it until her sister did a decade later. These town Jews—all over the United States—became part of the fabric of Norman Rockwell’s America. The Strouses sold OshKosh B’Gosh overalls to gentiles and fitted them in their “Sunday best.” There were no cameras monitoring the store as there are at malls and superstores today. There was trust. Credit might be a handshake, and my ancestors likely helped many gentile neighbors get through the Great Depression and other rough spots with store credits that were really gifts. As Jewish emissaries, the Strouses slowly taught their town that Jews didn’t have horns, that Jews had family values just like they did, and that Judaism was a faith to be respected—not converted.
These Jewish stores that dotted the American landscape—primarily general stores, grocers and clothes shops—were centers of warmth, friendship and gossip. They were natural interaction points between gentiles and Jews; points that exist online or in other venues today. While a few such stores might still exist, they have been largely replaced by the Orwellian worlds of Target and Wal-Mart, CVS and Walgreens. Folksy Jewish mercantilism has been supplanted by “late capitalism”—that is what social critics call our era of anti-septic franchise stores and 24-hour availability. Strolling into my grandfather’s store was an exercise in humanism; walking into Costco or Sam’s Club is usually about as personal as some IBM data.
One of the great and tragic ironies of modern times is that we fought Hitler and fascism only to create our own form of “consumer fascism.” Starbucks baristas are militarized by their green aprons, and you must know the insider lingo of which vente latte to order to be accepted. Store clerks all over the United States wear the same uniforms, read from the same scripts, and answer customers with the same monotones. Their individuality is quashed in the name of corporate standards and training manuals; the American sales clerk, monitored by videotape and mystery shoppers (who are really supervisors in disguise observing behaviors) are what French intellectual Michael Foucault calls “docile bodies in a fortress.” Ethnicity is cleansed and recapitulated as Einstein Bagels, Tijuana Flats or Panda Express. None of this, of course, is true ethnicity. They are examples of what another French intellectual, Jean Baudrillard, called our era: the Age of Simulation.
The next time you wander into a superstore or a fast food chain, and are automatically asked to supersize it or if you have your customer points card with you, try to remember the Jewish merchants who existed before this dehumanizing era, and ask yourself what you can do to bring a little more warmth into the transaction, as the Strouses did.
They were real.
Richard Ries is a graduate student at UCF and a staff writer at the Heritage.