...We know perfectly well, judging from experience in New York and other cities, that the Irish make very good policemen and firemen. The Scotch have more than their proportionate share of excellent engineers, the Norwegians predominate in navigation, and the Italians and Germans have had more than their share of musical leaders. Why may not the Jews make good lawyers? Why may not the Jews indulge in scientific research and do very good work in the field of medicine?

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This week, from the J-Vault: Jews in Commerce and the Professions (1934)

In 1934, a City College professor of philosophy named Morris R. Cohen addressed the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service in an erudite and wide-ranging discussion of American Jews' employment patterns, dwelling on the area he knew best: the professoriate.

I was once lecturing at one of the eastern universities, and was staying overnight with a friend, a dean of the university. The next morning, in the intimacy of the breakfast table, he turned to. me and said, "Why do you Jews crowd so much into the professions? Why don't you go into industry and agriculture?" Well, as a Jew, I naturally answered by asking him, "Is that what you think of my lecture last night?"...

...The conversation changed, the way it will, but a little later I asked my host: "By the way, what is your boy doing at Princeton? Has he decided whether he is going into the teaching of philosophy or into the ministry ?"My host replied: " No, he has decided to take up law. You see, his mother's father, and his uncles are in this law firm, and the family has been in that firm for quite a while. His mother thinks it would be a good thing for him to continue.in the family tradition." Whereupon I asked: "Well, have you ever thought of sending him into industry or agriculture?"...

...how can you ask a Jewish college graduate to become a stevedore or a truckman or to go into any of those occupations which non-Jewish college graduate do not enter? Why should you expect, that Jewish college graduates will enter into those occupations which non-Jewish- college graduates do not enter? It is absurd to expect it and it doesn't seem to me that we should urge it. It is true that in the old world you will find Jewish scholars who are also workingmen. I have known a tailor who was regarded as one of the most learned men in his town. That is undoubtedly frequent, in Europe and to a certain extent it may even be true in this country, until we become thoroughly Americanized. The delight in learning for its own sake enabled the Jews to bear their hard economic lot in the Ghetto without being degraded by losing their self-respect. And even in this country I have known a Jewish peddler who wrote a book on Spinoza in Hebrew—I don't know whether he ever had it published or not...

...Those things are much more common, I think, among Jews than among other people, although I think you will find similar situations among the Scotch and among the modern Greeks. I once met a modern Greek who was selling peanuts and also had a copy of Sophocles in the ancient Greek in his pocket, occasionally looking into it when he thought his customers wouldn't notice it...

...[S]o long as we have our present democratic system of politics, where the Jews have any considerable vote there will be no open discrimination against them and they will get some opportunity, and that I think is the fact today. With regard to college teaching it seems to me the situation is different because the traditions are different. The tradition of teaching in the public schools is the feminine tradition, that is to say, public schools were regarded as the place where the children were to be taught and generally the men were too busy with important things to do and the women had to teach the children. In the colleges the American tradition is somewhat different. The colleges were never run by women, but they were run by clergymen, the next best thing.

Few adequately realize the significance of that and I think it rather important to dwell on it for a moment or two... You see, the American colleges were founded as ancillary to the theological seminaries, and were originally intended to train ministers... Up to the year 1900, almost every professor of philosophy in an American college, outside of a few exceptionally enlightened institutions in the East, was a clergyman...

...What, now, has happened in recent years? Some years ago Mr. Carnegie, who was an old fashioned radical, believed that it was a good thing to separate religion from education, and he devised what he thought was a very shrewd scheme. He said that he would give certain moneys for pension funds for teachers in non-denominational colleges or universities. Whereupon a great many denominational colleges became overnight non-denominational.

But while you can change the denomination of a college, you cannot change its traditions overnight, and the result is that these colleges and universities are still largely dominated by the old traditions. I will not say that there is discrimination today against Jews as teachers in all colleges. Let us leave that out of the discussion. But it is quite obvious that all other things being equal a gentleman who belongs to the denomination which has fed the college from its beginning, which has supplied the college with all its distingushed professors and presidents, will get preference, and according to the prevailing mores quite rightly...

There is much more worth reading in this fascinating speech.

See other installments in our J-Vault series here.

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