The five million Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the century were overwhelmingly over-represented in towns and in cities. They specialized in seemingly urban occupations, were relatively literate, and were almost absent in agriculture. This pattern persisted overseas where one third of them would eventually immigrate. Hence, Jews were typically characterized as an urban minority. I argue that the opposite was true. The economic ecology of the Jews, the patterns of choices of occupation and location, are described in a model in which Jews were countryside workers with a comparative advantage in rural commerce, complementing agricultural workers, and without comparative advantage in denser urban settings. Using data from the 1897 census, I show that the cross-sectional patterns across districts and localities were consistent with all the predictions of this model. When the share of Jews in the population grew, Jews spilled across two margins—occupational, as manufacturing workers, and geographic, as rural frontier men. Non-Jews were imperfect substitute for Jews, rendering the latter indispensable to the countryside economy. No evidence of urban advantage is evident in the data. Turn of the century Pale of Settlement Jews ought to be understood as rural workers, in and of the countryside. In this light, the patterns exhibited in the US after immigration appear as a sharp break from, rather than a continuation of, old country economic tradition.
That is the abstract of a new paper by Yannay Spitzer. For the pointer I thank Ilya Novak.