Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way

Yale University Press  2015


Peddling tends to be treated only in passing in works about Jewish immigration. The peddler was a popular target of caricaturists, and was regarded by both Marxists and Zionists as an “unproductive” element.

However, historian Hasia Diner sees peddling as an avenue of economic and social mobility for the itinerant merchants in the “new worlds” to which Jews immigrated. These “road warriors” traversed the rural landscapes of North and South America, southern Africa, and the British Isles, bringing the mass-produced goods of the urban metropolis to their customers’ doorsteps. As they made their rounds, the peddlers collected rags, metal, and even bones – and some eventually made a decent living off of these scraps.

Viewing immigration through the prism of peddling, Diner brings a transnational and pan-Jewish perspective to her topic. As a historian of nineteenth-century American Jewry she understandably devotes most of her attentions to Jewish peddlers of Central European origin in the United States and Canada, from the 1830s to the early 1900s. The openness of American society offered unprecedented opportunities for social integration as well as upward economic mobility. One striking example is the possibly apocryphal story of the Lithuanian Jewish peddler who preached on Sunday to the German-speaking congregants of a community church in Northfield, Minnesota. The theme of his sermons: the weekly Torah portion!

Diner pays close attention to the gender equation. She “tells the story of the male Jewish peddlers who trudged on and got off the road, but their story cannot be told without that of women, Jewish and non-Jewish.” The peddler, characteristically, was a young man who devoted only a few years to this vocation. His customers typically were the wives of farmers, and their interactions were a melding of the purely transactional and the informal. Meanwhile, the peddler’s wife (if he was already married) might be employed in a retail shop back in town. Peddlers’ weekly sojourns“allowed women to play key roles in shaping the modern Jewish experience,” through such innovations as the ladies’ auxiliaries of local synagogues.

This study of the opportunities and challenges facing the Jewish peddler is written in a highly accessible style. Roads Taken belongs to a growing scholarly literature on Jews, capitalism, and the world of business: “Jewish immigrant peddlers existed at the bottom of a linked chain headed by manufacturers in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and other large cities, who worked directly with Jewish warehouse owners who facilitated goods and credit for the peddlers.”

Improvements in transportation and communication, together with the curtailing of Jewish immigration after World War I, led to the decline of itinerant peddling in North America. By referring to the “millions of men who took up the peddler’s pack,” Diner probably overstates the number of Jewish immigrants who pursued this occupation. However, she is persuasive in her assertion that the peddlers “left a different place from the one they had found, changing themselves and making those places and Jewish history modern.”

Notes, illustrations, photographs.

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