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

  • Review
By – April 6, 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.

Addi­tion­al Review by Susan Cham­bre

The Jew­ish ped­dlers who are the focus of Hasia R. Diner’s Roads Tak­en ven­tured forth with an ambi­tious aim: to gain an eco­nom­ic foothold at a time of expand­ing con­sumerism. One-third of the world’s Jews emi­grat­ed to new lands between the late eigh­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies; the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty went to the Unit­ed States. Many young, immi­grant Jew­ish men took up ped­dling, mar­ket­ing an array of man­u­fac­tured goods — a byprod­uct of indus­tri­al­iza­tion — to peo­ple who oth­er­wise had lim­it­ed access to mate­r­i­al goods.

Din­er makes an impor­tant addi­tion to the lit­er­a­ture on Jew­ish migra­tion, argu­ing that, more than just a response to per­se­cu­tion, this mass migra­tion result­ed from a con­flu­ence of forces. These includ­ed the demo­graph­ic pres­sures of Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion growth, and the rise of nation­al­ism in Europe and the Mid­dle East. At the same time, expand­ing Euro­pean set­tle­ment and colo­nial­ism pro­vid­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties that pulled poten­tial ped­dlers to far-flung destinations.

Recent recon­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the transna­tion­al nature of migra­tion and social net­works is evi­dent in Diner’s dis­cus­sion of why many migrants under­took ped­dling: to earn a liv­ing and to under­write the migra­tion of their wives, chil­dren and oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers. Both the knowl­edge and eco­nom­ic cap­i­tal that enabled ped­dlers’ suc­cess came from oth­er Jews, espe­cial­ly fam­i­ly members.

Ped­dling required ambi­tion and courage. It involved numer­ous chal­lenges includ­ing iso­la­tion, sep­a­ra­tion from wives and fam­i­lies, bad weath­er, and the inabil­i­ty to active­ly engage in com­mu­ni­ty life. Ped­dlers often slept in their cus­tomers’ homes, which required them to com­pro­mise their reli­gious and dietary prac­tices. It also had its dan­gers: the lone ped­dler could be a tar­get of rob­bery, or even mur­der — but also of sus­pi­cious indi­vid­u­als who viewed the stranger as the like­ly per­pe­tra­tor of a crime. Jew­ish ped­dlers in par­tic­u­lar were some­times accused of prey­ing on house­wives, per­suad­ing them to buy prod­ucts they didn’t need. As com­peti­tors to shop­keep­ers, ped­dlers also faced orga­nized efforts to dri­ve them out of business.

But some were able to sur­pass those obsta­cles. Ped­dling pro­vid­ed the seed mon­ey for shop­keep­ers and depart­ment store own­ers includ­ing the Gold­wa­ter and Strauss fam­i­lies, man­u­fac­tur­ers like the Shway­ders, who estab­lished Sam­sonite lug­gage, and financiers like the Selig­man and Lehman families.

While it may not be prac­ticed in the same way as in past cen­turies, ped­dling does sur­vive in var­i­ous forms: from the bun­ga­low colonies of the Catskills, to Ortho­dox Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in the New York met­ro­pol­i­tan area where the man in the truck” still vis­its, and even on Ama­zon where sell­ers ped­dle’ prod­ucts from the pri­va­cy of their homes. Ped­dling, in one form or anoth­er, con­tin­ues on.

Zachary M. Bak­er is the Rein­hard Fam­i­ly Cura­tor of Judaica and Hebraica Col­lec­tions in the Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Libraries, where he also serves as Assis­tant Uni­ver­si­ty Librar­i­an for Col­lec­tion Devel­op­ment (Human­i­ties and Social Sci­ences). He has been on the edi­to­r­i­al board of Judaica Librar­i­an­ship since its found­ing in 1983 and served as the journal’s edi­tor from 2004 to 2012.

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