Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way.
By Hasia R. Diner. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. xix + 247 pp.
In Roads Taken Hasia Diner rescues Jewish peddlers from historical obscurity and places them squarely in the vanguard of the mass migration that reshaped the Jewish world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She seeks to answer a broad three-fold question: "How did the nature of the occupation of peddling ... help shape ... the great Jewish migration that lies at the heart of Jewish modernity, the integration of the Jews into the lands to which they went and in which they sold and then settled, and a new iteration of Jewish life?" Her answers are that peddling laid the all-important economic foundation for the migration, that it helped Jews integrate socially and culturally into their new homes, and that peddlers played a major role in modernizing Jewish culture and religious practice. Making innovative use of family and local histories, memoirs, and archival material in English, Yiddish, and Spanish, Diner expertly tells a complex transnational story that not only brings the peddlers to the forefront of Jewish history, but Jews to the center of the general history of the modern movement of peoples from old worlds to new.
Indeed, Diner argues that for the most part, the peddlers' experiences differed little whether they traversed the roads of North America, South America, Australia, Ireland, South Africa, or Great Britain. The story in all these places was more or less the same: pushed out of their old homes by economic change, emigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and North Africa followed the trail of economic opportunity. Finding themselves in strange lands among people with strange languages and customs, the peddlers set out with heavy packs on their backs, braving the elements and robbers to make a living selling all manner of goods to the locals. Close and sustained contact with these locals--not only selling to them but often eating and sleeping in their homes--quickly enabled the peddlers to gain intimate knowledge of the languages, cultures, and social conditions of their new countries. Perhaps most importantly, although Jewish and non-Jewish elites held peddling in low regard, peddling worked as a path of social mobility. Many former peddlers found at least modest, and occasionally even spectacular, success as settled shopkeepers, junk dealers, financiers, and manufacturers.
Peddlers significantly influenced the societies in which they did business. Most importantly, as Diner shows, they both rode on the back of and helped direct the commercial revolution that raised their customers' standard of living, bringing hitherto unaffordable or inaccessible consumer goods within reach. The peddlers often subtly challenged racial hierarchies by treating subordinated minorities with a courtesy equal to that which they showed to dominant groups. (This challenge, however, seldom extended to overt opposition to systems of racial subordination, and when peddlers opened their own stores they conformed to conventional racial mores.) Likewise, Diner argues, peddlers empowered their largely female customers not only by giving them more choices as consumers, but also by sometimes providing them with independent income, buying from them junk, agricultural produce, and other commodities that the peddlers collected on their rounds for resale elsewhere.
The peddling experience also influenced modern Jewish culture, especially religious expression and practice. Diner puts it at the root of religious reform if not capital-R Reform. Peddlers usually worked five days a week and thus could observe the Sabbath to the degree they wished. But keeping kosher was difficult on the road, though many strove to maintain a degree of kashrut observance by not eating meat at their hosts' tables. Above all, Jewish peddlers and their Gentile customers compared religious notes, studied texts together, and even in a few cases prayed together. This cultural exchange broke down traditional barriers between Jews and non-Jews that had been maintained as much by Jews as by the surrounding cultures. When they settled down, ex-peddlers ironically found it harder to keep the Sabbath, but easier to affiliate with the Jewish community and otherwise maintain a higher level of observance. They therefore came away with a sense of Judaism as a flexible system, and one that they adjusted so as to allow them to be full members of general society.
Although the peddling experience showed many similarities from place to place, there were some differences. The United States, of course, drew the greatest number of Jewish immigrants overall, and it also saw the fullest manifestation of many of the features of peddler life. So, for example, religious reform went further in the US, where Jewish peddlers came into contact with an American religious pluralism that included many new religions and denominations in the nineteenth century, than it did in countries where the Roman Catholic Church or the British religious establishment held sway. Likewise, while Diner stresses the friendliness of relations between peddlers and their customers, she does note some flare ups of antisemitism especially, but not exclusively, in Catholic societies such as Ireland and Quebec, where conservative clergy saw the Jewish peddlers as modernizing and materialistic threats to austere traditional ways of life. Everywhere, settled shopkeepers (except for those who were Jewish former peddlers themselves) looked upon the peddlers as interlopers and illegitimate competitors. Finally, while peddling helped Jews everywhere integrate into their new host societies, it was in the United States where the process of integration was brought to its fullest, as witnessed by the number of ex-peddlers who went on to hold political office and play leading roles in civic affairs.
There are some minor quibbles one might make. Diner asserts, for example, that "Jewish historians" have wrongly downplayed the economic impetus behind the mass migration and "have long emphasized how ... Jews migrated because of the violence directed at them in the places where they lived and suffered." (21) But the only examples she cites for this "conventional thinking" are Emma Lazarus and Martin Buber. Indeed, a footnote points to the work of Simon Kuznets, who forty years ago debunked the idea that antisemitic violence was the main spur to migration. Quibbles aside, Roads Taken masterfully builds the big story on a foundation of the little stories of the "ordinary people who in their ordinariness made history" (ix).
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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