- Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way by Hasia R. Diner
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. [End Page 131]
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...