Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers who Forged the WayYale University Press, 2015, 280 pp., $35
Ask a New Yorker to recommend a few activities during a stay in the city, and almost without exception that list will include a visit to the Guggenheim. The museum, known for its collection of non-objective paintings, stands out from its peers—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the American Museum of Natural History—in that it bears the name of its founder, Solomon R. Guggenheim.That the legacy of the Guggenheim family lies at the epicenter of American culture is exceptional. Meyer Guggenheim, the patriarch of that family, came to America a poor Jewish immigrant and initially made his living peddling a route along Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. His children grew up as well-established Americans, and devoted their lives to advancing their family’s legacy and this country. His story, though marked by the degree of his success, is the story of countless Jews who came to the new world and, with a small pack of wares, set off peddling down unfamiliar roads.In Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migration to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, historian Hasia Diner weaves these forgotten stories into a powerful narrative about how these Jewish immigrants profoundly shaped the societies they entered, through the many doors on which they knocked. Over rough terrain, through excruciating heat and cold, and despite societal boundaries of class, color, and creed, Jewish peddlers entered the homes of their customers, and in doing so, altered the way that people interacted both economically and personally.At a moment when technology and globalization allow us to communicate with others from the confines of our closed-off homes, it is difficult to understand the importance of these interactions. They set in motion an expansion of commerce from the city-centers into the frontiers, and also necessitated interaction between Jews and their customers of diverse religion, race, culture, language, social standing, educational attainment, and material possession.While Diner stresses the ubiquity of Jewish peddlers (smous) in all new world settlements, the vast majority ultimately settled in America. This is because Jews emigrating from the old world “viewed the United States as a singular society, in a category all its own.” Indeed, for those leaving countries whose laws forbade Jews from entering certain professions and whose people persecuted the Jews for their religious practices, America’s promise of individual liberty, economic advancement, and religious freedom must have had incomparable allure. Yet, Diner contends, Jews were not so much driven from their homes by fear of persecution as drawn to the new world by tales of opportunity and prosperity. This is no small distinction.Arriving at their destinations, many young men were greeted at the ports by members of the Jewish community, sometimes known to them, sometimes not. Most of these older, established men—owners of property, and often shopkeepers of varying success—had themselves taken up peddling upon arrival. As with all Jewish enterprises at the time, peddling relied on a system of credit within the Jewish community. The older shopkeeper or wholesaler offered the newly arrived immigrant an occupation: take this pack of goods from my shop, which I will loan to you without interest, and go sell them to the people in the country, who have a taste for the luxuries of the city, but not the means to travel here. That the peddlers provided goods to those who would otherwise go without them was a matter of deep import and, at times, hot contention.Those who chose peddling did so because of its entrepreneurial nature. A peddler’s earnings were fixed directly to his performance. Moreover, as he traveled only a five-day week, it enabled him to observe the Sabbath in rest. The newly minted peddler, after recovering from his journey, was outfitted in clothes befitting a salesman, taught rudimentary phrases in the local language (enough to make a sale, sometimes no more), given a map of the route he was to service, and sent off on the road. Each salesman, whether in Lima or Louisiana, was assigned a medinah (kingdom), that was his own to service. Because peddlers sold on the installment plan, making a sale and returning weekly for the scheduled payment, “successful outcomes depended upon a synergistic relationship between newcomers and those whom they encountered.”In their influential study Consumption and the World of Goods, John Brewer and Roy Porter begin by stating that “the ultimate test of the viability of regimes rests in their capacity, in the literal sense, to ‘deliver the goods.’” Indeed, the peddlers who delivered the goods to the hinterlands—the farmlands of central Pennsylvania, the plantation settlements of Georgia and the Carolinas, the mining towns of the Midwest, or even the jungles of the Amazon—enabled the expansion of the new world. Frontiersmen settled the expanses of the West, but it was salesmen who made sure they were properly equipped. Peddling served an integral function in the rapidly modernizing economy of the western world.As such, a young man willing to assume the arduous (and often tedious and lonely) labor of peddling had a chance to enrich himself. Because the peddler’s creditor was also the seller of the merchandise, he shared a keen interest in the peddler’s success. The merchant would take a small portion of the profit, which served functionally as the return on his investment, and the rest was the peddler’s for keeping. This is the critical distinction between peddling and other professions. For a laborer in a garment factory or steel mill, other common professions for immigrants, his earnings were but enough to cover his expenses. He had no savings. For a peddler, the money made in surplus of what he owed his boss was his to save. As savings compounded, he became a holder of capital.This process of capital accumulation still eludes many Americans today. Indeed, there are theories of economics that contend that the gap between the richest and poorest individuals will perpetually grow, so long as those at the bottom have no savings. Capital begets more capital. For a peddler, the payoff was potentially huge, though the process could take years of toil. If successful, the once itinerant salesman came in from the cold, so to speak, and settled into a sedentary profession in an established Jewish community. Often he became a shopkeeper, found some newly arrived Jewish boys, and sent them off down the same road he had left behind.Diner’s account, like any story of Jewish immigration and integration, includes episodes of discrimination, mockery, and at times, physical assault. No doubt in these instances, people flung “centuries-old anti-Jewish slogans and phrases” at the Jewish peddlers. Many resisted the changes to local order peddlers represented. These changes, including the rise of individual consumption and increased competition among local business-owners, were heralds of the economic forces of capitalism that would shape the coming centuries. Yet, despite the fodder that the peddlers’ Jewishness provided their detractors in Limerick, Ireland, or in the countryside of Wisconsin, Diner argues, “[b]eing a peddler, rather than being a Jew, proved to be the problem.”Still, for the wives who opened their doors and their homes to smous, it was often their first time interacting with a Jew. Yet antipathy and anti-Semitism, Diner writes, “represented rare exceptions rather than the norm.” Mostly, the “weekly men” and their customers got along quite well. This was a necessity for a peddler, who depended on his likability not only to make a sale but also to find a willing host to offer him lodging at night. Whether entering the “big house” to sell to the owner of a plantation, or the quarters of the master’s slaves, the peddler removed his hat, bowed his head, and addressed his greeter as “ma’am.” To the latter group, this level of respect was unprecedented, and no doubt deeply appreciated. At that moment, for the first time, the woman opening the door, constantly subjugated on the basis of her blackness and her womanhood—held a position of power over a free, white man.Indeed, it was the breaking of such customs that aroused most anti-peddler action. Wealthy elites wanted to preserve “the centrality of class and the power of the elite over the poor,” and so depicted the Jewish peddler as a conniving capitalist, a danger to his poor customers, who were unfit to resist his quick tongue. Catholic priests decried the Jews as “harbingers of a corrupt modern civilization,” fearing that individualism would spread among the poorer classes—and, heaven forbid, lead them to demand political authority. When slave-owners organized to stop smous from entering their community, they did so in order to “prevent their property from hearing ideas inimical to the system,” as one pamphlet put it. And certainly, when local businessmen called on their lawmaking friends to rid their localities of peddlers, it was resistance to competition and the forces of a market economy that sent them calling. Today, we gleefully refer to this type of disruption as innovation.Though Jewish peddlers were simply focused on making a sale, they also challenged social norms. Economic globalization, territorial expansion, universal enfranchisement, and religious reformation ushered in modernity, and to varying degrees peddling intersected with all of them. In his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber highlighted the contradiction between the social forces of capitalism and the teachings of the Catholic Church. The latter, he argued, was in need of considerable Reformation to fit a rapidly changing world. Indeed, the sermons that incited the “Limerick pogrom” around the turn of the 20th century warned of the “dangers of excessive enjoyment of material goods.” At that time, even replacing a straw pallet with a bed and mattress was seen as scandalous excess, which speaks to the fears that peddling evoked. Peddlers also, Diner writes, played a “conspicuous role” in the founding of Reform Judaism in America; taking note of how their Christian peers assimilated, they recognized a need to change the “hermitic” tendencies of Jewish culture.Peddlers opened their packs to those who’d never enjoyed even modest luxuries, and in doing so, opened a world full of possibility and better fortune to society’s subjugated classes, whose travails they well understood. Like Meyer Guggenheim, they started from humble beginnings, and when they came into affluence, never forgot the 150-pound packs they hauled along the road—the literal weight that was lifted from their shoulders.The generations of Jewish immigrants who took up that unglamorous, peripatetic occupation of peddling down long and lonely routes did it so that their families might enjoy the spoils of sedentary life in established communities. Jews, once the “eternally wandering” people, eventually gave their children a safe and stable home in which to grow and to thrive. That is progress.