Peddler on the Hoof – By Shari Rabin

Shari Rabin on Hasia Diner’s Roads Taken

Hasia Diner, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, Yale University Press, 2015, 280pp., $35
Hasia Diner, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, Yale University Press, 2015, 280pp., $35

A colleague and I once came up with a party game for the field of American Jewish history. Having read Riv Ellen Prell’s Fighting to Become American which documents how Jewish men and women lobbed insults at one another in their quest for status — we decided that any of a number of distinguished books in the field could be re-described through the titular formulation “to become American.” Jews and the American Soul? Psychological diagnosing to become American. Jews and Booze? Drinking to become American. The Wonders of America? Consuming to become American. Once we began, our imaginations ran wild, generating new and potentially absurdist historical projects. Driving to become American! Spelling to become American! Aerobecizing to become American! And so on. This game — a blunt instrument to be sure, if an entertaining one — came to mind when reading Hasia Diner’s new book, which could fairly be described as peddling to become American, but also Irish, Chilean, South African, or Cuban.

In Roads Taken, Diner, whose work has largely focused on American Jews, embraces the transnational turn in order to document the global spread of Jewish peddling. While the United States was the most common and desirable destination for peddlers who left traditional areas of Jewish settlement, Diner argues that they pursued a similar occupation, with similar consequences, in numerous “New World” locations including England, Ireland, Sweden, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and Central and South America. The pull of peddling and its promise of financial success, she argues, motivated these migrations much more than the push of anti-Semitism. Many Jews had experience peddling in the old world, but even if they did not, it proved a smooth path to stability because overhead was inexpensive and because they could usually rely on the assistance of coreligionist peddlers, merchants, and wholesalers. Peddling, though a humble profession, nonetheless contributed to national economic expansion and simultaneously greased the wheels of Jewish integration, shaping the trajectories of modern Jewish life.

In keeping with the distinctive periodization she laid out in her Jews of the United States, Diner’s account spans 1820 to 1924. This, she argues, was a century-long “age of migration,” not, as historiographical orthodoxy would have it, discrete “German” and “Russian” periods separated by the pogroms of 1881. Throughout this period and even after, peddlers gathered up goods and made arduous treks into remote locations, where they approached — and hopefully were asked inside — home after home. Working to sell some trifles to humble folk, Jewish peddlers quickly picked up the local language and learned the habits and preferences of their customers. They were “agents of fulfilling desire” and the products they carried empowered customers, especially women and racial minorities, by bringing status and modernity within their reach — and at a good price, no less!

Not everyone loved a peddler, however, and in many places he was vilified as an untrustworthy interloper and subjected to onerous peddling licenses. These objections sometimes were shaded by peddling’s association with Jews, but even so, anti-Semitism and aggressive Christian evangelism were uncommon. Jews were largely perceived as white purveyors of desirable goods, whether they were selling to white Christians, black slaves, or indigenous peoples. Most of the customers were women, who were empowered to furnish their domestic sanctuaries, and all of the peddlers were men. In many cases peddlers stayed overnight in barns or on floors, engaging in friendly conversation and even interreligious education with their customers. A kosher-keeping peddler would have to explain to a Protestant or Catholic farmer why he refused meat from his table, and a discussion of Judaism and the Bible might ensue.

In between stints on the road, usually one week in duration, peddlers would return to a larger town or city to rest, stock up, and briefly participate in the religious and social life that their wives, mothers, and sisters oversaw from Sunday to Friday. Eventually, most of these men settled down, entering other professions with the benefit and knowledge of their years on the road. Peddling, Diner argues, was “a way of life, a formative force in launching the migration, and a fundamental institution which both structured community life and provided the mechanism by which group members integrated into their new world home.”

Diner has written an ambitious book, but one often wishes that she had painted with a smaller, narrower brush. “Each place had its own history,” she acknowledges, noting local laws, differences between Protestant and Catholic countries, and the exceptionalism of the United States, and yet she regularly minimizes evidence that place of origin or destination shaped peddling. For instance, she writes of a Winnipeg shopkeeper’s daughter who,

looking back to the 1880s, recalled that ‘at his [Finkelstein’s] store, those of the group who became peddlers were given their first start and later their stocks were replenished. They went off to trade with the Indians…and English in the surrounding territory.

This story “could easily have come from New South Wales, Limerick, or Chile,” we are told. Perhaps some of the mechanics of peddling were universal, but certainly distinctive Canadian conditions shaped these men’s lives and experiences, not to mention the fact that they were selling to Indians, who were likely hard to come by in Limerick.

Peddler. Bucharest, c. 1880. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Peddler. Bucharest, c. 1880. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Diner’s approach to transnationalism encourages a sort of occupational determinism. “The act of peddling,” we are told, “erased linguistic, national, and religious differences as barriers to human interaction.” It is described as a “perfect” path toward integration, whose practitioners acted “almost as if conforming to a script.” Jewish peddlers “engaged positively and respectfully with all customers” and “never denied their Jewishness…[C]ustomers always knew that a Jew, not a Christian, had entered their domestic spaces.” This phenomenology of peddling almost leads one to wonder why it did not have similar effects in the old world or in earlier time periods.

The picture that emerges is notably celebratory, likely because so many of Diner’s sources are memoirs and local histories. Her research took her to multiple continents, and includes some non-Jewish sources along with her Jewish ones, and yet her footnotes reveal a surprising dearth of contemporary letters and diaries, which might have provided more nuance and diversity to her story. As it stands, peddlers are portrayed almost as social workers who treated everyone humanely and blessed marginalized peoples with the transformative powers of consumer goods. Diner acknowledges that some of her sources “may have sounded a bit too positive,” but nonetheless insists, “empirical data, life histories, and communal biographies all tell the same story, regardless of time or place.” This “same story” included integration, patriotism, and economic success, toward which Diner’s stance is largely summarized as: “without peddling it might never have happened.” And yet surely Jewish integration took place in other kinds of occupations and settings as well.

In its embrace of transnationalism, Road Taken demonstrates Diner’s eye for new historical methodologies and their potential for the study of American Jews, previously seen in her well-received studies of memory and food. And yet, as I was reading, I found myself thinking about an entirely different historiographical movement that has gained steam in the years since Diner began this project. What would the history of Jewish peddling have looked like, I wondered, if Diner had positioned it not within the transnational turn, but within the history of capitalism?

This field — as has been documented in the New York Times, the Journal of American History, and elsewhere — grew in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown, fueled by the desire to denaturalize capitalism and reveal the terms of its historical construction. Its practitioners, like Diner, have argued for expansive new periodizations while turning their attention to everyday workers and the significance of race. And yet further engagement with their scholarship would have pushed her analysis in different directions. It might have kept her more focused on differences among national contexts rather than similarities and it certainly would have encouraged her to think about her peddlers as data for how capitalism operated and changed over time. Most profoundly, Diner’s study would have been deepened by the insight that, in the words of historian Seth Rockman, “culture…also governs the market economy despite its presumed profit-maximizing rationality.”

Diner references the economic theories of Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber, and yet for the most part, she seems to assume the rules of free market capitalism rather than to expose, critique, or historicize them. For instance, she argues that Jewish peddlers “had to conduct themselves respectfully no matter to whom they sold.” While she elsewhere acknowledges the potential for customers to ruin the reputation and prospects of difficult peddlers, considering the history of capitalism would have put a finer point on the contingency of such norms. They were not inevitable outcomes of rational business concerns, but evidence of a more dynamic interaction between capitalism and culture that produced particular moral and economic codes. One model Diner might have turned to is Michael Zakim’s work on early nineteenth-century clerks, which illuminates “the close relationship between the expanding market and the democratic spread of ambition.” Clerks, he argues, represented and advanced values of profit, self-government, and sovereign individuality, helping to create and shape the capitalist order. While clerking was a new occupation and peddling an old one, surely it too could shed light on the contours of capitalism and the modern world, not to mention the role of religion, ethnicity, and the Jews within them.

In recent years, there has been a flourishing of work addressing the history of modern Jewish economic life, some but not all of it transnational and some but not all of it interested in the history of capitalism per se. Derek Penslar’s work on the economic underpinnings of Europe’s so-called Jewish Questions in Shylock’s Children, Sarah Abrevya Stein’s account of global Jewish commerce in Plumes, and Jerry Muller’s Capitalism and the Jews are just a few of the recent studies seeking to move beyond anti-Semitic depictions to present a fuller picture of Jews as economic actors. In the American case this trend is best represented by Rebecca Kobrin’s edited volume Chosen Capital and by Adam Mendelsohn’s brand new study of Jews in the garment industry. Diner cites many of these studies, but does not robustly join in their debates.

It is a credit to Diner’s skill at reconstructing the world of peddling that her material overflows her analytic framework, begging further questions and suggesting new directions. Indeed, historians of capitalism would learn from reading this book, as would historians of migration, ethnicity, and religion. Diner offers vivid, granular descriptions of peddlers’ everyday practices and social interactions, never losing sight of the women they sold to or left at home and periodically taking useful sidelong glances at other groups, especially Arab peddlers. She demonstrates the wide geographical spread of the modern Jewish experience and the undeniable influence of economic pursuits on religious and cultural life.

And yet a more a critical edge — and a wider range of sources — might have offered a clearer view of the costs, losses, and varieties of peddling within the context of emergent economic systems. Perhaps beyond showing — and celebrating — how our subjects are trying to become American (or Chilean or South African) — we should exert more effort exploring how their American (and Chilean and South African) stories can illuminate other and larger ones, not least that of the global economic order in which we all toil.