Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

From Wandering to Belonging

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

From Wandering to Belonging

Article excerpt

Pioneering 'travelling salesmen' brought more than just their wares to the US, says Marni Davis

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

By Hasia R. Diner Yale University Press, 280pp, £22.50 ISBN 9780300178647 Published 5 March 2015

Much of the scholarship on modern Jewish history focuses upon the advent and evolution of movements: Zionism, socialism, Haredism and so forth. Hasia Diner's new book covers Jewish movements of a different sort. Roads Taken is a study of Jewish immigrants who became rural pedlars - travelling salesmen in the hinterlands - in the 19th and early 20th centuries. She follows these migrants on ships and trains, and then on foot, as they departed Eastern and Central Europe and the Ottoman Empire in search of opportunity. Making their way to undeveloped regions opened by territorial expansion, industrial development and improvements in transportation, this peripatetic Jewish "entrepreneurial proletariat", packs heavy on their backs, trudged through Latin America and South Africa, traversed Ireland and Australia, and ranged all over the westward-shifting frontier of the US. Diner convincingly argues that pedlars played a transformative role not only in the history of modern Jewry, but also in the cultures and economies of the nations where they peddled.

These men (and they were almost all men) might have thought their mission to be relatively modest and unremarkable. They hoped to build a customer base among the families whose homes they visited, and worked hard to establish a rapport with rural wives who had little other access to consumer goods. They learned the vernacular and became familiar with the cultures and customs of their clientele. Eventually, they accumulated sufficient capital to leave the road, open a small shop and settle their families. In the process, they established a Jewish presence, and, if several landed in the same small town, a Jewish community, where none had previously existed. The "great migration" of global Jewry, already a major force of modern population transfer, was scattered even more widely by these pedlars.

But pedlars did more than plant Jewish roots in new soil; they reshaped the cultures with which they interacted. Diner points out that pedlars arrived at an auspicious moment, just as poor people in industrialising regions began to accumulate some disposable income. Pedlars brought goods right into their homes, enabling remote, socio-economically marginalised populations to make use of even the smallest amount of extra spending money. In the process, pedlars stimulated customers' tastes, bringing cosmopolitan standards of consumerism to the frontiers. By introducing aspirational consumption, Jewish pedlars empowered their customers - especially women - to participate in a modern economy. In Diner's telling, Jewish pedlars further modernised their surroundings by subverting local social norms; they ignored accepted standards of class and gender behaviour, bringing modern consumer items and consumption practices to underserved communities. Local racial ideologies were overlooked, too, when they entered the homes of ethno-racially subjugated customers and offered them the same wares as they sold to their white clientele.

Diner surveys Jewish peddling as a transnational phenomenon, and takes a decidedly lumping- together (rather than splitting) approach. Their experiences, in her interpretation, "revealed global Jewish commonalities, defying the particularities of time and space". She flits from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to Mexico City, then hops to Dublin and bounces to the Mississippi Delta, all within a few pages. Occasionally, one wishes for more attention to local contexts. But that takes away little from the pleasure, and the importance, of Diner's book.

Marni Davis is associate professor of history, Georgia State University, and author of Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition (2012). …

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