Roads Taken

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

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Hasia R. Diner
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     2015.
     280 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300178647.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Hasia Diner’s newest book, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way, offers readers a wealth of new information and ways to think about how Jews moved throughout the New World. Some aspects of the book overlap with Shari Rabin’s Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America (NYU Press, 2017), but Diner’s exclusive focus on Jewish peddlers and the people with whom they interacted provides a refreshing break from institutional histories. She persuasively argues that we cannot understand the global or national Jewish story without attending to the temporary careers of immigrant peddlers who forged a path through the New World and contributed to expanding consumer markets. Diner seeks to overcome old narratives about Jewish immigration fueled primarily by anti-Semitism and pogroms, and notions of peddlers as ignorant, unskilled workers. The book also strives to demonstrate the commonalities among New World Jewish peddlers, the exceptional aspects of American peddling, and the substantial influence of her subjects on New World histories. She achieves these aims by uncovering and deciphering a wealth of archival resources that build her case. 

Whether a new occupation or practiced trade, peddling played a large role in the Jewish imagination and became one of the most direct and common routes to financial success for new immigrants. Upon arrival, men, often arriving alone and single, established contacts with Jewish manufacturers and/or wholesalers, received small loans from Jewish businesses or Hebrew aid societies, and peddled for several years before opening a shop or factory of their own and starting a family (or sending for family members abroad). 

The book’s most fascinating sections provide glimpses into the lives of peddlers plying their goods on Caribbean plantations, from canoes along the Amazon, and across the Australian outback in addition to the more familiar setting of the American West, clearly demonstrating the transnational character of these endeavors. But while her subjects originated in diverse locales and traveled throughout the world, Diner argues that their common experiences overrode cultural differences. While several commonalities are clear, Diner emphasizes one major exception: American Jews integrated into diverse communities and reshaped their religious practices to a much greater degree than Jews elsewhere, who remained more segregated and less interested in reforming their traditions. Former peddlers contributed significantly to civic life, business, and politics in the United States. Passages on regions outside the United States unfortunately lack the depth and complexity of the picture she paints of peddlers in the US.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the breadth of sources Diner engages from all sides—firsthand narratives from the peddlers themselves, family members left behind, and the non-Jewish individuals who purchased goods from the peddlers. This results in rich descriptions of how peddlers interacted with their customers, particularly the women and racial minorities to whom they granted respect equal to that granted to white men. Frequently the first Jews that homesteaders had ever encountered, peddlers became unintentional educators when they boarded at customers’ houses and introduced dietary laws, ritual, and basic Jewish theology and biblical interpretation. While peddlers brought desired manufactured goods to rural locales, they risked raising the ire of shopkeeper competitors and made easy targets for robbery. Despite these occasional negative encounters, Diner argues that the peddlers experienced little to no anti-Semitism. While I am convinced of her general point, her numerous unqualified statements along these lines were disconcerting. Unprovable statements like “Jewish peddlers never denied their Jewishness, and the customers always knew that a Jew, not a Christian, had entered their domestic spaces” (86) and “opposition to [Jewish peddlers] emanated purely from the fear of economic competition rather than anti-Semitism” (205) appeared frequently. 

While these statements and frequent repetitions can be frustrating, the book tells engaging narratives through the use of myriad sources. Anyone interested in Jewish studies, American religious history, immigration, and early American business practices will enjoy Roads Taken.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anne M. Blankenship is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at North Dakota State University.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hasia R. Diner is Paul and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History and director, Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, New York University. Among her numerous books is We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, a National Jewish Book Award winner. She lives in New York City.

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