The award-winning Canadian film Lies My Father Told Me begins with a hunched over man on a horse-drawn wagon moving slowly through the snowy narrow streets of old Montreal. His grandson runs through the streets shouting Zayde, Zayde, as he tries to catch up with the wagon. The peddler occasionally cries out, rags, clothes, bottles. It’s a poignant scene that reflects the stereotypical view of how the first Jewish immigrants established themselves in the new world. However, the scene is misleading.
In one of the first histories to look at the role of the Jewish peddler in society, author and academic Hasia R. Diner in Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way (Yale University Press, 2015) says that most Jewish immigrants who started off as peddlers were young men who headed out to the countryside with suitcases of merchandise, not weary old men with wagons.
More than three million Jewish people left home in search of a better life from the late 1700s to the early 1900s. They came from the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, Eastern Europe and Germany. They headed out to countless isolated corners of the world – Canada, the United States, Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Ireland, Wales and southern Africa. Peddling became the engine that fostered migration. A mass of ordinary people in their ordinariness made history. The peddlers were foot soldiers in a vast army of migrants that gave modern Jewish life much of its shape.
Diner, an award-winning professor of American Jewish history at New York University, does not tell the history of any single person, place or time. She relies on an academic approach rather than colorful storytelling, jumping across continents looking for similarities. She discovers them in abundance.
She finds that, regardless of where they came from or their destination, the experience of the Jewish immigrant was remarkably consistent.
On arrival, the Jewish immigrant – almost always a young man – connected with family members, friends or sometimes just a member of the Jewish community who helped them settle into the new world. The “greenhorn” would learn a few phrases in the new language and would be given merchandise to take on the road.
The new peddler did not carry the necessities of life. Rather, he sold a higher standard of living – sheets and pillowcases, picture frames, needles, threads, buttons, tablecloths, eyeglasses or suspenders. As he became more successful, he carried heavier items for sale in a horse-drawn wagon, such as stoves and bathtubs.
While in the countryside, the peddlers bought scrap, rags, metal, paper or anything else to be brought back to the city and sold. Many offered instalment plans to help their customers pay for their purchases. Within a few years, most peddlers opened their own stores in the city or moved on to other work. Their success encouraged family and friends to join them in the new land.
Diner contends that the waves of migration had a significant impact on the development of the countries that took them in. Industrialization, urbanization and social upheavals were transforming those societies at that time, and Diner says that Jewish immigration to the remote countryside played a significant role in the transformation that has previously not been acknowledged.
The Jewish peddlers solidified European colonialism in remote areas, bringing the city’s latest styles in clothing, furniture and tchotchkes to remote farms, mines, plantations, and logging and fishing camps.
The peddlers crossed economic, social and religious divisions. They blunted social isolation with news of the outside world, helped break down class barriers, spread the gospel of consumption and encouraged individual choice in communities where there was little.
Diner even detects an impact on the evolution of women’s rights. The peddlers dealt mostly with women while men were at work. Women decided which goods to buy, and when and how to pay for the merchandise. In other circumstances at that time, women were mostly in the background while men made the decisions. Meanwhile, in the Old Country, the women left behind temporarily, to care for families, assumed responsibilities previously carried out by their husbands and fathers.
Diner also knocks down several shibboleths about Jewish immigration to the new world.
Contrary to widely held perceptions, Diner found that most Jewish migration was not a response to pogroms, hatred and antisemitism. She disputes that Jewish immigrants went into business as a result of discrimination and that the immigrants relied on the Jewish community for financing their dreams because local banks would not do business with them.
Invariably, as Diner travels the world, several references to Canada pop up.
She writes about Max Vanger, who relied on peddling outside Halifax and Saint John in the early 20th century to provide him “with the bedrock upon which to get started in his new world.” The Finkelsteins’ store in Winnipeg in the 1880s provided merchandise for the new Jewish immigrants who went off to trade with “the Indians and English” in the surrounding territory.
The Baron de Hirsch Institute in the 1880s lent money to peddlers in Montreal. The Jewish Colonization Association had a committee to give out loans across Canada to peddlers to pay for licences and to help the immigrants establish themselves. The Toronto Mail and Empire newspaper in 1897 wrote about the number of Jewish peddlers who go about the city and out among the farmers in the country.
Similar to Jewish immigration in numerous other countries, peddlers in Canada moved on to shopkeeping, financing and other work. Isaac Cohen in Kingston, Ont., started out as a peddler, became a scrap-iron dealer and eventually built up one of the largest scrap-metal firms in Canada.
Peddlers in Canada, as in other countries, occasionally ran up against racism. Reflecting the attitudes of the times, Anne of Green Gables, the legendary children’s book set in Prince Edward Island, describes a devious crook as a German Jewish peddler.
Diner does an impressive job of placing the traditional image of the Jewish peddler in a new context. She convincingly transforms the lonely immigrant peddler into a leading actor in the social, religious and economic upheavals over a 150-year period. However, she should have spent more time on the personal anecdotes of the peddlers. More academic than writer, she leaves it up to the reader to imagine the emotional conversations and inner struggles that might have taken place. She reduces the lives of the immigrants to sweeping generalizations that sometimes feel like exaggerations to prove a point. She passes lightly over the difficulties in conditions in countries that the peddlers left behind, leaving many questions unanswered.
Occasionally, errors creep in that chip away at her credibility. She confuses Saint John, N.B., and St John’s, Nfld.; she says Reform Judaism was founded in the United States, not Germany.
On the whole, however, Diner provides a fascinating account of an overlooked and often misunderstood aspect of Jewish history. Hopefully, her work will lead to more books on Jewish migration and the history of peddling.
Robert Matas, a Vancouver-based writer, is a former journalist with the Globe and Mail. This review was originally published on the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library website and is reprinted here with permission. To reserve this book or any other, call 604-257-5181 or email [email protected]. To view the catalogue, visit jccgv.com and click on Isaac Waldman library.