The period from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries witnessed a mass migration which carried millions of Jews from central and eastern Europe, north Africa, and the Ottoman Empire to new lands. Hasia Diner's
new book, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way
(Yale University Press, 2015) examines this migration through the prism of the oft overlooked peddler.
For the Jewish men arriving in the United States, Great Britain, South Africa, and Latin America, peddling was among the most prevalent of professions. It allowed those without large amounts of capital to quickly start their own businesses. Jewish men took to the roads, selling household items door to door in small towns, rural areas, mining camps and on Indian reservations. In the process, these men learned about the languages and cultures of their new homelands. At the same time, peddlers were agents of change and modernization, introducing their customers to new products, tastes and kinds of consumption, while linking rural areas to the cosmopolitan cultures of the big cities.
Diner's book analyzes the symbiotic relationship that developed between Jewish peddlers and the women whose homes they entered. Their intimate interactions facilitated Jewish integration, while often upsetting racial and gender norms. Peddling changed the lives of the peddlers and their customers during a transformative moment of modern Jewish history.