Off the shelf | Where Jews worked in the world of our great-grandparents

In the Eastern European world of my great-grandparents, few of the professions now stereotyped as “Jewish,” notably medicine and law, would have been considered as such. Yet our understanding of just how our ancestors made a living is often hazy.

Fortunately, we are blessed by scholars who, in a spate of recent books, have incorporated a stunning array of archival sources to flesh out some of the major Jewish occupations in the Old and New Worlds.

In “Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way,” Hasia Diner relates how thousands of Jewish immigrants in the 19th century took to the highways and byways of America and other lands to sell items of all sorts. In the process, they transformed both their own conditions and their adopted countries.

One remarkable dimension that Diner addresses is the intimacy of the cross-cultural encounter between the peddlers, most of whom made no effort to conceal their Jewish immigrant identities, and the rural Christian customers who invited them into their homes and often offered them food and lodging.

Diner argues that the peddlers also exerted a significant social impact, as their visits often gave women the chance to exercise economic independence. And when peddlers arrived at Southern plantations, they often sold goods to master and slave alike, thus offering slaves — some of whom earned money in various manners, but had limited opportunities to spend it — access to a broad array of goods.

That said, peddling could be backbreaking, lonely and dangerous. Easy marks, peddlers could be robbed, murdered or framed for crimes. And there were backlashes against their enterprise, sometimes informed by prejudices. Diner devotes a fair amount of ink to Limerick, Ireland, where a priest led a two-year boycott of Jewish peddlers “who came to our land to fasten themselves on us like leeches and draw our blood.”

For the Jewish elite, the itinerant peddler was an unattractive image they wanted to eliminate, and efforts were made to develop alternatives to lure immigrants away from peddling. But Diner notes that by the time such plans emerged, peddling was already on the wane. Most peddlers viewed their job not as a permanent station, but as a means of gaining a foothold in the New World. For many, it led to establishing a storefront, with a number of retail operations still in existence today having their roots in 19th-century peddlers who settled down.

Prominent among the goods these peddlers sold was clothing, which brings us to Adam Mendelsohn’s National Jewish Book Award winner “The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire.” Holding that “the economic ascent of Jews in America cannot be fully comprehended without understanding the business of stitching and selling garments,” Mendelsohn traces the immigrants’ path from collecting discarded fabric and selling secondhand clothing to entering manufacturing and retail.

Jewish participation in the garment industry was enormous, and by the beginning of the 20th century, it employed more than half the Eastern European immigrant men in America. This was the result of both ambitious Jews who established themselves in the complex world of interstate trade earlier in the 19th century, and the huge wave of Jewish immigration at the end of the century, which formed a source of cheap labor.

Looking at Jewish involvement in the rag and clothing trade in both America and the British Empire, Mendelsohn discusses how the two experiences differed. American immigrants, who placed a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship, often exited the sewing room in order to start small businesses or go into retail. Mendelsohn notes that Jewish tailors in Britain were more committed to their craft than their American counterparts, and this devotion perhaps formed an impediment to ambitions beyond sewing.

In contrast to these immigrant stories, Glenn Dynner’s fascinating “Yankel’s Tavern. Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland” goes back to Poland, where, in the early 19th century, Jews had a near monopoly on serving alcoholic drinks.

How did this come to be? The majority of agricultural land was owned by the Polish nobility. When the export market for the grain they cultivated collapsed at the end of the 18th century, these nobles decided they could make more money from making grain alcohol and selling to the people who lived on their lands. They turned to Jews to implement their plans, and, with remarkably few economic options available, Jews grabbed these opportunities.

A large factor in the Polish nobles’ interest in leasing taverns and distilleries to Jews appears to be the belief that Jews abstained from heavy drinking (a myth that Dynner partly dispels), and could therefore be trusted not to drink up the product themselves.

Although this image of the sober Jew benefited the tavern keepers, it also contributed to a backlash. Jews were accused of cheating their inebriated customers and, more broadly, of conspiring to oppress the Polish peasantry by keeping them drunk. Eventually, as a result of multiple factors, regulations were enacted in the 1840s prohibiting Jews from purveying alcohol in rural Poland. There would be many evasions of such restrictions, often through arrangements in which a business was nominally put into non-Jewish hands, while still being operated by Jews. (Interestingly, these setups were sometimes modeled on the legal fictions that enabled the taverns to operate on the Sabbath.) But dispensing booze would fade as a Jewish vocation in Poland, and would become the stuff of history books.

“Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way” by Hasia R. Diner (280 pages, Yale University Press)


“The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire”
by Adam D. Mendelsohn (320 pages, New York University Press)


“Yankel’s Tavern. Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland”
by Glenn Dynner (272 pages, Oxford University Press)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a project of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.