Review: Roads Taken

Exploits of the back pack


By Hasia R. Diner
Yale University Press, £22.50

Midway through Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, when Willy Loman's tailspin is apparent to all, his wife issues her famous lament: "I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character who ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid… Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person."

In her new book, Hasia R Diner does exactly that; pays attention, not to the fictional salesman, but to his ancestral cousins, the Jewish peddlers who, in her words, "became actors in a vast historical drama which transformed both the Jewish people and the countries to which they immigrated".

During the period under examination - the late 1700s to the 1920s - some five million Jews (more than a third of the total number in Europe and the Levant) abandoned the old world for the new. The majority sailed for the United States. And Professor Diner's focus is there. Her heroes are proto-Willy Lomans, the unheralded peddlers, who arrived in their countless thousands, and proceeded to boldly go where no Jew had gone before.

"The road functions as the central metaphor of this book," she writes. The road is a line on a map, representing compressed dirt on the ground, down which the peddler walked (with a pack on his back); but it is also a literary device, a way of making manifest a man's destiny. And, as Diner points out, the peddlers were almost exclusively male. They were restless, ambitious and young. Because of these characteristics, Diner is sceptical of the conventional wisdom that ascribes the mass exodus to local antisemitism. She makes her heroes would-be masters of their own destinies.

The peddlers were male, restless, ambitious and young

She describes the little drama that is played out regularly in some remote corner of the United States, when the untutored peddler knocks on the door of a potential customer, invariably a woman. For both, it is likely to be a first encounter; he is the first Jew she has ever encountered, and she the first gentile for him. It has the makings of a domestic farce, a comedy of misunderstandings (linguistic and religious). But the Professor sees something else: the story of the Jew in America writ small, in microcosm. Cultures meet, languages are taught, commerce occurs, mutual respect is established, friendship even. The peddler, in Hasia Diner's book, is the pioneer of assimilation.

Many peddlers graduated to storekeeping, and became pillars of the community, leaders even, whereupon they sponsored more immigrants from the old country. Some, like Meyer Guggenheim Levi Strauss, and the Lehman Brothers, Emmanuel and Meyer, became billionaires. For them, America was (in a good sense) "The End of the Road" (the title of the Diner's final chapter).

Roads Taken is finely written (except for some shamefully lax proofreading), and so full of appetising vignettes that the absence of a bibliography is keenly felt. So here are a couple of recommendations for further reading. "A princess of the Colesville Indians in Oregon married a Jewish peddler," writes Diner, thereby setting the scene for Bernard Malamud's The People, in which Yozip Bloom, a peddler, becomes chief of a tribe in the Pacific northwest. She also tells of Victor Perera's father, a former peddler, who went on to found one of the largest textile manufacturers in Guatemala. The full story can be found in Perera's excellent memoir, Rites.

Diner's book had its desired effect upon me; it made me wish I'd come from more heroic stock, that my grandfathers had tramped the roads with packs on their backs, instead of being a sedentary tailor and (worse) a "pushcart peddler".

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive