Reprinted with permission from American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press).
The America that Jewish immigrants from Central Europe encountered [in the 19th century] when they disembarked in coastal port cities was in the throes of economic change. What had been, outside of a few port cities, a largely subsistence economy–consisting of small farms and tiny workshops that satisfied local needs through barter and exchange–gave way during the first half of the 19th century to a market-driven economy in which farmers and manufacturers produced food and goods that they shipped for cash to sometimes distant places.
Canals, turnpikes, and later railroad tracks linked far-separated points of the country, producing a vast national transportation network along which goods and commodities flowed.
The result was what historians call a market revolution. Entrepreneurial values coupled with new economic and cultural resources enabled people “to make choices on a scale previously unparalleled: choices of goods to consume, choices of occupations to follow educational choices, choices of lifestyles and identities.” As we shall see, the market revolution also profoundly shaped the lives of America’s growing community of Jews. They too now made choices on a scale previously unparalleled, ones that affected their patterns of settlement, their occupational preferences, their values and attitudes, and the practices of their faith.
Peddlers were the foot soldiers of this far-reaching revolution. They were the proverbial middlemen who purchased goods (usually on credit) from producers and set forth to transport and market them to far-flung consumers, residents of America’s rapidly expanding frontier. Peddling was a difficult and tiring occupation, but it required very little capital and promised substantial returns.
As the desire for goods rose among those who once found most of what they needed close to home but now pined for luxuries from faraway places, young, vigorous, success-minded immigrants rushed in to meet the burgeoning demand. Many of these immigrants–indeed, most of the 16,000 peddlers listed by the 1860 census-taker, according to one source–were Jews.
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