Frontier Judaism

How the market revolution helped bring Judaism to the American frontier.

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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.

Foot Soldiers

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.

jews in the westPeddlers 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.

Peddling, of course, long predated the 19th century. The "Yankee peddler" was a familiar figure in 18th-century America, and Jewish peddlers roamed around Europe as early as the Middle Ages. For immigrants to America in the 19th century, however, peddling was less a career than a starting point; it served as the standard business apprenticeship for able-bodied young male Jews (Jewish women almost never engaged in ped­dling) looking to ascend the economic ladder to success.

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Jonathan Sarna

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.