On Monday, Allison Amend wrote about Jews in odd places. She is the author of the novel Stations West. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series.
My aunt, Jackie Cohen, put together a history of my relatives. In the only picture of my great grandfather Joe, he is standing proudly in his grocery store, apron wrapped around his prodigious middle, goods stacked to the rafters all around him. Like most people of his generation, he doesn’t smile (when did smiling in pictures start?).
It was this image I had in mind when I created Haurowitz/Harris’ Goods and Sundries in my novel,
Moshe looks around the store. They have built rows of shelves and ordered glass cases. There are stacks of Indian blankets and pipes, hot water bottles and cloth. There are huge vats of pecans, hides of various provenances hanging from the walls, metal goods such as pots, pans, teakettles, and flour grinders. There are small bottles of tonics, large glass jars of spices, salt and pepper, and Mason jars for canning. There is wire for chicken coops and fishing line. There are chisels and lathes and knives and china, tin silverware, salt-back pork, chicory, and tobacco. There are old newspapers, and a part of the store that can be roped off with curtains when the photographer comes to town. A sign outside says HAUROWITZ SUNDRY in large gold-painted letters.
One small observation I was interested in exploring in my novel was the idea that Jews cannot farm. Obviously, that is not particularly true, yet the stereotype stands. It is true that most Jewish immigrants in this country became salesmen and tradespeople, owning stores, or becoming tailors or importers. Why is that? I looked for an answer and could not find one. It’s not a function of education, for after the initial wave of German immigrants, most of the Jews that came to America were uneducated.
My characters initially try to farm but are stymied by the nature of the soil in Oklahoma (which gets quickly exhausted by cotton). A store seems like a logical extension of someone used to deferential behavior and used to providing a service. Is that why other Jews seemed to open stores rather than farm?