A Failed Peddler

An immigrant's memoir of trying to jump on the Jewish-peddler bandwagon

Ephraim Lisitzky(1885-1962) immigrated to the U.S. from the Russian town of Slutzk in 1900. An Orthodox scholar, he had a difficult time adjusting to life in his adopted country, though he eventually settled in New Orleans and became a prolific Hebrew poet. He wrote his autobiography in Hebrew, and in 1959, it was published in English as, In the Grip of the Cross-Currents. The excerpt below describes the challenges he faced in earning a living when he first arrived in the U.S. in the early 1900s.  

The question of my future began to vex me. My attention was diverted from my Talmudic problems to a much more serious one whose solution could not be postponed: What was to become of me? My father sought the advice of our fellow Slutzk immigrants who used to drop in. They thought it over, discussed it among themselves, and concluded that my salvation lay in becoming a custom-peddler.

The Advantages of Peddling

They preached the advantages of peddling:

In the first place it gives you a livelihood, meager to begin with, but eventually plenteous. It does not require you to desecrate the Sabbath or holidays; if you want to, you can observe them. At the same time, you get an opportunity to learn the language and ways of America. To be sure, it’s a small beginning–but many people began carrying a peddler’s notions basket and ended up owning a business or a factory–and it wasn’t a matter of luck either. However, if you want to become a peddler, you must decide to be aggressive and daring.  

The main thing is a peddler has to be a talker–the more he talks the better. Suppose you enter a house and the customer does not need or want what you have to sell, you can’t simply leave looking for another customer who may need and want it. You would go on looking till the Messiah comes and never find him! You have to stick with that customer until you get him to say, “I’ll take it!” How? You talk yourself into his good graces and once having won his heart, you have won yourself a customer, and a good one! Do it this way and you’ll get customers and make money. First you’ll just make a living, but you’ll end up making piles of money–and you’ll be all set.

A ‘Repugnant’ Prospect

I nodded involuntary affirmation mingled with self-pity: so this is the end of the great achievements you aspired to–to be a door-to-door peddler!

Still, repugnant as the prospect was, I decided to try peddling and see whether I was fit for it. I talked to one of my acquaintances, a boy my own age, who was a peddler himself, and he consented to lend me for a day his notions basket with the understanding that we would share the profits. I chose Tuesday, a lucky day in Jewish tradition, to embark on my peddling experiment.

It was a rainy autumn day. The wind shook my basket and whipped the shoelaces dangling from my hand into my face. I trudged down the street like a doomed man on his way to the gallows. Whenever anybody looked at me I lowered my eyes in shame. I approached a house whose number was the numerical equivalent of a verse of Scripture I had in mind, timidly mounted the stairs–and couldn’t bring my hand to knock at the door. At last I knocked diffidently. The door opened. I stood in the doorway with downcast face, and inquired clumsily in a low voice:

“Maybe the lady wants matches?”

“Matches?” The woman at the door responded sardonically. “Come in and Ill show you the piles of matches the peddler already supplied me with–enough to burn up all the houses in Boston!”

I tried to ask her if she wanted any of the other notions in my basket but I couldn’t find my voice. I went down the stairs, bowed and beaten, and trudged along.

Talmudic Inspiration

Before I had found another house whose number tallied wit the numerical equivalent of the verse of Scripture I had in mind, I reminded myself of the passage of “the merchants of Lod,” which I had studied in the Talmud and knew by heart. In my fantasy I saw Lod and its merchants. I pretended that Boston was Lod and I one of the merchants. This parallel made peddling important enough to be discussed by the Talmudic Sages and to serve as a basis for the formulation of certain rules of commerce.

When I came to the second house, I climbed the stairs with firm step, and knocked boldly at the door. When the door opened I went in and raised my voice–I was no common peddler now, but a merchant, one of the merchants of Lod! Unluckily my voice collapsed into a cough-like sound made by blowing the trachea of a slaughtered goose.

“Maybe the lady wants candles?”

“Candles?” my customer responded in a tone of amazement. “If all the days of the week were Sabbath Eve I would have enough candles for a whole year running.”

“Maybe you want shoelaces?” I asked again, in a pitiful voice.

“I have plenty of shoelaces, enough to make nooses to hang Haman [the villain of the Book of Esther] and all his 10 sons!”

I went down the street again, mortified at my second failure, attributing it first to bad luck and then to a lack of practical skill. “You schlemihl!” I scolded myself [using the Yiddish word for “bungler” or “fool”]. “First principle of peddling, you must be aggressive, bold, and talkative, and you mustn’t let a customer go just because he doesn’t need or want your merchandise–you have to make him want it, keep after him until he says, ‘I’ll take it!’ Ask a woman if she needs what you’re selling, you can be sure she won’t touch it. ‘Lady! I see that you need such and such, and I can give it to you for next to nothing–‘ That’s the way to talk to a customer!”

Newfound Boldness

I stopped seeking Scriptural verses, assumed an air of aggressive boldness, went up to another house, and knocked at the door energetically, loud enough to waken the dead. The door opened and before me stood a woman with a sooty face and dirty hands who had left her stove to find out what all the pounding was about. I made myself aggressive, bold, and talkative:

“I see, madam, that your face is sooty and your hands are dirty and they need a good washing with soap—not just ordinary soap, but a good soap. I have just that, here in my basket, and you can have it for next to nothing. As the prophet Isaiah said: ‘And I will cleanse as with soap thy–‘” The door slammed in my face! I never finished the verse.

That evening I went back to my acquaintance’s house, and returned the basket with all the merchandise intact–not a thread or shoelace was missing. He checked his merchandise and gave me a scoffing and pitying look. I scoffed at myself: “Oh, you Slutzk unworldly idler, you good-for-nothing yeshiva student–there’s no hope for you!”

Retreat to Synagogue

I plodded wearily to the synagogue and stayed after the evening prayers to study my daily portion of Talmud. Mutely I looked at the Talmud, afraid to open my mouth lest the suppressed cry within me, about to burst forth, erupt.

The synagogue emptied. The distinguished scholars who had finished the portion of their nightly study left. Only an old Slutzker, Artche, the Hebrew teacher, remained to finish his study. He sits at his Mishnah, intoning sadly, reading every chapter once in the book through a magnifying glass, and repeat­ing it twice by heart. He is losing his eyesight, and before losing it entirely he is laboriously fortifying his memory with portions of Mishnah, food for his soul in the days of blindness that were closing in on him. Upon completing his daily portion he shuts his feeble eyes, and ends his study with a portion of Psalms chanted in a melancholy undertone. Suddenly his voice rises and he begins to groan and cry out into the stillness of the synagogue: “My heart flutters, my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes is also gone from me–O God, my Light and my Salvation, the light of my dyes is gone from me!”

An autumn drizzle falls outside and covers the panes of the synagogue with tear-like drops. The synagogue sheds tears out of compassion for Artche, the Hebrew teacher, whose light of his eyes is dimming and for me, whose light of my life likewise is dimming, and for both of us, our world turns dark….

My one day’s unsuccessful experiment in peddling was enough to convince me that I had been born with no practical talents whatsoever, a fate for which there was no remedy. Clearly, heaven had ordained that scholarship was to be my trade. I decided to devote myself to study with all my Slutzk diligence, and become a rabbi. The rabbinate appeared to me the only practical way to make good in America. I set up a regular schedule of learning.

Reprinted with permission from Writing Out Lives: Autobiographies of American Jews, 1890-1990, edited by Steven J. Rubin (Jewish Publication Society).

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