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Encounter with a Peddler

It was common for mid-19th cen. Jewish immigrants to start out in America as peddlers. As a business, peddling required little in the way of start-up capital. Newcomers were able to obtain goods on credit from more established immigrants. In this account, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of American Reform Judaism, reports on a conversation with an acquaintance from Germany who has become a peddler in New York. The man describes the hierarchy of the peddler business and the all-consuming drive for material success that animated most immigrant entrepreneurs.

One afternoon I met on the street a man with a large, old straw hat drawn far over his face. He was perspiring in his linen coat, and carried two enormous tin boxes on his shoulders. He had a large clay pipe in his mouth, a pair of golden spectacles on his nose, and dragged himself along with painful effort. I looked at him closely and recognized my friend Stein. Upon noticing my astonishment, he said, smilingly:

"Most of the German and Polish Jews in America look like this, and the rest of them did till a very short time ago."

As he was going homeward I accompanied him to his house. A quarter of an hour later he emerged completely metamorphosed. He looked genteel again. He informed his wife laughingly that I had met him in his peddler's costume. He now described to me graphically the misery and the drudgery of the peddler's life.

Our people in this country, said he, may be divided into the following classes: the basket peddler -- as yet altogether dumb and hopeless: the trunk carrier who stammers some English and hopes for better times; the pack carrier who carries from one hundred to one hundred and fifty pounds upon his back and indulges the thought that he will become a business man some day; the wagon baron with a one or two horse team; the jewelry count who carries his stock in a small trunk, and is considered a rich man by some; the store prince who has a shop and sells goods in it.

"But what about the people of intelligence?" asked I.

"In America," said he, "a man must be either all head or all back. Those who are all head remain in Europe; those who are in this country must be all back, and forego all intellectual pursuits."

"But why?" I asked further.

"In order to become rich," said he. "The foreigner must either become rich or go to the wall; he has no alternative. The end and aim of all striving in this country is to become rich; everything else is secondary. Home, friends, society, honor, religion, knowledge, yes, even pleasure and enjoyment, are all of slight import compared with this. Money, much money, more money; this, it is, that moves the mind and controls the activities of the body."

He continued in this vein, and drew a picture that was most disagreeable to me.

"All spiritual treasures, then, are sacrificed to this chase for material gain," cried I. "If so, then tell me why these people form congregations and build synagogues?"

"Oh, they do this from inherited habit," rejoined Stein. This one wishes to become parnass [synagogue president], and that one a trustee, in order to be able to give orders and make his importance felt. He saw this at home and imitates it here. There is no earnestness, no spirit, no idealism in the whole proceeding.