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The life of a Jewish travelling merchant wasn’t easy. Required to possess special licences, they were easy prey for bandits and roving bands of soldiers. Roads, always rutted and treacherous, were studded with tollgates, some official, some arbitrary, some put in place when a road crossed a noble’s lands. But most itinerant Jewish sellers were simple peddlers.

 Without official papers, avoiding excise duties and tolls, peddlers negotiated the muddy back lanes, walking stick in hand, their long pipes sending a stream of smoke into the air. Some carried weather-resistant tarred bundles on their backs, others, wicker baskets for glass and ceramics, or cabinets filled with books, sewing articles, dice, drapes, remedies, matches, salt, ribbons, embroidered purses, watches, handkerchiefs, belts, scarves—precious items to women who might never venture further than the next village a few kilometres away. Going from farm to farm, one village to the next and never missing a back street, peddlers blew whistles to attract attention and make every dog howl. Alerted by the din, a crowd gathered, and the peddler called out his wares. There was intense haggling, but sometimes no money was exchanged: eggs were traded for bristles, bristles for woollens, woollens for tatters. Some peddlers snatched up minuscule amounts of fruits, mushrooms, cabbages, fowls and honey—peasants rarely had a surplus of anything—collected rags, bones, hides, flax, wax, wormwood and wool, bought horsetails, manes, and the hair of indebted women. Their profits reduced to a pittance, most dreamt of amassing enough money to buy a nag and wagon under which to sleep at night—a modicum of comfort in the rainy season.

            Business concluded, a peddler fulfilled his second function. Settled comfortably in the local Jewish inn, he was a carrier of news, an open window to the wide world. Stories of crimes, the emperor’s health, unfaithful spouses, and manifestations of the evil eye were told, and messages from distant relatives passed on. But glib and charming, peddlers garnered resentment from jealous husbands, from sedentary merchants who saw them as dangerous, uncontrollable rivals who didn’t respect laws. And in Eastern Europe’s narrow society, peddlers, dangerous marginals who freely moved between social classes, cultural and geographic borders, were seen as threats to traditional religious life.

            There were numerous attempts to halt the activities of Jewish peddlers. Official acts against non-local and foreign Jews abounded as did laws limiting the time peddlers could spend in urban areas—they had to be outside town limits by nightfall: certain Christian towns and cities forbade their entry altogether. Likened to other ‘marginals’—Italian wandering merchants, Gypsies, or beggars who disturbed the peace of the countryside and were said to spread disease—peddlers were often accused of being the spies and agents of foreign powers.

            The most influential peddlers were itinerant booksellers, for in rural areas, they were the bridge between intellectual isolation and the learned world. Recruited in urban centres through knowing someone in the profession or being a member of a family of printers, book peddlers followed a well-defined rural circuit that helped keep up a faithful and dependant clientele. With a horse and carriage that constituted an ambulant shop, booksellers sold sheet music and songs, calendars, stories, poems, popular novels and higher literature. At the end of each circuit, the bookseller returned to the city and the printer where he paid his debts before setting out with new supplies once again. It was a difficult way to make a living, and only the most charismatic did well. To make ends meet, those less successful also worked as assistants or correctors in the printing houses.

            Their wares were cheaply printed and produced without rabbinical authorisation. Taking no heed of religious constraint, they peddled the literature that spread new ideas, and this was particularly true during the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. Those who profited greatly from the wandering booksellers were women. Excluded from the religious sphere, unable to understand Hebrew texts, women were free to read the radical new novels as well as foreign novels that had been translated into Yiddish: Joachim Heinrich Campe’s travel stories and his adaptation of Robinson Crusoe provided information on natural phenomena and geography; Slavery, Issac Meir Dick’s 1868 adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin[1] was a particular success.

            Presenting radical new ideas of secularization and rebellion, underlining the harmful impact of early marriages and introducing the radical concept of romantic love and intellectual compatibility in marriage did slowly have an impact. True, only the bravest women dared refuse arranged marriages and traditional life, but there were soon enough of them to show it was possible to change one’s destiny.


[1] In Dick’s version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, the good master is Jewish, and the Negro slaves all convert to Judaism.

Tag(s) : #Jewish peddlers, Eastern Europe,
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