In the nineteenth century, German and Russian Jews had compelling reasons to leave their countries: anti-Semitism was a constant, sometimes deadly, burden for Jews of both countries. But the Jews of Germany had an additional reason to come to America: they wanted to get married. German authorities required a matrikel – a registration certification – giving permission for Jews to marry that cost as much as 1,000 gulden. Even raising this large amount to purchase a matrikel was not enough. A young Jewish man had to prove he was engaged in a trade that was deemed “respectable” and peddling, the livelihood of many young Jews was not respectable. These restrictions doomed poor German Jews to bachelorhood. It was during the same time, the 1820’s and 30’s, that reports of America as a “common man’s utopia” filtered back to these frustrated young Jews and they began an emigration to America in increasing numbers. In the German principality of Bavaria alone, about 10,000 young Jews left to find their fortunes in America.
Arriving in America, young German Jews picked up the only trade they knew and could afford – peddling. Their experience as peddlers in a new country is exemplified by Philip Heidelbach, a German Jew who arrived in this country in 1832 with a total capital of eight dollars. With a pack on his back, Heidelbach walked the 100-mile area around Cincinnati selling household goods and used clothing. At night the young Jew found lodging and meals at farmhouses on his route for 25 cents a night. As a result of his dogged enterprise and the demand for his goods, at the end of three months Heidelback’s eight dollars had grown to $150 and at end of one year to $2,000. The pattern of these peddlers was to carry packs on their back until they had accumulated enough money to buy a horse and wagon and, eventually, to open a store. Quite often, after they opened a store, they returned to Germany for a bride or arranged for a wife through the mail.
The prevalence of Jewish peddling in America was borne out in 1840 when 100 of the 145 Jewish residents of Iowa were listed as peddlers. We have evidence of the success of these Jewish peddlers by the number of Jewish department stores that were founded by Jews with packs on their backs. Landmark stores such as Gimbel’s and Macy’s of New York, Neiman Marcus of Dallas, Rich’s of Atlanta and, of course, Filene’s of Boston, are evidence of their enterprise. But this draws far too positive a picture of the German Jewish immigrant experience. Many much smaller stores started by Jews dotted the American southeast, midwest and west coast. Many stores started by Jews were not successful, many young Jews never got beyond the peddler stage, and some could not find their way in this country and returned to Germany.
The New York of the mid-1800’s had yet to receive the hundreds of thousands of Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews who would change New York’s Jewish culture. It would primarily be New York with its German-Jewish society that would be tested by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of shtetl Russians. The cultural and religious experience of the Russian and German Jews was sharply different and the German reception of Russian Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century would strain the bonds of their common religion.
Herb Belkin is a historian of modern Jewish history. He writes and lectures on the epic events of the last 200 years that led to the rebirth of Israel. Herb can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.