A Failed Peddler

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

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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!

door to door salesmanStill, 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.

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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.