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zieds1mazs.gif (257 bytes) Traveling Jewish salesmen


Traveling Jewish salesmen were quite common in Kurzeme's [Kurland] countryside in the 19th century and even later. They wandered from a farm to a farm offering various goods to the people and buying some agriculture products from them. As for the other parts of the region of Latvia, Jews were allowed to enter Vidzeme [Livland] only in the second part of the century, but it was very difficult to settle there, so the salesmen could travel in the southern and eastern parts of the province. Evidently the Jewish tradesmen were also common in Latgale which belonged to the Pale, but there the people were settled in villages and thus stationary shopping places could be created where needed.

I have in my disposition not so much information on the life and the business of Jewish salesmen in the region of Latvia. This is why I browsed my memory for some facts from fiction works and memoirs of Latvian authors about their childhood at the end of the 19th century that could partially fill the gap.

This Page should not be considered as a piece of science, because the sources I used were not created for scientific purposes. No doubt, this information is marginal from Jewish perspective, but I hope it could add some additional understanding of Jewish life even if you know quite well the Jewish life inside the Pale of Settlement.

There were various kinds of traveling Jews. The lowest in the hierarchy was a salesman who traveled by foot carrying his parcel on his back. The next step in the hierarchy was a salesman who owned a horse and could travel in a cart. Of course, it was easier and could bring more profit, because more goods for selling could be put in the cart, and more goods could be bought in the farms, and more farms could be visited. The third kind of traveling Jew were the professionals (tailors, shoemakers, glass-cutters etc.) who went to farms for a job and, if it was needed, stayed there for some days or weeks. In this Page I am going to focus on the salesmen who traveled by foot, but I hope to propose later also the information gathered about other kinds of traveling Jews.


Contents of the Page

Traveling Jews and legislation
Logistics of traveling
Prices at the Jews
Jews and love matters of local people
Jews and news
Jews and medicine
Jews and police
Jews and crimes
Barter deals
Jews and fun






The main source I used was the childhood impressions of Latvian classics Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš in his book "Baltā grāmata" (The white book). More information on this book and about the Jews from this book is available in another page of ROOTS=SAKNES. As the author was born in 1877, he described the situation in the middle of the 1880s.

Another source is the memoirs of Jēkabs Štūlis "Bigauņciema un apkārtnes zvejnieki" (The fishermen of Bigauņciems and the vicinity) printed in 1937. The author provides very interesting information about the life of a fishermen village on the coast of the sea near Sloka [Schlock] including the participation of traveling Jews in this life. The author was born in 1849 and described situation in 1850s and early 1860s.

Please, do not think that these were the only existing sources about the matter, quite clear, I do not know all what was published long time ago, and I have found now also some other sources that I hope to compile later.

For additional information and for the general overview of the situation it is advised to consult the paper of Gvido Straube on this Site or other sources of information, for example, on the Site of Courland research group.

Traveling Jews and legislation

The Russia Empire was not a country where one could travel freely. At the contrary, if a person left his (in rare cases her, because women had additional restrictions) permanent living place, this person should have had an appropriate person document, and an additional document was needed, if he wanted to trade. According to the general rules of the Empire, everybody was allowed to trade though had to pay for permission. As for traveling Jews, I assume that the relevant documents (licenses) were issued by the officials of the province level, may be at the aprinķis level. I do not know precisely what were the demands a Jew had to satisfy if he wanted to peddle, however. The charge for these documents was rather high especially during the first half of the century.

From this point of view the following information of J.Štūlis is quite interesting: "some soldiers, if they reached the rank of corporal in the Army, were allowed after the retirement to trade without having special permission and without paying taxes. Such an old corporal was sometimes used as a shield by Jews from Lithuania who had no rights to enter Kurzeme and Vidzeme. As a small boy I saw several times an old gray soldier sitting like a king on the load of manufacture in a cart owned by a Jew, who paid salary, served and supplied food to this soldier."

I do not understand the legal background of the deal in all details and, unfortunately, J.Štūlis is not very reliable, if the formal jurisdiction is considered. What was important, normally in the Empire only registered merchants could hire somebody for helping in the trade operations. There were several exceptions and evidently one of them was that the retired corporals also had this right, if busy in trade. So the scheme seems to be the following.

A Jew and a retired corporal made agreement for common business in Kurzeme [Kurland]. It was not obligatory that the corporal was from Kurzeme - any retired Christian soldier had a right to settle in any place of the Empire. The corporal registered himself as a salesman with all his tax privileges and with the privilege to hire helpers. When all paper works were done, the corporal hired the Jew as an employee, and that was the desired result. The Jew processed all business operations, and the retired corporal received some money for being the roof of the business. Of course, this payment was smaller than was gained from the tax privileges of the corporal as the formal owner of the business. The corporal had the possibility of doing his business in Kurzeme without any restrictions that was not allowed for a Jew from Kaunas province and, according to J.Štūlis, the corporal could get temporary permission for his formal employee - the Jew - to stay in Kurzeme and to help him in his formal business, but I do not know any regulation that could be helpful here. I suspect that J.Štūlis made a mistake asserting that the Jews from the Pale profited of this kind of business agreement. I think that only the local Jews could profit of the tax-free business possibilities of retired corporals.

In 1867 any retired Jewish recruit was allowed to settle in practically any place of the Empire, and if they were also allowed to be engaged in commerce, then similar agreements could be contracted with them.


Logistics of traveling

The salesmen traveled only five days a week. Friday evening they were to return home - Shabat began. Saturdays they kept Shabat. Sundays the farm people went to churches and no business was welcome in farmhouses, even more - in some legal acts it is clearly stated that Jews are allowed no commerce on Sundays.

It seems that a salesman elaborated circular routes beginning and ending in their homes. If he covered 20 km a day, what seems to be a hard work, because he also had to have time for deals, then the total trip was about 100 km in a week reaching places 50 km apart of the home. It follows from the information of various sources that the real distances could be much larger, what I can explain that they spent Shabat somewhere. In larger towns there were special hotels for Jews (and they were allowed to accommodate only in these hotels at least at the beginning of the 19th century), but I think any Jew had Jewish friends or relatives in many places. And he could and did spend Saturdays in a friendly farmhouse.

The parcel was pretty heavy, and it was very important to know all small roads and paths to choose the shortest route to the desired farm. Quite frequently the Jews did not follow traditional roads but went straightway over the fields and meadows.

On week days the salesmen spent nights in farms. May be in some rare farms they were not allowed to stay for a night, but the vast majority of farms offered a shelter to any traveler without problems. Normally a special sack filled with straw was kept somewhere in attic or may be even a special bed was ready for an occasional visitor. I think it was not difficult for Jews to learn where it was possible to stay for a while and where it was not. In general, a traveler could spend a night in a farmstead free of charge, but it seems that the Jews usually rewarded the farmhosts with a cheap article from their parcels, especially if some food was offered to the salesman.

J.Štūlis writes that the salesmen brought with them also a separate bag with the items needed for their prayers. Štūlis says - commandments knapsack (in Latvian baušļu kule). It is clear that these items - teffilin, tallit, may be sidur or something else could not be put in the parcel together, say, with pig bristles. Jews carried with them also a small pot for the food preparing, which was obligatory for Kashrut reasons, but may be this pot could be put in the parcel. In case you do not know yet, I can inform that a pot some pork was once prepared in became dirty from Kashrut point of view, and it was quite difficult to make it clean again. Strictly speaking, any Jewish family had to have two separate pots for meat and milk dishes but I think that the standard meal of a travelling Jew consisted of some porridge without milk and without meat.

It was rather obligatory to have a walking stick also. First, it is easier to walk using a stick, and, second, dogs did not normally approach too closely a man with a stick, they just signalized to the hosts that somebody is entering the farmstead.

Many texts testify that a particular Jew traveled in one and the same region and visited the same farms for many years. Nothing definite is known how the market was divided among the Jews themselves and how undesirable competition was avoided, there are only some hints that the Jewish community was busy with this sort of things. I also do not know where and how the salesmen got their goods for sale.

Prices at Jews

G.Straube in his paper writes that Jewish traveling salesmen could compete with other traders quite well, because the Jews offered better prices. Other sources claimed that they used to fool up the people in the countryside, because this people did not know the real prices of goods. Both these assertions seem to be overgeneralizations. I do not think the Jewish tradesmen always could and did offer better price than town merchants, and I do not think the Latvians in farms always did not know the prices when they had something to offer for sale or wished to sell something. At the contrary, I suppose that as a rule they knew the common prices in the markets or in the town shops quite well and were always ready to negotiate the actual price with a Jewish salesman. But in reality the prices did change and should be followed all the time, what professionals do better. On the other hand, the job of a traveling Jewish salesman was set up with the same farms for many years and it would be not the best idea to base the business on the regular screwing of customers. But, of course, if it was possible to sell better, it was done. Nobody should imagine that these salesmen sold cheaper than bought.

I suppose that it was rather profitable to contract barter deals (see below) with farmpeople, because quite possibly they easier agreed to give away agricultural products worth of, say, 10 Kopecks for an article worth of, say, 5 Kopecks, than to pay 5 Kopecks in cash for the same item even in the case they actually had cash money at the moment, but they had no cash as a rule. Unfortunately, a tradesman traveling by foot could not put too much of the products in his parcels.

I do not think that the local country people i.e. Latvians were very mistrustful against deals with traveling salesmen, otherwise this kind of business could not exist for so long time, but, of course, the attitude of different persons was different. This is quite common in relations between a seller and a buyer: if two persons have had a deal and one has sold, say, a knife for one Rouble, then both of them may be happy, because now one of them has one Rouble more and another one has a badly needed knife. But they can be both upset as well, because after the deal one has lost the knife for ever and the another one has one Rouble less. And for the same reasons one of them might be happy and the other one be upset. It depends.

Jews and love matters of local people

The traveling Jews were busy with various businesses not only with commerce. J.Štūlis informs that the traveling Jewish salesmen worked like an unofficial post office carrying secret love letters of young people from farm to farm on small payment. They could offer cheaper and faster service and maybe with the higher level of privacy than the post office. And the post offices began to develop only in 1870s and 1880s.

Very good knowledge of the people and the local human resources was needed for another their activity also referred to in the book of J.Štūlis - matchmaking. It is rather easy to imagine that a traveling Jew, visiting farms regularly for several years, had gathered a good amount of information on becoming brides and bridegrooms - their merits, financial possibilities etc. I think in many cases people did not care too much, whether their behavior is observed by a traveling Jew, and so he could study the farm people even better than a visitor from a neighboring farm. By the way, the Jews had professional matchmakers for their own needs in many localities. There were also Latvian matchmakers, of course, but I do not think they were professionals.

J.Štūlis described a scene when a maid was sweeping a room while a preying Jew was sitting there on a chair. His preying did not seem very important to her and she not very politely proposed to the Jew to move aside and not to disturb her work. The Jew began to protest and threatened the maid he would not help her to get a good husband, if she had been so aggressive. Evidently the Jew thought that his help could be of some importance for the maid and that the maid knew that.

In a novel of a Latvian author (J.Janševskis) I read about a farmer who visited some farms disguising himself as an old Jew to study life in the farm in general and the attitude of the farm people and especially of young girls to an occasional visitor. This investigation was carried on with the idea of selecting the best candidate for the future wife of farmer's son. The farmer speculated: if a girl had shown good attitude to an old Jew, then, of course, she would be good to her future father-in-law when he would become old. I think, however, that this was pure fiction, because in reality it was not that easy to play a traveling Jew.


Jews and news

When newspapers were rare and nobody imagined that something like the radio could exist, the persons periodically arriving at farms fit for the distribution of news quite well. The official information was read either by Pastors in churches or by pagasts authorities near the churches after the divine service. One could exchange unofficial news of the parish after the services in the church yard or in the pub near the church or just by visiting neighbors. It seems that the main source of unofficial news or rumors of the province or of the state level was the traveling Jewish tradesmen.

J.Štūlis stressed that he and other kids had a lot of fun with Jews, especially if they spent a night in the house, because they could tell a lot of interesting things about the events in vast vicinity as in their travels they reached Lithuanian towns and even the border of Prussia (about 200 km from J.Štūlis home).

My mother in her memoirs (in Latvian) says that her father was informed about the end of the WW1 and that his sons should now come home by Jews in Viļaka town. This happened in the 20th century, you know! By the way, it was quite important information, because my grandfather was to guarantee food for additional 3 good eaters, so he did not sell young cattle but kept it in the farm.

A historian A.Švābe /Švābe/ asserts that the positive attitude of Kurzeme [Kurland] peasants to Napoleon in the war of 1812 was initiated mainly by the traveling Jewish salesmen who admired Napoleon, because he, after conquering of Poland, made Jews equal in rights with all other subjects. I am not so sure about the positive attitude of the peasants and the Jews to Napoleon, and also about the positive politics of Napoleon, however.

It is also claimed in some historic investigations that in the 1840s the traveling Jews agitated peasants of Vidzeme [Livland] to acquire land in the Southern regions of Russia. Really, at this time the Tzar government intensified the settling of Jews (and not only Jews) but not Latvians there on free lands. So when Latvians misunderstood the idea and began to organize their own groups for migration to these regions in order to get land there, and even began to migrate in fact, it was a rather difficult task for the authorities to stop this movement. However I do not believe very much in the crucial role of Jewish salesmen in these events, because in Kurzeme [Kurland] these migration activities were less expressed in spite of the fact that there lived many more Jews and Jewish traveling salesmen than in Vidzeme.

J.Jaunsudrabiņš said that once in a summer they, the kids, learned swimming and the leading expert was a Jew named Apkis. He had acquired somewhere in Russia a new style of swimming that was never seen before - this was swimming on back. Apkis glided over the surface of the river on his back, beard stuck out of water, without moving his hands! Gradually all the kids near the farm, where J.Jaunsudrabiņš lived, mastered this surprising new style of swimming.

Other ideas about the Jews as the news and information providers are described in the paper of G.Straube based on a book of E. von Rechenberg-Linten printed in 1858.


Jews and medicine

If you analyzed the contents of the parcel of a traveling salesman, you might discover that some articles of medical purpose were listed there. I imagine that the promoting of these kinds of goods is not very easy. If a salesman is asked what does he offer, say, for aching back or for pain in knees, he should know the advice and obligatory the right one. In this case the rumors will be spread that this Jew sells a medicine that helps. In the opposite case the negative information could spoil the trust not only in the medicine but also in its seller.

J.Štūlis wrote about a Jewish salesman Strulis from Tukums, who traveling by horse bought up of skins (calves, foxes, martens, squirrels, horses). This was his main business, but he was also known for his skill to relieve teeth pain. He did that by the method I translate as the wording off i.e. he knew the appropriate words that being recited to the aching tooth relieved the pain. If a Jew could become known for this skill, it meant that his wording worked i.e. the patients fully believed his words could cure them, which was rather surprising for me, because the appropriate words usually referred to Jesus Christ or at least to the Christian God or in any case to some divine authority for the patient. By the way, this kind of medical treatment is prohibited by the Jewish religion, as far as I know.


Jews and Police

What is really bad I can say about the traveling Jews is their collaboration with the Police - helping them to catch escaped serfs and recruits. The Police had no possibility of checking all the farms in order to find whether there are any newcomers, so it was a rather good idea of them to engage Jews in this activity, because the wanted people quite possibly would not hid themselves of a Jew entering the farm. Historians /Strods/ have found in the archives some information on reports of traveling Jewish salesmen about their success in finding wanted persons, but nothing is known how the salesmen were persuaded to take part in the job. I am afraid they had not so many choices, because the Police could quite easy discover some discrepancies in the best papers. And in case if the papers were found O.K., the Police could decide that the Jew is not desirable in this region, I think. I may add, a policeman was paid 3 Roubles for catching a person without passport, and even more for an escaped recruit or serf, so it would be only honestly to offer some money to helpers, but I do not know what was the real practice from this point of view.

By the way, you should not think that only the Police and the traveling Jews were busy with the chase of escaped persons. I have some documents about escaped serfs issued by Livland governor, that were printed and distributed to all of the parishes. The Pastors were obliged to announce the document after the divine service and to inform all of the manors about the committed crime, and, I suppose, the Pastors themselves were ready to inform the Police about suspicious persons in the parish. One of the documents of this kind I have made available on this site.


Jews and crimes

When, being experienced in the life of the 20th century, I think about traveling Jews, I imagine that the regular visiting of farms could be rather risky for them for the following reason. Let us suppose that a Jew made his business in a farm, left it, and some hours later the farmpeople discovered that something valuable was missing. It would be quite normal to suspect that the Jew had stolen the thing, and therefore the best time for anybody to steal something in the farm would be right after the Jew had left it, in order everybody thought the Jew was guilty. Of course, not at once, because in this case the farmhost with his farmhands could catch up with the Jew and search him. I think stealing happened sometimes, but I have never read about the suspicions of this kind. Evidently, neither traveling Jews nor the farmpeople exercised stealing widely.

But, of course, the very idea of stealing was known among the Jews of the 19th century. J.Jaunsudrabiņš described the case when a son of Elijs stole a horse in a noon. He was riding along a road when a farmer saw him and asked where he was riding the horse of Deksnis to. The farmer recognized all the horses in the vicinity, you see. The thief sprang off the horse in a moment and disappeared in bushes. It was a very good idea of his, because the peasants hated horse thieves enormously and if one was captured on the spot by a group of peasants, then he could got a good whipping. As for the just mentioned Jew, he was captured later and got to the Police, but nothing could be proven. I think I should add, that the thief was from the nearest town, not a traveling salesman.

On the other hand, it is clear that traveling salesmen could be objects of a crime. Really, they brought with them a good amount of interesting things and some cash money. Why not to meet one of them in a lonely place and beat a bit and take away all his belongings? He could count only to his own force, it is clear. J.Jaunsudrabiņš remembered that his grandmother told him, when they both went through a forest, that a long time ago robbers killed there a Jewish salesman traveling in a cart, and only some years later cowherds found his bones. Another case is officially registered in a circular letter of 1799 to all the parishes of Vidzeme, that informed about the murder and robbery of two Jewish merchants and asked to chase all suspicious persons. The letter will be published soon.

I do not think these were unique cases and never more Jews were robbed. I just believe that the local people absolutely denied robbery business, and wandering robbers were rare. I also think that a traveling tradesman knew the situation in his region and if rumors were spread that a robbery occurred, he was more cautious than usually. In any case, the traveling Jews existed for all the 19th century, you know.

In the newspaper "Mahjas weesis" (The guest in home) on April 14, 1879 some information about an event in Gostiņi [Trentelberg] was published. On March 26, at the time of the divine service in the local Lutheran church, a message came that Jews have captured a peasant girl for obtaining Christian blood. As it was the time of Pesah, and the local people were quite sure that Jews needed blood, a crowd from church ran to the house and began to shout and to beat windows. The head of local government Mr. Krustiņš arrived and could calm down the crowd. The newspaper doubted the reality of Jewish intention and wrote about this event with some irony in address to Gostiņi inhabitants though informed that then local Jews could not travel with their parcels, because the peasants were angry and wished to beat salesmen and somewhere even did it. As for the girl, she escaped through the backdoor of the shop. Obviously the traveling salesmen also had to take into account the events of this kind.

In general, the Latvian peasants were informed about that old superstition concerning the blood of Christian kids in Jewish matzoth, though, to my knowledge, no trials of ritual murders took place in the Baltic provinces. In spite of the fact that in some other places of the Empire parents warned their children to be cautious in contacts with Jews, all the authors of memoirs I used here said nothing about this.

Barter deals

The parcel of a traveling salesman grew heavier during the travel, because quite frequently the people in farms paid by some agriculture products, mainly because they had no cash money. It seems, one of the most popular product the salesmen bought in farms was pig bristles. They were needed to manufacture different types of brushes - comb-brushes, paintbrushes etc. To my knowledge, it was the most valuable agricultural product, if the price of a weight unit is considered.

The kids in farms, especially the swineherds, sometimes were allowed to gather bristles - simply to pluck them out of pig's back. The pig could and did protest but had no means to prevent or to escape the action. The collected bristles gave some extra income to the gatherers when sold to a traveling salesman. J.Jaunsudrabiņš described a small girl who, while herding, gathered bristles (without permission) enough to buy a small kerchief from salesman Zuskis. J.Jaunsudrabiņš also writes about a tradition in a farm where the farmhost allowed everybody to pluck the bristles of slaughtered pigs and what was plucked belonged to the plucker. So there started a good rush when a pig was just killed, and all people began to pluck bristles. May be you do not know that after a pig was killed, the bristles were burned and scratched off in any case. As for the Jews, it is clear that pig bristles was not a very good item for their business for religious reasons.

J.Jaunsudrabiņš remembered a Jewish salesman who tried to skip over a ditch on his way, and, bringing a heavy parcel, felt down on his back and broke eggs he had in the parcel. The eggs were received as the payment for some goods. You realize that eggs are an excellent product - guaranteed kosher if fresh, and the kids of any Jew should have been given some food every day. By the way, an egg in Riga market cost about 1.5-3.5 Kopecks depending on the season. The same author described how above mentioned Zuskis once lost his way and quite occasionally visited the author and his cows on a lonely pasture. When Zuskis sat down to have a rest, it was seen that two alive hens were skillfully fastened inside his overcoat. It is clear again that the hens had to be transported home alive to slaughter them according to the rules of Kashrut, if Zuskis planned to cook them.


Jews and fun

I am sure that the country people knew next to nothing about the life of Jews, and one may say these two communities lived on different social planets, so the most common attitude to the Jews was like it would be to aliens today. Try to imagine that one day a small green humanoid from another planet settles in a neighboring house. What would be your attitude? What would be the attitude of your neighbors? How would you interpret his/her/its behavior that differed seriously from the models you were accustomed to? May be some suspicion would arose that these creatures are dangerous. And may be after a while you would discover that they look a bit funny.

The Jews in Kurzeme frequently seemed quite funny to the peasants. The Jews wore funny clothes, their hairdressing was funny, they preyed in funny way putting strange things on the forehead and on the hand. Their habit not to take off their hats in living rooms seemed not so funny but rather non-polite. And, after all, they spoke so fffunnny Latvian language. The writer J.Jaunsudrabiņš confessed in his memoirs that, when he wrote his first play in the age of teenager, he made a Jew to do all stupid things in the play, because he simply could not imagine who else could behave so stupid like it was needed in his comedy. And J.Jaunsudrabiņš was not very creative. Quite a few of comedies of the emerging Latvian literature at the end of the 19th century had a traveling Jewish salesman on the list of acting persons with the task to make better fun.

The best known playwright of that time was Rūdolfs Blaumanis, who also followed this rule. May be much later I will describe some Jews that made fun in his plays. To this moment I have recounted for you one of his stories about fun with a Jew.

I risk asserting that real Jewish tradesmen accepted the role they were ascribed to and did not spoil the hope to look funny. I came to this conclusion reading a sketch of another Latvian author Anna Brigadere about some traveling Jewish craftsmen. Unfortunately in this sketch the Jews are pictured with visible dislike, and I postponed the discussion of them for the future page on Jewish craftsmen partly because some work is needed in order not to make the texts more offensive as they are, and I also see no reasons to make them less offensive. Speaking about Jews, it is easy to realize that it would be better to be an object of fun than an object of aggression. I also assume that some Jews were quite ready to look stupid, because they could think it would be good for their business. You may read about these matters also in the paper of G.Straube.

To understand the funny things of that time, it is essential to know that Jews were not the only group that was considered funny. The people of any other ethnicities were funny and even the people of neighboring regions were funny, and, by the way, not only funny, but in many cases they were objects of prejudices or even hatred. The objects of fun can be easy learned from the volumes of folk jokes filled with jokes about the inhabitants of various regions (and, yes, about Jews). For example, in some pagasti of Kurzeme the Latvians belonging to the Catholics Church lived amidst of Lutherans. These Catholics were called Suits (the word Suits has nothing to do with English word suit, I believe). Their customs were slightly different and made them objects of jokes. For instance, they wore long coats (or suits?) with two long vertical lines of buttons. Really funny, isn't it?


Just a piece of fantasy

I do not think that Jewish families considered the job of a traveling salesman as a very dangerous one, though I am sure that a traveling Jew was always waited for in his home with some worry. Friday evening, when the sun was near to set and his wife hurried on to make everything ready for the Shabat Shalom, his kids periodically ran out of the home to have a look along the road if their father was approaching. And then he became visible, and all the swarm ran to meet him, and to try to help him, and to ask what he had seen and what was the business and what he had brought with him. Then he entered home, washed himself, blessed his children, sat at the table, said his prayers, blessed two loafs of bread and handed a piece of it to everybody... and I believe he was happy at this moment.



© Bruno Martuzāns. 1995-2002