Roads Taken by Hasia R. Diner

Roads Taken by Hasia R. Diner

Author:Hasia R. Diner
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9780300210194
Publisher: Yale University Press

REVISITING MAX WEBER

Much anti-Jewish peddler talk and action took place in Catholic countries. Catholicism had a centuries-long tradition of warning its communicants of the spiritual dangers of excessive enjoyment of material goods. Max Weber's early-twentieth-century masterpiece The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism pivoted on the premise that Catholicism's theologically based condemnation of materialism meant that capitalism could arise only after the Reformation had loosened the church's hold on Europeans. While theorists have long debated this theory, the greatest opposition to Jewish peddlers erupted in two intensely Catholic societies, Ireland and Quebec.

The Quebec story closely resembles Ireland's. Jews constituted the largest foreign immigrant group who came to Quebec, and, as in Ireland, the only sizable population of non-Catholics. While many Quebec-bound Russian and Romanian Jewish immigrants gravitated to Montreal and its garment industry, large numbers fanned out into the countryside, selling as peddlers to farmers. The Catholic Church dominated rural life, exerting its influence in everyday matters, providing the Francophone farmers with a deep sense of belonging. Quebec Catholicism embraced French ultramontanism—much like Jansenism, a theological and political ideology that rejected liberal democracy, modernity, and the choice and consumption celebrated by individualism.

Just as many Irish emigrated to the United States during the era of the Jewish immigration and the heyday of Jewish peddling, substantial numbers of Quebecois headed to northern New England to work in the textile mills, logging camps, and other regional industries dependent on unskilled labor. Like their Irish counterparts, French Canadian immigrants sustained kin and communities back home, sending remittances, raising the standard of living, putting more money in circulation. The cross-border flow of cash and the increased value of land and labor enabled new kinds and levels of material consumption, allowing the poor to aspire to own more goods and actually to acquire many of them.

Into this new rural environment came the Jewish peddlers, their sacks bursting with consumer goods, their foreignness and their religion so blatant. In Quebec anti-Jewish rhetoric emanated from the rural areas where the peddlers plied their trade, and where the Quebec Catholic clergy wielded substantial clout. Priests and writers for Catholic publications consistently posited the Jews as harbingers of a corrupt modern civilization that “impoverished and degraded man and robbed life of its poetry and truth.” They admonished the Quebecois not to buy from the peddlers, who sucked the lifeblood out of the people. They exhorted the women to ignore the Jews’ alluring goods and sharp tongues. The founding of L'Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne in 1893 made the threat posed by the Jews to Catholic Quebec a cardinal concern, and a 1905 editorial in its newspaper, La Croix—the cross—declared that the Jews “threaten to overrun us. … These penniless immigrants for the most part have no aptitude for productive labour. In order to stay alive, they will have to exploit us in their usual way.” That “usual” way meant peddling. Words like that segued into calls for political action, demands on the government to levy special taxes on peddlers as a way to dissuade them from coming into the province.



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