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Probing the Past

Festschrift in Honor of Leo Schelbert

Edited By Wendy Everham and Virginia Schelbert

This Festschrift acknowledges the scholarly work of Leo Schelbert and his mentorship of graduate students in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago where for 33 years he taught American history. Professor Schelbert has specialized in the story of European migrations and especially of immigration to the United States. His courses offered not only pertinent data, but they also raised theoretical issues to which historical work is tied inescapably.
The varied essays included in this book reflect the range of themes former students, who now are scholars in their own right, have been pursuing. The topics of three essays center on North American Indians facing white intruders, another on émigré Hungarians living in Scotland, and one (contributed to this volume by a most esteemed colleague with whom Leo Schelbert shared many a student) on striking women straw workers in Tuscany. Another essay concerns matters relating to those grappling with mental health issues, while others deal with African newcomers in Chicago, Jewish immigrants to America who first worked as peddlers, contemporary Polish American politics in Chicago, and also with a nineteenth-century Swiss American theologian. Two of the last three essays honor Leo Schelbert’s work as a colleague and historian apart from the university setting, whereas the final one honors Leo Schelbert as a teacher as well as the Department of History at UIC in which its Swiss-born member worked from 1971 to 2003.
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Wandering Jews: Peddlers, Immigrants, and the Discovery of “New Worlds”



Peddlers, prosaic and peripatetic figures who left little in the way of paper trails, can be seen as the juggernauts of Jewish migrations. Their experiences made them, in fact, the human engines whose quotidian actions drove the massive population shift that brought millions of Jews out of central and eastern Europe, the Ottoman lands and North Africa into a variety of new places. Going out on the road laden with a jumble of goods, knocking on doors and trying to entice customers, usually women, to buy something functioned in the modern, as in earlier eras, as a profound, binding and nearly universal Jewish experience. Not that all Jews peddled, but rather so many did that the history of Jewish peddling can be seen as a formative and shaping experience in the history of nearly all Jewish communities. How did this take place, and how did the fact of Jewish peddling shape both Jewish integration in their many “new worlds” and the new Jewish communities that developed there?

Despite the ubiquity of peddling and its universality in the Jewish experience, historians mostly have ignored it as a factor in Jewish life. References to peddlers abound, but systematic and focused analysis does not. Scholars of the Jewish experience have produced a robust literature on Jews as industrial laborers, for example. Certainly in the realm of American Jewish history, historians have invested with great analytic significance the clustering of Jews in the garment industry primarily...

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