Thursday, February 04, 2010

What measures did lonely, traveling Jews take to maintain their observance of kashrut on the road in the 18th century?

In 1887 a fellow named Israel Solomon self-published a small booklet called Records of My Family. Solomon was born in Falmouth, England in 1803; he moved to New York in 1881. I don't know when he died.

In his book he recounts the following highly interesting description of how itinerant peddlers kept kashrut in the 18th century:
" . . . in that time (i.e., appr. 1740 - MFM), down to 1830, inns where Jewish travellers rested were to be found in all the roads and towns of England. The landlord then, especially to gain their custom, kept a cupboard or closet containing cooking utensils entirely for their use, so that they might eat kosher. The landlord kept the cupboard locked and guarded the keys on his own person, and when a Jew used the utensils he saw to the cleaning of them, and before putting them away he wrote with chalk within the bottom of the utensil his name, day of the month, and year, with the portion from the law read on the Sabbath of that week - all in Hebrew. Some of these hotels were in the centre of populated districts, and the pedlars going the rounds of the district would congregate of a Friday evening at these hotels and stay over Saturday, and on Sunday they trudged again on their laborious rounds. They generally formed a club and one of the number, who was licensed by the rabbi to slaughter animals, was paid by the club for one day's less of profit from his business to get to the hotel on Friday early enough to kill animal or poultry, purchase fish, etc, and either cook or superintend it that it should be quite kosher by the time the brotherhood came there, and ushered in the Sabbath gladly singing hymns, and after a copious but frugal repast, some Hebrew literature or tales of the past and present were related by one or the other with all the happy freedom allowed to speech in dear old. England; although these happy lovers of English soil were not allowed the perfect equity now enjoyed by their children.
This particular passage has been quoted many times, and it seems to be the only written source for it, at least in English. There's no reason to doubt it -- if only all 80 year olds would write or record their memories! It seems to me that this practice must not have originated in England, as Jews were rural peddlers all over Central Europe and, indeed, most of the Jewish peddlers in England were not native-born. I saw that John Cooper makes the same conjecture on pg. 164 of his Eat and Be Satisfied: a Social History of Jewish Food: "Surely these must have been long-standing practices of Continental Jewry that were transplanted to England."A hint that this is so can be found in a reference to a similar practice which I noticed.

As part of a series of of articles called 'Pictures From the Past,' printed in the 36th volume of The Menorah (1904), Dr. Hermann Baar wrote a piece called Yokel, the Horse-Dealer:

He does not identify the place, except as "St. ---" but it must be in Germany.


  1. i never saw that. thanks.
    i recently read 2 interesting kashrut stories. one involved an observant chess master who starved during his bouts in the soviet union because they refused to provide him with kosher food
    the other was solomon carvalho, who describes his anguish at having to eat treif to save his life while on col. fremont's exploration team.

  2. Yaffa Eliach, in her masterpiece on Eishshok,writes that the custom in the Lita was for goyishe houses to have a kosher pot, held under lock and key, which would be used by travelling Jews for cooking potatoes. She writes that a major scandal arose in Eishishok when one of its residents ate potatoes from the goyishe pot and not from the kosher pot.

  3. Yes , this practice seems to have been common in Europe- I have read accounts of similar arrangements in the Alsace.

  4. I am informed by a reader that Israel Solomon died in 1890.

  5. This reminds me of the supposed practice of Jewish peddlers in America West who were called "egg eaters" by the Cherokees because that was all they would eat because of kashrus reasons.

  6. Fascinating post. I find it interesting that there's so little evidence of this now. English pubs, especially village pubs, tend to stay the same over long periods of time. It's very conceivable that they could still have some of these pots or other relics from the time. I'm not aware that any have done. Its something I'll look into further.

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