And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press
Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Published by: Stanford University Press
280 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503604117
- Published: October 2017
Stories abound of immigrant Jews on the outside looking in, clambering up the ladder of social mobility, successfully assimilating and integrating into their new worlds. But this book is not about the success stories. It's a paean to the bunglers, the blockheads, and the just plain weird—Jews who were flung from small, impoverished eastern European towns into the urban shtetls of New York and Warsaw, where, as they say in Yiddish, their bread landed butter side down in the dirt. These marginal Jews may have found their way into the history books far less frequently than their more socially upstanding neighbors, but there's one place you can find them in force: in the Yiddish newspapers that had their heyday from the 1880s to the 1930s. Disaster, misery, and misfortune: you will find no better chronicle of the daily ignominies of urban Jewish life than in the pages of the Yiddish press.
An underground history of downwardly mobile Jews, Bad Rabbi exposes the seamy underbelly of pre-WWII New York and Warsaw, the two major centers of Yiddish culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With true stories plucked from the pages of the Yiddish papers, Eddy Portnoy introduces us to the drunks, thieves, murderers, wrestlers, poets, and beauty queens whose misadventures were immortalized in print. There's the Polish rabbi blackmailed by an American widow, mass brawls at weddings and funerals, a psychic who specialized in locating missing husbands, and violent gangs of Jewish mothers on the prowl—in short, not quite the Jews you'd expect. One part Isaac Bashevis Singer, one part Jerry Springer, this irreverent, unvarnished, and frequently hilarious compendium of stories provides a window into an unknown Yiddish world that was.
This section provides a brief history of the modern Yiddish press of New York and Warsaw. It discusses the cultural, political and social contexts in which it appeared and why its development was a necessary and important phenomenon in Jewish life. Additionally, the chapter describes why and how the Yiddish press became a vehicle for drastic upheaval in Jewish life. Also discussed are the beginnings and nature of Yiddish journalism as a distinctly ethnic literary form and how a variety of journalistic occupations developed. The nature of its audience and elements of its subject matter is considered, as are the reasons for the importance of said subject matter for Jewish historiography in general. The introduction gives the reader an understanding of modern Yiddish culture while setting the stage for the subsequent chapters, which provide primary source data from the Yiddish press.
This chapter considers the story of Jacob Rosenzweig, a Jewish immigrant abortionist active in New York City during the late 1860s and early 1870s. In 1871, a patient died in his care. Rosenzweig stuffed her body in a trunk and attempted to ship it to Chicago, but the decaying body was discovered in a baggage depot and police were alerted. New York City Police investigating the case were eventually led to Rosenzweig, who was caught, placed on trial, and convicted.
This chapter details the story of Pesach Rubenstein, an eastern European Jewish immigrant in New York City who murdered his cousin/lover whom he had accidentally impregnated. Rubenstein's 1876 court case, reports of which appeared in nearly every newspaper in the United States, was the most significant interface between American media and Jews in the history of the country.
This chapter presents a brief biography of Naphtali Herz Imber, a poet best known for writing "Hatikva," which became the Israeli national anthem. While Imber has been the subject of biographical studies, what official narratives ignore is Imber's work as a performance psychic during the late 19th century and a mercurial alcoholic during the early 20th.
This chapter details an event that took place on New York City's Lower East Side in which rumors that children were having their throats slashed in public schools spread throughout immigrant Jewish neighborhoods. Upon hearing these rumors, tens of thousands of Jewish mothers rioted, besieging the area's public schools and demanding to see if their children were alive.
This chapter provides a biographical sketch of Professor Abraham Hochman, one of the Lower East Side's best known psychics. Famed, among other things, for finding husbands who had abandoned their wives, Hochman engaged in all manner of dubious stunts in order to generate publicity for his business.
This chapter details the history of anti-religious behavior on the solemn holiday of Yom Kippur and the reaction those activities engendered. Typically anarchist or socialist-oriented Jews would engage in acts of public eating on Yom Kippur, a holiday that requires a 25 hour fast. Such activity would enrage religious Jews and pitched battles would typically ensue.
This chapter tells the story of Hillel Tseytlen, a famed journalist who broke away from a leading Yiddish paper in Warsaw to join a competing newspaper. Doing so provoked the ire of Tseytlen's original editor, who initiated an ugly smear campaign against him. Tseytlen and his new editors fought back and a war of words broke out between two daily papers with a third and fourth chiming in.
This chapter considers the phenomenon of suicide among Jews in Warsaw. During the interwar period, suicides were so common that reports of them appear nearly every day in the Warsaw Yiddish press. While doubtlessly a tragic and unpleasant issue, many of the suicide stories reported in the dailies contain odd and humorous twists. Such reportage revealed the delicate and difficult line Warsaw's Jews walked as an impoverished minority.
This chapter details the story of a Warsaw-based Hasidic Rabbi who attempted to reconcile with another Hasidic Rabbi who had been his blood enemy by giving him a special duty at his son's circumcision ceremony. The problem was that the first rabbi's followers refused to accept the reconciliation. The ceremony, a joyous but also solemn affair, was rocked when a brawl exploded among the guests, nearly all Hasidim.
This chapter tells the story of Urke Nachlnik, a yeshiva student who fell in with a bad crowd and who wound up becoming a professional criminal. After writing a prison memoir that became the best selling book in Poland in 1933, Nachalnik turned to literature and playwriting as a profession, churning out intense stories of the Yiddish criminal underworld that riveting readers throughout the country. Also included is a sample story that appeared in 1938, "Passover in the Joint."
This chapter offers the story of Gimel Kuper, a journalist for the Forverts, the largest Yiddish newspaper in the world, who wrote popular human interest stories that were typically based in Poland. It turns out that Gimel Kuper was the pseudonym of the famous Yiddish writer Israel Joshua Singer, whose brilliant reportage revealed many hidden corners of Jewish life. Includes a sample story from 1927 about Jewish beggars and drunks in Warsaw.
This chapter details the story of the Miss Judea Pageant, a contest to crown the most beautiful Jewish girl in Poland in 1929. After the pageant was complete, the winner, one Ms. Zofia Oldak, was carted around Warsaw for photo-ops with important Jewish celebrities, politicians, and cultural figures. One of these events was a banquet at the Jewish Community Council, where its president lauded her beauty and sang to her. Upset at his antics, ultra-orthodox members of the community protested. In the end, the pageant became the impetus behind a massive riot in Warsaw's biggest Jewish cemetery.
This chapter tells the story of a failed relationship that results in one of the partners biting off the penis of the other.
This chapter describes the public divorce court that existed as part of the Warsaw Rabbinate. Newspaper editors frequently sent writers to observe divorce cases because of the prevalence of violence. A popular feature in Yiddish papers, divorce reportage provide a lurid look into private affairs. Numerous examples are provided.
This chapter details the phenomenon of "Shabbos Enforcers," religious Jews who take it upon themselves to ensure that all Jews observe the laws of the day of rest. Because their activity involves insinuating themselves into people's personal business, their entreaties were often rebuffed. Violence often broke out between those who were trying to ensure that the laws of Shabbos were not being broken and those who either didn't know or didn't care that they were breaking such laws.
This chapter tells the story of Blimp Levy, a 625 pound Jewish professional wrestler. Although a morbidly obese novelty, Levy was a popular and successful wrestler from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. An unknown figure among Jewish sports heroes, he deserves his place in the pantheon.
This chapter tells the story of a bigamist Hasidic Rabbi and his antagonist second wife, Zlate Rubin. After marrying her in a fraudulent ceremony in New York for a large sum of cash, the Rabbi returned to Poland. Zlate, however, subsequently demanded that he divorce his first wife and marry her in a traditional Jewish ceremony or he had to return the money. Zlate showed up in Poland demanding her money. He returned what he still had, but it wasn't enough. She told him if he didn't give her the money, she would tell everyone he was a bigamist. He had her arrested for blackmail. She had him charged with bigamy. Even if it was a huge communal embarrassment, her 1927 trial riveted the Jews of Poland.
Beginning with a brief description of the nature of Warsaw's Yiddish crime blotter, the section of Yiddish papers that focused on crime and deviance, this chapter provides dozens of examples of articles that delve into the Jewish underworld, as well as into the realm of poverty and insanity. These small articles function as explosive examples of a troubled and downwardly mobile Jewry, one that will be totally unfamiliar and surprising to readers – even those who have some familiarity with pre-WWII Warsaw.
"Bad Rabbi is a masterful set of finely-tuned scholarship and critical zingers that brings detailed archival history of 'downwardly mobile' nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jews alive through vivid, erudite, and spit-take funny storytelling. Portnoy heads straight for the urban immigrant underbelly, opens up the newspapers, and uses portraits of a vanished people and a vanished culture to not just deliver a bygone way of life, but to explode some of our most dominant conceptions of modern Jewish culture." ~Josh Kun, author of Audiotopia: Music, Race and America
"Don't feel guilty chuckling your way through Bad Rabbi as you read about the crazy deeds and commonplace misfortunes of marginal Jews from a century ago. " ~Renee Ghert-Zand, The Times of Israel
"This fascinating book contains the strangest Jews I've ever met in my life. It should appeal to every history buff out there—Jewish, gentile or otherwise. What's Yiddish for 'Buy this book, or may all your teeth fall out except one to give you a toothache'?" ~A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
"Only a historian with the wit and comic sensibility of Eddy Portnoy could succeed in resurrecting these dead and forgotten Jews of New York and Warsaw. Through his painstaking research, we can vicariously experience their desperation and lack of self-control, their strange passions and their various forms of mental illness – predicaments we're just one step away from ourselves." ~Ben Katchor, comic artist and creator of Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer
"In the staid world of academic Yiddishists, Eddy Portnoy is a live wire, a funny guy, a mischief-maker, what they used to call in the Catskills, a tummler...Bad Rabbi is a succession of outlandish misadventures, a wild panorama populated by an astonishing array of characters... Yiddish journalists were showboats, garnishing tabloid sensationalism with literary jokes and religious references. (Given this high-low style, as well as its caustic attitudinizing and internal feuds, the Yiddish press seems like a flamboyant forerunner to the old Village Voice.) Such zesty informality carries over into Portnoy's own writing, which, in blending the erudite and vernacular, regularly tilts toward the latter." ~J. Hoberman, New York Times
"While Bad Rabbi is a decidedly a work of scholarship, it is also—and fittingly—a surprising and sometimes shocking glimpse of the mishegoss that was eagerly reported in the Yiddish press....[A] book that took chutzpah to write but is a sheer pleasure to read." ~Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal
"Endlessly interesting and entertaining with stories that range from the macabre to the hilarious." ~Southern Jewish Life Magazine
"The 'two-bit nobodies' to whom Portnoy—a wickedly sparkling writer, by the way—dedicates Bad Rabbi include out-and-out criminals, crazies, eccentrics, hopeless dreamers and aspirant intellectuals. But they all share one thing—failure. Lobbes-dom is a wonderfully rich seam to mine, and mine it Portnoy does, using as excavating tools the unrestrained journalism of ancient file copies of Yiddish newspapers published in Warsaw and New York. I was enchanted by his accounts....Portnoy is a genius at putting the sting at the end of every chapter." ~Jonathan Margolis, The Jewish Chronicle
"...Portnoy's rollicking chronicle of Jewish newspaper scandal is an entertaining plunge into unexamined corners of the Jewish past. It is a necessary intervention into Jewish historiography, reorienting the historian's gaze to segments of the newspaper, and of history, that tend to get overlooked in the search for items significant to global politics and literary history. It is also an exemplar of scholarship aimed at lay audiences, with titillating and fast-paced storytelling that nevertheless offers historical depth and grounding." ~Jessica Kirzane, H-Judaic
"Exuberantly vulgar, blithely unconcerned with gentile opinion, these nuggets of low-class Yiddishism won't let us forget how rough-and-tumble life in Yiddishland really was." ~Michael Wex, author of Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
"Portnoy often adopts the tone of the reportage in the Yiddish press within his own writing. His style is punchy, colorful, and fun to read, allowing his descriptions of news stories from the Yiddish press to intermingle seamlessly with his translations of the original articles that capture their vibrant, engrossing tone...By bringing these stories to light, and narrating them in such a vibrant way, Portnoy highlights the importance of illuminating an element of Yiddish mass culture that served an incredibly important function a century ago, and has been largely forgotten today." ~Ayelet Brinn, In Geveb
"This was a lot of fun....From forgotten front-page news to hidden nuggets in the crime blotter, Bad Rabbi gives modern readers a taste of what urban Jews were gossiping about, challenging our romanticized notions of the shtetl. One hopes this volume will just be the tip of the iceberg and further explorations into the tabloid stories of the headline news that history has forgotten will be forthcoming." ~Daniel Scheide, Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter
"Having devoted his misspent youth to combing the Yiddish press for seedy, shady, and shocking stories, Portnoy, the bad boy of Yiddish studies, brings bad rabbis and other miscreants into the light in this erudite and thoroughly entertaining book." ~Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, author of Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage
"Eddy Portnoy's Bad Rabbi is an extraordinary thing: a gateway to the lost world of Jewish street life in pre-World War II New York and Warsaw. The Yiddish newspapers Portnoy mines were free from piety and light on decorum; instead they present a vast, roiling canvas of human behavior in all its extremes, from comedy to horror, with fiercely unbuttoned characters declaiming eloquently as stoopside choruses annotated their rants. Portnoy's book is undomesticated history; it is a time machine to an eradicated past; it is pure pleasure." ~Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York
"I find Bad Rabbi by Eddy Portnoy such an unwholesome, overdue joy, filled with uplifting tales of utter moral failure. The book, which began as the author's doctoral dissertation on cartoons in the early Yiddish press, became something else entirely: the revelation of a wonderful underbelly of decidedly imperfect human beings....[W]hat's happening here is the humanizing of a people, the telling of a history that others would rather not be told, a history so often sacrificed to stereotypes, schmalz and false piety." ~Shalom Auslander—Times Literary Supplement