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30 Days 30 Authors: Eddy Portnoy

Monday, November 13, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover!

Today, Eddy Portnoy, the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford University Press, 2017), shares what you can learn from old cartoons.


If you’re a very specific kind of nerd like me, you might like to look at century old Yiddish newspapers seeking out colorful stories about Jews with problems. If this is something you enjoy, you already know that when you plumb the depths of the Yiddish press, you will sometimes stumble across things that are a total mystery. It could be an article about people who you’ve never heard of doing things you can’t imagine, or an advertisement for something you’ve never seen and don’t know why it exists. There are innumerable things that existed 100 or so years ago that we no longer have any context or understanding for. Show a kid a rotary phone or an 8-track tape player and you’ll know what I mean.

Depending on how much you know about the context, you might be able to glean something about the strange things you find in the newspapers. Take, for example, this cartoon from the Warsaw Yiddish newspaper, Haynt, from October 16, 1931. We see an attractive woman on top of big-bellied man with curly hair and glasses, holding him down with her arms. Just what is going on here? There are a couple of clues. If you can read Yiddish, you’ll see that next to the man is the word “Katsizne,” and floating alongside the woman is the word, “Garbo."

If you’re already spending your leisure time looking at Yiddish newspapers from the 1930s, it’s probably likely that you have some familiarity with both the language and the culture. So you’d know that “Katsizne” is the writer Alter Katsizne (aka Kacyzne). The curly-haired, bespectacled man laid out in the cartoon does, in fact, resemble the author of highly regarded literary works like Der gayst der meylekh (The Spirit, the King) among many others. A protegé of classic Yiddish writer, I.L. Peretz, Katsizne was also a professional photographer whose work appeared in the New York Forverts Art Section during much of the 1920s and early 1930s. Responsible for creating a distinctly quaint image of Polish Jewry, he was the photographer who set the visual tone for subsequent and ultimately more famous chroniclers of eastern European Jewry like Roman Vishniac. But that’s another story. 

So what is Katsizne doing underneath a woman labeled Garbo? For anyone with any familiarity with early American film, the name of famed starlet Greta Garbo is well known. But what is Greta Garbo doing in a Warsaw Yiddish paper, and why is she sitting on top of Alter Katsizne? For an historian, this is one of those WTF moments. When you discover familiar characters from disparate places mashed together in a cartoon and you have no idea what’s going on, it means you’ve found a Yiddish riddle to unravel. 

Fortunately, this one had a title and a caption that lent more clues. The title, “The Wrestling Match (of Yiddish Book Month),” lets us know Garbo and Katsizne are wrestling (although, to be honest, there were no known Andy Kaufman style intergender wrestling matches taking place in Warsaw at this time). The caption, in Yiddish wrestling parlance, is “She beat him,” or rather, “She won the match by pinning him.” Hollywood star Greta Garbo beats Yiddish writer and photographer Alter Katsizne in a wrestling match? Just what is going on here? 

By sheer coincidence, right in the middle of the Yiddish Book Month festivities (don’t get jealous, JBC), a film starring Greta Garbo debuted in Warsaw and siphoned crowds that would have otherwise attended away from the literary events that had been planned far in advance. Alter Katsizne was very active in the activities surrounding Yiddish Book Month and the the Garbo debut affected events in which he was involved. Mystery solved. 

It was in this very way, by stumbling across cartoons I did not entirely understand, that I found many of the stories in my new book, Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press. More often than not, the stories I found and researched were riveting tales of urban life and revealed many aspects of Jewish culture from before the Holocaust that had been forgotten. 

These stories offer a different perspective, one that describes the rich and colorful lives lived on the Jewish street, told by the people who lived there. Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press reveals the seamy underbelly of Jewish urban life and marks the spot where Isaac Bashevis Singer meets Jerry Springer.

Interview: Ben Katchor and Hand-Drying in America

Thursday, February 21, 2013 | Permalink

In today's installment of the Visiting Scribe for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning, Eddy Portnoy sat down with Ben Katchor to discuss his newest book, Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories, which will be published by Pantheon Books on March 5th.  

The artist Ben Katchor is a master of a visual urban milieu that echoes post-war New York City, but really isn't that at all. Populated by stocky characters who tramp about and explore an oddly familiar, yet completely invented universe, Katchor’s picture-stories (as he likes to call them) are stirring forays into the urban absurd. The recipient of Guggenheim and MacArthur awards, among others, Katchor creates a kind of visual poetry comprised of everyday artifacts and activities. His ability to bring everyday objects and activities to the forefront of his visual narratives lends his work an imaginative, absurdist quality fired by light switches, peepholes, wheelchair ramps, coat check rooms and invented occupations, like spittoon pump engineers and rhumba line organizers. Katchor sees what we don’t in pedestrian objects and events and crafts short, comic narratives out of them. His books, which include Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer; The Jew of New York, and The Cardboard Valise, are part of his continually expanding oeuvre, which has come to include operas based on a number of his stories.

His most recent publication, Hand-Drying in America, is a compilation of full-color, one-page picture stories that appeared in the urban design and architecture magazine, Metropolis. Like most of his work, they take place in an invented Katchoresque urban world. I sat down with Ben recently to have a meandering discussion about it.

Eddy Portnoy: Your stories are full of unusual names of people and places, are any of them real?
Ben Katchor: It’s strange when someone tells you that you've made a literary, or cultural, reference in a strip to someone you’ve never heard of. It’s something I made up, but then they say that’s the famous Israeli comedian. Somebody wrote a whole thesis centered around the connection between the character, Kishon, in The Jew of New York, and the Israeli writer, Ephraim Kishon, who I had never heard of. I just like the sound of the name, like a cushion or a pillow (in Yiddish). Some, like Harkavy, in The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, are real references (in this case, to Yiddish author, Alexander Harkavy).

EP: Jewish names and references sometimes pop up in your work. Is there a Jewish component to this book?
BK: Well, only that the the author had parents who grew up in a more traditional, early twentieth century Jewish culture.

EP: Is that reflected in the book? Some of your works have Yiddish references. Are there any here?
BK: I don’t know. A lot of Yiddish words have come into English. I just wanted more to come. It’s a way to introduce new Yiddish words into the English language. Not that I define them, but...well, maybe there’s nothing Jewish anymore in the world.

EP: I think there probably is.
BK: I don’t know. I think it’s a pretty nebulous term. Even historically.

EP: What role did Yiddish play when you were growing up?
BK: It was my father’s language. We lived in Bed-Stuy and most of his friends were Yiddish speakers. There were always Yiddish papers, like the Freiheit in the house. He took me to all these Yiddish cultural events, concerts, lectures, plays, all before the first grade. Those years were a whole life, an eternity. That’s a long time for a little kid, all these incredible events. He would drag me along on errands to the Lower East Side, I used to like to go along. He wanted me to be able to function in Yiddish, but not so much that he forced me to study it. I didn’t really use it, I always spoke English.

EP: Was it a religious household?
BK: No, my father had no interest in organized religion. He was an atheist, a utopian socialist who subscribed to the Freiheit, the Yiddish-language Communist daily paper.

EP: So it was just the secular cultural Jewishness.
BK: Just!? Maybe that’s all there is to it. I think that was an enormous world of cultural activity. I could hear all this Yiddish music, I grew up listening to Yiddish records and we had a library of Yiddish books, and we told jokes from the humor column in the Freiheit.

EP: What role does the city you grew up in play in your work?
BK: Well, Knipl takes place in an imaginary large East Coast city. It may be filled with Jews, but also disciples of a countless cultures and religions of my own invention . . . I guess you could analyze the source of these things in the real world and determine that they could only have been invented by someone who grew up in New York urban circa 1950 to the 1970s. There's an old Knipl strip about a guy playing with the elastic band of his underpants who lives in a union housing project. A good historian could look at that and figure out exactly which union in New York inspired that story. He could analyze the brands of men's underwear available during that period, the hair patterns on the character's body as a sign of a particular ethnicity, and so on. You could probably go into every one of these stories and analyze the details asking, what did Katchor know, what could Katchor know, growing up and how is that unique to his socio-cultural background or milieu. In such an exercise the chances of error are great.

My strips reflect a particular kind of dislocated urban environment. And maybe in a hundred years, you’ll have to annotate these things. After they get rid of all the unions, they’ll say, “what do you mean, ‘The Men’s Underpants Union.’ What does that mean, a ‘union?’”

EP: But a lot of it is also invented.
BK: The kinds of things that have never been recorded in history have to be made up. History only records very narrow slices of what goes on in the world. Nobody wrote about the guy who came to Mordecai Noah's Ararat and was disappointed by the failed scheme. That’s what inspired me to write and draw The Jew of New York. It's so-called historical fiction.

EP: Would you like to conclude by saying something about Hand-Drying in America?
BK: It’s a compilation of fifteen years of short stories about the built world. As I've lived all my life in cities, I can't help but try to find some sense in the way things have been arranged. It's a form of appreciation for a failed world.

Eddy Portnoy teaches Jewish literature and Yiddish language at Rutgers University. Find out more about Ben Katchor here.