Bad Rab­bi And Oth­er Strange but True Sto­ries from the Yid­dish Press

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

Port­noy, Senior Researcher and Direc­tor of Exhi­bi­tions at the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research, has writ­ten an enter­tain­ing account of a rel­a­tive­ly obscure aspect of Yid­dish life in Poland and the Unit­ed States in the decades pri­or to World War II. The sto­ries in this book, tak­en from the Yid­dish press, focus on the under­bel­ly of Jew­ish life. Unlike immi­grants who escaped pover­ty in Europe and suc­cess­ful­ly assim­i­lat­ed in the New World, Portnoy’s Jews found lit­tle suc­cess in the U.S. These are the sto­ries of trou­bled migrants, who inhab­it­ed a world of pover­ty and crime.

Port­noy argues that Irv­ing Howe, author of World of Our Fathers, the clas­sic mono­graph that paint­ed an ide­al­ized pic­ture of Jew­ish life in New York, over­looked key aspects of the cul­ture. Accord­ing to Port­noy, Howe failed to include the crim­i­nals, the bigamists, the pro­fes­sion­al wrestlers (Port­noy notes that Jews like the 600-plus-pound Blimp Levy dom­i­nat­ed the wrestling scene of 1920s New York), and the human detri­tus that gets washed away and for­got­ten” — the undoc­u­ment­ed losers, fail­ures and freaks that are so com­mon in immi­grant neigh­bor­hoods of big cities.”

Oper­at­ing under the under­stand­ing that scan­dal and sen­sa­tion sold news­pa­pers, the reporters of the Yid­dish press mined all kinds of sources for their arti­cles, which includ­ed street ped­dlers, bums, doc­tors, police offi­cers, rab­bis and any­one else who might be able to give the low­down on what­ev­er freak show that just hap­pened,” and ver­i­fy what was told to them. It was among the talk­a­tive low­er class­es of Jew­ish War­saw that reporters found some of their best sources. The ren­der­ing of their speech into prose, observes Port­noy, was one of the great joys of read­ing the Yid­dish press.

In his thought­ful intro­duc­tion to the book, Port­noy asks: What is the his­tor­i­cal val­ue of these sto­ries to us?” He admits that the sto­ries are not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Jew­ry, but insists that in every soci­ety there is a group of peo­ple who are low­ly, uncul­tured, une­d­u­cat­ed, poor, and wor­thy of atten­tion. Port­noy con­cludes that these Jews have some­thing to say about themselves…they are sec­u­lar, reli­gious, and a lit­tle bit of both…yet they’re often back­ward and stupid…They’re des­per­ate and fre­quent­ly vio­lent. But what­ev­er they did…they were all part of the Jew­ish sto­ry, ris­ing, falling, and fail­ing with Yid­dish on their tongues.”

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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