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.
An expert on Jewish popular culture Eddy Portnoy has an MA in Yiddish from Columbia and a PhD in Jewish history from JTS. The exhibitions he has created for YIVO have won plaudits from The New York Times VICE The Forward and others.