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.

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.