Book Review: Follies and foibles from the Jewish past

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

We tend to look at the lives of our Yiddish-speaking ancestors through rose-colored glasses. Of course, all these Jews were upstanding citizens who behaved appropriately, no matter what the provocation. While the world may have treated them poorly, they took great care in their dealings with each other. Those of you who don’t want to be disabused of this notion should definitely not read Eddy Portnoy’s entertaining and amusing “Bad Rabbi and Other Strange But True Stories From the Yiddish Press” (Stanford University Press), which shows just how badly some of our ancestors behaved. 
Portnoy, a senior researcher and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute, notes that his book is not a traditional scholarly monogram, but rather a work of popular history – one that reflects an excellent sense of humor. This is the first time someone’s “Notes on Orthography” made me laugh. After explaining his method for phonetically translating Yiddish into English, Portnoy mentions that he considered “writing the entire book using YIVO orthography. Bot yu no, meybi its not sotsh a greyt aydiya efter ol.” 
“Bad Rabbi” focuses on a specific Jewish social group, Eastern European Jews, who “had their own unique culture, their own foods, their own folktales, their own music, their own literature – all carried in their own language, Yiddish. The only thing they lacked was their own country. Or did they? After all, they lived in Yiddishland.” Yiddishland could be located in Warsaw, Poland, across the ocean in New York City, or anywhere with a Yiddish-speaking population. The chronicles of this country were Yiddish newspapers and magazines, and there was one for almost every interest: “The Yiddish press catered to virtually every political and social orientation. Everything from anarchist to traditionally religious – and whatever lay between – appeared on the newsstands. Among umpteen others, one could find women’s magazines, socialist literary magazines, vegetarian monthlies, satirical weeklies and religious dailies – all available on the corner for just a few pennies.” Since print media was the mass media of the times, many Jewish organizations also published their own magazines or newspapers.
Some papers tried to appeal to a wide audience by including stories about all aspects of Yiddish culture. For example, communist writers and religiously observant ones often found themselves published in the same edition of a paper. The press – and its readers – loved sensationalist tales or unusual news, including stories from Warsaw’s Yiddish crime blotter. The stories Portnoy prints run the gamut from the petty to the serious, including theft, physical assault, prostitution and more. Not every story ended in an arrest by the police. For example, “Blood-drenched Scandal on Account of... Davening” tells of a religious father who beat his free-thinking son with a stick because he wouldn’t attend the synagogue. The son was left a bloody mess, with the final result being that “medical help was called and the boy’s wounds were bandaged” – with no one informing the police of the assault. 
Cultural misunderstandings underlie “The Great Tonsil Riot of 1906” in New York City’s Lower East Side, when Yiddish speaking mothers thought their children’s throats were being cut open while they attended school. What really happened was that doctors from the Board of Health were performing tonsillectomies on some of the students. The misunderstanding occurred because, although the parents had been informed, they were unable to read the English documents they’d been given. The New York City Police Department was so disturbed by the women’s behavior, that it stationed police at the school building until the end of classes that year. Fortunately, there was no further rioting.
Other chapters feature interesting people and events that may not be familiar to many readers. For example, Portnoy writes about Warsaw’s Miss Judea Beauty Pageant, which took place in 1929; Martin “The Blimp” Levy and his wrestling career; and an intriguing tale of “Bigamy, Blackmail, and the Radimmer Rebbetzin.” Nineteen newspaper stories featured in a chapter about rabbinic courts show that divorce was more common than one might think, and a chapter on “Suicide Jews” shows the large number of suicides that took place in Warsaw in the 1920s and ‘30s. Portnoy notes that “there are stretches in which one finds at least one and sometimes several suicide reports per day. Not only were Jews killing themselves on a regular basis, but also Yiddish newspaper readers seemed to love nothing more than a juicy story with an unhappy ending.”
This eye-opening view of Yiddishland and our ancestors was fun and fascinating. Portnoy definitely does not show this world at its finest. When writing about the criminal cases, he notes that these people “are the two-bit nobodies of Jewish history. Essentially unknown, the derelicts who populate the Yiddish crime blotters are the unsung heroes of the Jewish underclass, a group that tends to resist documentation.” Those of us who want to understand Jewish history need to understand all aspects of that history – the heroic and the nefarious. “Bad Rabbi” does an excellent job revealing the dark underbelly of Yiddishland.