Scholar talks seedy underbelly of Jewish history



Eddy Portnoy, senior researcher and director of exhibitions at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, spoke on the aspects of daily Jewish life in the pages of Yiddish newspapers. (Photos by Hannah Monicken)

The Jewish immigration story is often told as one of scrappy newcomers finding success in the new land through hard work and smarts. The Jews of the Old Country are remembered as pious folk who, depending on their foresight, either made it out alive or perished in the Holocaust.

But that glosses over a lot of real Jewish life — the Jewish characters, the Jews on the fringes, the bad actors, the idiots, the Yiddish tabloid sensations.

That’s where Eddy Portnoy and his new book, “Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange But True Stories from the Yiddish Press,” come in. Portnoy, senior researcher and director of exhibitions at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, offered the seedy side of Jewish history on Sunday at Washington Hebrew Congregation.

“These aren’t the Jews you expected when you heard the word ‘Yiddish,’” he said.

Here are six sensational stories to come out of Portnoy’s research.

1. The rise of Yiddish newspapers

The Yiddish press started circulating in the late 19th century in Eastern Europe. Yiddish, Portnoy said, was lowly regarded by well-educated Jews, who preferred Hebrew. But Yiddish was what the common people spoke and so publishers quickly realized it was the language they needed if they wanted to inform — and appeal to — the majority of Jews.

These newspapers were by and for Jews, Portnoy said. Because they were in Yiddish, the Jewish community could be assured of a relatively private
conversation with itself. The papers served as the method of educating and entertaining the masses, from weekly chapters of serialized novels to news stories in a Soviet paper about California sequoia trees.

“Yiddish newspapers were very much responsible for making Jews modern,” Portnoy said, adding that at one point near the turn of the 20th century, these newspapers in the United States matched the circulation of The New York Times.

2. Pesach Rubenstein

The name might not mean much today, but in the 1870s the story of immigrants Pesach Rubenstein and Sara Alexander captured the attention of not only the American Yiddish press, but English-language newspapers as well.

Rubenstein was charged for the brutal murder of Alexander — his pregnant cousin, housemaid and probable mistress — while his wife and child were on their way from Poland to join him in America.

“Not only was this front page news in every newspaper in New York, it was written about across the country,” Portnoy said.

As a media sensation, it was also an introduction for many gentiles to Eastern European Jews, as the story appeared widely in the non-Jewish American press, Portnoy said. The story even found its way into pulp novels.

3. The People’s Rabbinical Court

This cartoon from a Yiddish newspaper showed a rabbinical council in protective gear, preparing to hear a divorce case. As headlines from the time show, proceedings becoming violent or out-of-hand were not an infrequent occurrence.

In early 20th century Warsaw, where Jews constituted a third of the population, the local rabbinical council was heavily involved in day-to-day life and operated — if headlines from Yiddish newspapers at the time are any indication — as a People’s Court meets Jerry Springer.

“Yiddish newspapers would send journalists to the rabbinical court because they knew there was always something juicy coming before the rabbis,” Portnoy said.

From attempting to mediate a divorce brawl to a request for a wife swap, the rabbis were asked to make some pretty messy — and weird — determinations. These cases were so rowdy that rabbis were often pictured in Yiddish newspaper cartoons as wearing protective gear before a hearing, Portnoy said.

4. ‘A Gallery of Missing Husbands’

“Jewish men abandoning their families was an epidemic,” Portnoy said.

It was so bad that a daily column, “A Gallery of Missing Husbands,” in one New York Yiddish newspaper featured photos submitted by wives and families of these men to (hopefully) have them found and forced to support their

5. Miss Judea pageant

A Yiddish daily in Warsaw held a contest to find the most beautiful Jewish woman in Poland. The winner appeared for photo opportunities at a number of Jewish institutions, including the Jewish Community Council in Warsaw, where the president serenaded her with the “Song of Songs.” This greatly offended the vice president, a devout rabbi, and people began to protest both for and against this action outside the council.

Shortly after, and unrelated, the vice president died (of natural causes, Portnoy assured the audience) and the president, when he showed up to speak at the funeral, was booed and hissed. He left, but arguments broke out about whether he should have been allowed to stay. Arguments soon turned to shoving and there were the mourners, fighting and yelling, Portnoy said, as an esteemed rabbi was laid to rest.

6. ‘Two Wives, Blazing Punches, And — the Cops’

This is one of the stories that inspired the book, Portnoy said. While working on his doctoral dissertation about cartoons in Yiddish newspapers, he stumbled onto this headline: “Two Wives, Blazing Punches, And — the Cops.” How could he resist?

As the story goes, one young Jewish man in Warsaw was married, but took a liking to another woman. He set this new woman up in an apartment in the city and married her there, shuttling between his two wives, telling the first one he was away on business when visiting the second.

Well, neighbors cottoned onto what was happening and told the man’s brother, who dragged him before the rabbinical court. The man was ordered to divorce both women and as the judgment came down, his brother ran over and punched him in the face. Inspired, the first wife’s family — mostly other women — started to beat the second wife. The police were called and everyone was arrested.

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