Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.
At the 1908 Czernowitz Conference for the Yiddish Language, writers, teachers, and philosophers and linguists gathered together to fight the denigration of the Yiddish language. Yiddishists dedicated themselves to standardizing the language, bringing Yiddish scholarship into institutions of high learning, and translating canonical texts into Yiddish, all in hopes of recasting the derided zhargon as a literary language with a high culture.
In Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press, Eddy Portnoy carries the banner of Yiddishism from a contrasting perspective. Bringing together stories of Yiddishland's low culture, Portnoy reminds us that, only a century ago, "about three-quarters of the Jews on this planet did their thing in Yiddish," including boxing, begging, and having sex. Like Yiddish activists and organizers today in the arts, academia, and beyond, Portnoy toes the line of portraying Yiddish as both a treasure and as utterly mundane; both "a linguistic home away from home" and a "language they (the readers) could understand" (iz). Indeed, in the early twentieth century, Yiddishists defended Yiddish as not only the language of the rough and tumble masses but also of intellectuals. In the early twenty-first century, Yiddishists argue that Yiddish was and is not only a language of literature, academia, humor, and nostalgia; it was also a language people spoke as they went about their lives, ordinary or extraordinary as they might have been.
In its focus on the stranger, seedier side of Yiddishland, Bad Rabbi sets itself apart from social histories dominated by upwardly mobile, high achieving Jews. Portnoy centers his work instead on the "screwups, the bunglers, and the blockheads," chronicling their misfortunes in direct and humorous prose (3). Each chapter chronicles a bizarre event or figure Portnoy encountered while reading through the nineteenth and twentieth-century Yiddish periodicals published in both the United States and Europe. Some chapters provide more historical context than others. For instance, in "Jewish Abortion Technician," Portnoy places a fascinating murder mystery within the history of the abortion industry and its place in New York state law. "Suicide Jews" chronicles the unsavory way journalists used suicide stories as the equivalent of early twenty first-century clickbait, contextualizing it within a phenomenon of rising rates of Jewish suicide cases in 1920s and 1930s Warsaw. "Rivington Street's Wheel of (Mis)Fortune" explores the history of psychics in Jewish life through the story of Abraham Hochman, a Lower East Side "fixture who told fortunes, read palms and foreheads, and tracked down lost spouses and kin for people in the neighborhood" (75). By virtue of placement within their broader historical moment, these stories stand out as the most engaging and informative.
Other chapters depict odd, funny tidbits from the Yiddish press without much context. While all of them are enjoyable reading, they could use more analysis. Indeed, the introduction is the only section that provides comprehensive historical background, explaining the foundational years and evolution of the Yiddish press in both Europe and America. As an anthology of sorts, the rest of the book reads more like a set of disparate stories, held together only by their similar tone, strangeness, and the fact that they appeared in the Yiddish press. Portnoy's prose is also marked departure from most academic works, engaging but also strikingly informal, and not for the more prim and proper among us. (In "Semitic Beauty Drives Jews Wild," Portnoy writes "Attributed to King Solomon, the Song of Songs is essentially a dialogue between a woman and a man deeply in love, expressed by way of horny poetics. It has been presented by some as a paean to God, but that seems pretty unlikely, unless Adonai also has a nice rack" .) That being said, the very same qualities which make Bad Rabbi so different from most academic texts will likely contribute to its success as a crossover book, as it is accessible for audiences with varied levels of prior knowledge about European and American Jewish history.
Bad Rabbi's message to fellow scholars is simple: "True stories of downwardly mobile Jews plucked out of Yiddish dailies," writes Portnoy, "not only help expand our conception of the world but also explode many of our preconceived ideas about it" (23). His point is one worth making, as Jewish social history indeed remains strikingly conservative. By including the stories of prostitutes, bigamists, adulterers, criminals, and "semitic beauties," Bad Rabbi opens the door to a whole new realm of potential topics that historians can and should take on, particularly within the realm of history of sexuality or gender. While many of his sources beg for more context and analysis, especially in regard to gender, Bad Rabbi is an important reminder that "history's mandate should cover a broad swath," even as "nostalgia dictates that we remember only certain things" (22). Portnoy's book also serves as a corrective to the American Jewish public's vision of Yiddish, informed mainly or solely by idealistic family lore which "conveniently forgets that Zeyde the antiques dealers was actually Zeyde the beggar, or that bubbe the saintly seamstress was also Bubbe the hooker" (22).
Finally, Bad Rabbi is an important outgrowth of and addition to contemporary Yiddishist cultural production and activism. Portnoy's urgency and passion for reconstructing Yiddishland is clear-eyed and palpable. "We will never have anything close to a complete picture of the Yiddish world that was," writes Portnoy, but "dredging up even a little enriches our sense of it" (22). As an anthology of Yiddish-speaking "weirdos," Bad Rabbi expands our visions of the Yiddishland that once was. Scholars may deem these strange stories marginal, but to the those today who seek to understand Yiddish speakers of the past more deeply, they are in fact crucial.
Ben Gurion University
Sandra Fox is a postdoctoral fellow at Ben Gurion University, and the founder and producer of Vaybertaytsh: A Feminist Podcast in Yiddish. Her research centers on Yiddishist, Zionist, and denominational Jewish summer camps in the postwar period.
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2019|
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