Eddy Portnoy's Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange But True Stories From the Yiddish Press
Reviewed by Tamar Rabinowitz
In April of last year, a play about a play became a surprise Broadway hit. The Pulitzer Prize winning Indecent recounted the making of renowned Yiddish playwright, Shalom Asch’s 1906 God of Vengeance — a story of a wealthy, exploitative, and violent Jewish brothel owner eager to marry off his daughter to a respectable scholar. A tale about faith, hypocrisy, sexuality, and deceit, God of Vengeance unearthed the unsavory aspects of Eastern European Jewish life, leaving contemporaries to wonder if it “was good for the Jews?”
In the context of Indecent’s success, along with concurrent off-Broadway revival of God of Vengeance, Eddy Portnoy’s book Bad Rabbi is a timely excavation of the real-life, nonfictional, but perhaps sensationalized stories of sex, violence, misery, and depravity that characterized much of urban Jewish life in the first decades of the twentieth century. Mining the depths of Yiddish press, largely produced in New York City and Warsaw, Portnoy’s study hones in on the scoundrels, cheats, criminals, and gossipmongers of Jewish enclaves within the growing, cosmopolitan urban centers in the United States and Poland. At the center of Bad Rabbi is the flourishing Yiddish press and the dogged journalists who documented the daily lives of the “rabble” — the “downwardly mobile” Jews who, Portnoy claims, have been lost to a predominantly celebratory narrative of popular Jewish history.
As a collection of stories drawn from the pages of the Yiddish papers, both from the U.S. and Poland/Russian Pale, Bad Rabbi offers a glimpse into a world of poverty, suffering and misery as Jews adjusted to modern urban life. Murder, prostitution, Jew-on-Jew violence, and salacious trials that pitted widowed (alleged) con-artists against respected town rebbes showcase a world that was fascinatingly ordinary in the context of rapid urbanization and the social upheaval of mass immigration. By showing how journalists reported, where they investigated, and what they deemed newsworthy, Bad Rabbi illustrates how the Yiddish press evolved and matured. More importantly, however, the book points to the central role of these journalists, and the institution of the Yiddish press of which they were a part, in the shaping of modern Jewish culture and community. Locating the roots of a modern tradition of Yiddish humor in the press, for instance, Portnoy argues that while the stories in the Jewish papers mirrored “similar sounding takes… found in other urban newspapers throughout the world,” the Yiddish press’s deployment of humor in telling these tales both reflected and reinforced the particularities and inconsistencies of urban Jewish life.
But a few factors conspire to make the Yiddish press a little bit weirder than others. Well aware of the language’s high-value Hebraisms and homey Slavicisms, Yiddish readers and speakers, many of them partly or fully multilingual, became masters of the ironic juxtaposition. Throw in the added irony of the self-perceived chosen people shunting about the planet in tatters, abused and oppressed at every turn, living in hovels among criminals and prostitutes, combine that with the low political and social status of Jews, mix in an exceptionally high literacy rate and a tradition of argumentation, and you will wind up, Portnoy contends, with a people who cannot help but mock themselves and everyone else.
The writers who ‘mocked themselves and everyone else’ would shape the growing world of Yiddish humor and with it, a sense of modern Jewish culture. Indeed, many of those writers were drawn from the ranks of or were already emerging giants in the flourishing world of Yiddish intellectuals and writers — notably the brothers Israel Joshua and Isaac Bashevis Singer. What is more, the very fact that these investigative reports, editorials, and crime blotters were written in Yiddish meant that only Jews had access. The press was therefore not only a place to get news and revel in the dramas of daily life, but also a fulcrum around which to build a contemporary Jewish communal identity; it was “a place where Jews could be Jews.”
The detailed and witty introduction to Bad Rabbi contains the bulk of the book’s analytical insights while the subsequent chapters are well-researched stories that read like a journalist’s account of past events. This engaging journalistic style, however, renders Bad Rabbi somewhat disjointed as it fails to deliver on its promise to show how these accounts, when taken together, reveal the unexceptional experiences of urban Jewry. Lacking historical analysis and broader context, Bad Rabbi does not effectively weave these disparate chapters together into a narrative that supports the claims set forth in the introduction. Instead, by resurfacing these stories, Portnoy seems to be offering an invitation to historians and scholars of Yiddish culture to delve into the world of the Yiddish press and the “desperate and frequently violent… brilliant or slack jawed stupid” Jews who were and are integral to the “Jewish story, rising, falling, and failing with Yiddish on their tongues."
Portnoy is careful to note the limits of using the Yiddish dailies as a primary source, explaining that if scholars looked exclusively at the papers to dissect the daily lives of its subjects, “it would quickly be determined that we are a society composed mainly of criminals and deviants. The reality, as most people are aware, is that human society is, for the most part, pretty damn dull. And that is one of the reasons people read the papers." And yet, he nonetheless argues throughout the introduction that the Yiddish journalists’ and their accounts of ‘criminals and deviants’ bring to light the mundane, “the nitty-gritty of daily life, the quotidian grind." While some of the characters, like the young wealthy man whose family rejects his marriage to a poor young woman, are believably common, others presented in this volume, such as the 650 pound wrestler or the elderly widow who claimed to have given birth to the child of a married rebbe seem to only reinforce the notion that the press did not reflect the ordinary lives of everyday people, but the remarkable, and oftentimes embarrassing standouts within the Jewish communities in both the alte haym (old world) and the new world.
Whether the characters and their stories are unusual or sadly ordinary, Portnoy repeatedly insists that they are essential to deepening our understanding of Jewish history. And yet, without historical analysis or context, Bad Rabbi is never quite clear as to why. Take, for instance, the story of Pesach Rubenstein, the Orthodox Jewish immigrant in New York City accused of murdering his cousin in 1875. Noting that few Jewish papers were willing to comment on the crime at all despite its making headlines in the mainstream press, Portnoy observes that the English-language “official organ of Reform Judaism, the American Israelite, did chime in briefly, mainly to note that Rubenstein’s Orthodoxy was in no way an impediment to his becoming a murderer." To historians of American Judaism and American Jewish history, the Israelite’s comments speak to broader tensions between the Reform, Americanized Jewish community, and the growing population of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who had yet to jettison their ‘old world’ traditions and language. Portnoy offers no insight into why the Israelite would be the only Jewish paper to comment on the events and therefore neglects to explain what it is that the story of Pesach Rubenstein tells us about the press and American Jewish experience at the close of the 19th century. As a result, while these chapters are impressively researched and thoroughly engaging, the absence of this analysis leaves the reader wondering why these stories are as important for historical scholarship as Portnoy claims. I have little doubt that Bad Rabbis’ stories speak to larger questions about modern Jewish culture, identity, and community, but the book hedges when it could tell us so much more.
While Bad Rabbi is a compelling and — quite simply — a fun read, its failure to draw connections and conclusions about its very rich material renders it incomplete. Still by shining a light on these crooked tales and shocking characters, Portnoy’s collection brings to bear some of the glaring gaps in the social history of a turn-of-the-century Jewish community, rendering Bad Rabbi ‘good’ for future scholarship and thus, overall, “good for the Jews.”
Tamar Rabinowitz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College. She has also contributed to public history/curatorial projects at the New York Historical Society, the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the Museum of the City of New York, and the National Museum of American Jewish History.