What the world really needs is a study of dumb Jews, Peter Gay remarked while disparaging a book about how “the Jewish genius” had, so the author claimed, invented modernity. Eddy Portnoy in Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange But True Stories From the Yiddish Press has come along to answer Gay’s request. Bad Rabbi explores the sensational offerings of the Yiddish newspapers in both America and Eastern Europe, which featured, Portnoy says, “multitudes of mediocre Jews, many of whom lived on the verge of modernity, yet were often backward and stupid.” You won’t meet any Einsteins here, but you will get to know some bad hombres, and some extremely silly ones too. The bad rabbi of the title is a bit disappointing, but Portnoy’s archival digging has turned up some rewarding, and bizarre, nuggets from the Yiddish-speaking world of a century ago.
Bad Rabbi contains no stories of piety, scholarship, moneymaking smarts, or it-takes-a-shtetl wholesomeness. Instead, Portnoy gives us drunks, obese wrestlers, hopelessly clumsy criminals, and vitriol throwers. (Hurling acid in someone’s face seems to have been a popular pastime around the turn of the century, especially in courtroom settings.) From the 1870s on, Yiddish newspapers explained the world to an eager Jewish audience. Almost all Yiddish writers were, at one point or another, journalists, and they often highlighted the salacious and freakish.
Portnoy begins in 1871 with the abortionist Jacob Rosenzweig, who after a botched operation packed his dead patient into a trunk and tried to mail her body from New York to Chicago. It got only as far as New York’s Hudson rail yards, where a railroad agent noticed a strange smell (it was August) and so caught on to Rosenzweig’s spectacularly bad idea. Distressingly, during the trial, the jury was forced to view the victim’s body, which after 10 days had become a “putrid mass.” The non-Jewish press didn’t much notice the fact that Rosenzweig was a Jew and his victim a gentile: There were no anti-Semitic undertones to their coverage. The Rosenzweig case led to a wave of state laws criminalizing abortion, which had been fully legal up to that point, and copiously advertised in both Jewish and non-Jewish newspapers.
Rosenzweig’s lack of cleverness was more than matched by Pesach Rubenstein, one of the most renowned murderers of the 1870s. A peddler and religious fanatic, Rubenstein had become the close friend, and possibly lover, of Sara Alexander, a 17-year-old relative who worked as a housemaid for the family. The deeply observant Rubenstein took her to a field in East New York where he gouged her with a cigar knife, gashing her face, throat, and hands as she begged for her life. The family produced more than a dozen defense witnesses for Rubenstein, but their alibis comically contradicted one another. O.J.-style, Rubenstein insisted to the end on his innocence, even going on hunger strike and calling on the heavens as his witness. He starved himself to death in his cell before he could be hanged.
America was galvanized by Rubenstein’s crime. Hugely popular true-crime pamphlets featured drawings of Rubenstein wrapped in tallis and tefillin, davening in his jail cell with his greasy, bedraggled peyes tucked under his yarmulke—the very peyes he had displayed to the jury as the best piece of evidence that he was no killer. Rubenstein’s “very peculiar Religious Devotions” were, Portnoy writes, the first images of the Eastern European Jew to appear widely in America. Vus far a shande!
Portnoy describes brief episodes of collective madness like “the great tonsil riot of 1906,” when a rabid mob of 50,000 Jewish mothers stormed Lower East Side schools, convinced that doctors were cutting the throats of their children. The Yiddish daily Varhayt noted that few of the mothers could read the schools’ permission slips. All they knew was that kids were coming home from school drooling blood and moaning that doctors had cut into their throats. The riot’s nadir occurred when a telephone repairman with pliers hanging from his belt was mistaken for a doctor and nearly lynched by the women. Some might think this proves immigrant Jews were a hot-tempered crew ready to explode at the slightest provocation. But Portnoy notes that New York’s linguistic and cultural barriers made “heading into the streets with your neighbors and a rolling pin” a more likely means of protest than, say, lodging a complaint with City Hall.
Portnoy’s most illustrious Jewish alcoholic is Naftali Herz Imber, a poet and bohemian ne’er-do-well with spiritualist pretensions. In 1897 Imber prophesied that in 50 years a Jewish state would come into being by warfare in Palestine. In the future, he said, the sun would be used to heat houses, and California wines would be among the world’s best. Unfortunately, he also predicted that Kansas and other western states would secede from the union, that California would split in two, with one capital in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles, and that the “Manhattan empire” of the East Coast would go to war with Canada. A heartfelt Zionist, Imber wrote a poem titled Ha-Tikvah that became the national anthem of Israel. The longhaired, unruly Imber was booted from at least one Zionist congress for drunkenness, but they still sang his song, he remarked with satisfaction.
Portnoy gives an account of the strife between observant and secular Jews over Yom Kippur. From the mid-1880s on, festive Yom Kippur dances organized by anarchists and other rebels were the rage among freethinking Jews in both Poland and America. The anti-fasting parties were so popular that in 1907 an editorial in the socialist Varhayt asked its readers to be considerate of those Jews who wished to observe the chag in the traditional way. Fistfights between the religious and the secular often erupted on the holiest day of the year. A typical New York Times headline on Yom Kippur was “Mob of Hebrews Again Attacks Diners in Division Street” (Sept. 27, 1898).
Not surprisingly, Shabbat became a flashpoint for the ongoing struggle between observant and nonreligious Jews. A gang of enforcers called the shomrei-shabbos, “sabbath keepers,” patrolled the streets of Warsaw and other cities, occasionally assaulting Jews who were spotted smoking cigarettes or keeping their stores open on Shabbat. For such zealots, trading punches, and worse, was an acceptable form of work on the day of rest. In 1935, the shomrei-shabbos even resorted to murder in the Praga neighborhood of Warsaw, killing several shopkeepers who were determined to do business on Shabbat.
Portnoy spends some time on the story of Martin (Blimp) Levy, a professional wrestler who in his heyday weighed more than 600 pounds. Levy, who started his career in 1937, was, according to his manager, “a freak with class.” He was flexible, even agile: Bad Rabbi contains a photo of him doing the splits. Levi was also a bona fide chick magnet. He was married at least three times, always to young, svelte women. (In one divorce case, Levy testified that his spouse physically abused him; the judge ruled in his favor.) In 1946 he married an 18-year-old fan. That same year, he was barred from wrestling in the United States because doctors feared he would drop dead in the ring. A few years later he was reduced to playing the fat man in a circus. Levy, who ended up weighing 900 pounds, died at age 56 in an Alabama motel.
One of Bad Rabbi’s gems is a story by Israel Joshua Singer, Isaac Bashevis’s brother, writing under the pen name Gimel Kuper. Bashevis loved to recount the careers of Warsaw crooks and connivers, among them the team of Puny Khane and Shimshon Gramophone. Khane mimes an epileptic fit in the streets, and Shimshon, after rescuing her, begs the crowd for money, explaining that she has been hungry for days. When they go a few blocks over to repeat the same stunt, a bystander yells at them, “You just had a fit in that street over there!” Khane fights back with “I can’t have more than one attack? I’m not allowed?” Eventually, Khane and Shimshon move on to suicide: she threatens to jump from a building, screaming “Let me die!” while Shimshon begs her not to do it, the aim being to extract money from the sympathetic crowd below. When this trick is exposed, Krochmalna Street takes its revenge: they force Khane to jump or else “we’ll come up there and throw you off ourselves.” Her leg broken in the fall, Khane laments her “tragedy” on the way to the hospital: “Who knows if I’ll ever again be able to earn money as a jumper?”
While we’re on the subject of suicide, consider this headline from Moment (April 1927): “The Anatomical Institute Returns the Body of a Jewish Suicide Because Her Bones Are Worthless” (17-year-old Rokhl Weinstein, dying of tuberculosis, wanted to will her body to science). Also from Moment, March 1933: A young man decided to kill himself by jumping out of the window of the Burial Society so that they could get to him faster. “The reason for his suicide was unemployment,” the paper reported: a Jewish joke for the ages, and proof, if any is still needed, that black humor has a firm basis in reality.
There’s more: A girl who, distressed when her boyfriend breaks up with her, bites off his penis. An amputated leg thrown into the yard of the Burial Society by a worker who lacked the money to bury it in the cemetery. An 11-year-old girl sent from Pinsk to Warsaw to purchase “two dark, hairy girls” for a brothel. A “university” for thieves run by Warsaw’s Fagin-like Blind Yankl. A man who demands a divorce because his wife refuses to be a Marxist. Two couples who want to divorce so they can swap spouses. Racy and repellent in equal measure, the Yiddish press showed just how worldly the people of the book could get when they weren’t being respectable, responsible, or thoughtful. Their sorrows and delights were, like those of all people anywhere, profound but also, in their way, rather stupid.