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Sensationalism! Sex! Jews Behaving Badly!

Yiddish Newspapers of the 1920s and 1930s would have had a field day with our current political reality.

Eddy Portnoy
March 19, 2018
Wikimedia Commons
A page from Haynt, a Yiddish-language paper published in Warsaw from 1906 until 1939.Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
A page from Haynt, a Yiddish-language paper published in Warsaw from 1906 until 1939.Wikimedia Commons

We hear the term a lot these days, but anyone familiar with the Yiddish press of the early Twentieth Century knows that “fake news” isn’t exactly new. Let me refer you to the 1913 report in Warsaw’s daily Haynt, in which the esteemed religious scholar, Hillel Zeitlin, was seen eating a pork chop in a train station in Pinsk.

But “fake news” was not the same phenomenon in the Yiddish press as it is in the way Dear Leader conceives of it. While there were a number of afternoon tabloids, particularly in Warsaw, that published sensational stories, some of which were wildly exaggerated, there weren’t a huge number of stories that were made up out of whole cloth. On the other hand, a certain kind of sensationalism did exist and was decried by angry critics as being bad for the readership. And yet, Yiddish readers seemed to love these stories.

Examples abound: A guy who accidentally kills a woman and then tries to mail her body to a random address in Chicago; a riot of 50,000 Jewish mothers on the Lower East Side; a Jewish beauty pageant in Warsaw that caused a riot at the funeral of a Hasidic rabbi; a Yiddish-speaking Lorena Bobbitt: The Yiddish press is an endless well of amazing stories of down-on-their-luck Jews.

And just as readers of Yiddish newspapers never tired of stories of crime, sex, and violence, Yiddish journalists never tired of writing them. Conceived initially as a vehicle to educate and guide Jews in the minefield of urban modernity, the Yiddish press also functioned as a vehicle for good, great, and lousy literature, a locus for raucous political and social discourse, and a place for back-fence gossip. The Yiddish papers were serious about journalism and produced millions of pages of high-quality reportage. But in many of their back pages, in the angry little blurbs that fill up the Yiddish crime blotter, one finds the minor but deeply compelling tales of small time crooks, relationships gone wrong, and of remarkably bad decisions made by Jews who may not have been the sharpest knives in the drawer.

The Yiddish press of the 1920s and 30s would have had a field day with the deep ditch of scandal our country in which the US administration is currently mired. Just imagine a Yiddish-speaking Anderson Cooper detailing the sordid affairs of The Mooch, of Tillerson getting fired on the toilet, or of Stormy Daniels, and you’d get a contemporary American version of the sensational stories one finds in the Yiddish press of yore. A hundred years from now, scholars will pore over our media the same way that today’s historians look at newspapers from a century ago. And they’ll probably conclude, la plus ça change….or, as it’s said in Yiddish, Der zelber drek.

Eddy Portnoy will deliver the Naomi Prawer Kadar Annual Memorial Lecture, entitled “Bad Rabbis, Brawlers, Psychics, and Thieves: Sensationalism in the Yiddish Press,” at Columbia University’s Faculty House, 64 Morningside Drive, tomorrow, March 20, at 6:30 p.m. To RSVP, email [email protected].

Eddy Portnoy is academic adviser and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as well as the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford University Press 2017).