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Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture) 1st Edition by Eddy Portnoy;Inadvertent Validation of Polish Cardinal Hlond’s Much-Maligned 1936 Statements

jan peczkis|Friday, December 1, 2017

Author Eddy Portnoy is a researcher with the YIVO Institute. The setting of this fascinating work is foreign-ruled Poland, and the Jewish immigrant community in New York City, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of it focuses on the everyday foibles of Jewish life. These are of no interest to me, and I instead focus on matters of lasting significance in the understanding of Jewish life

Owing to the fact that radio, television, and the internet were not yet invented, the Yiddish newspaper had much more importance to Jews than today’s newspapers have to their readers. The heyday of the Yiddish press was the 1880s—1930s. (p. 3). Author Portnoy opines that the Yiddish press is the best way to learn of Jewish life in Poland before the German-made Holocaust. (p. 20).


The usual emphasis on pogroms, in history books, has tended to portray Jews as defenseless victims of the gentiles, and this has obscured the fact that Jews could dish out violence as well as receive it. Portnoy helps demystify this subject. To begin with, he probably astonishes the reader by writing, “The Yiddish papers of the 1920s and 1930s are full of reports of furious Jew-on-Jew violence, attacks that took place between all kinds of Jews.” (p. 219).

He adds that, “Yom Kippur fisticuffs, it should be known, were not unique to New York City. Warsaw, with its large Jewish population, was also a flashpoint for Jew-on-Jew Day of Atonement fury.” (p. 86). More on this later.

There was a growing nonobservance of Sabbath by many Jews, and this prompted the activities of the SHOMREY SHABBOS (“Guardians of the Shabbos”). Portnoy writes, “Infractions were often met with threats of boycott, public reprimand, and even violence.” (p. 176). [Note the double standard: Jew-on-Jew boycotts were no big deal: Endek-led Polish boycotts of Jews were, and still are, something terrible.] However, it was not only the religious Jews that initiated Sabbath-related violence, as clarified by Portnoy, “Willing to fight at the drop of a hat, the Free Thinkers and the Shabbos enforcers often came to fisticuffs.” (p. 180).

An article in HAYNT (October 3, 1927) is titled “A Bloody Battle Between Jews (That lasted 21 hours.)” It occurred on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw. (p. 227). Hundreds of Jews were involved in the riot, which began over one woman starting “rumors” about another.


Consider the self-atheization of Poland’s Jews. Portnoy informs us that, “The Free Thinkers, as they were known, had bureaus all over Poland, clubhouses for nonbelievers where lectures and meetings were held…” (p. 180).

To disbelieve the truth claims of religion and/or to find religious practices irrelevant, is one thing. To be openly disrespectful of religion is quite another. The following statements by Eddy Portnoy speak volumes:

“Yom Kippur dances, organized initially by anarchists in the mid-1880s, started in London and migrated to New York and Montreal. Smaller nosh fests and public demonstrations were also celebrated by Jewish antinomians in other locales. Unorthodox Jews in interwar Poland could pull hundreds of locals into small venues on Yom Kipper in shtetls such as Kalish and Chelm. In larger cities, for example, Warsaw and Lodz, they could sell out 5,000-seat circuses.” (p. 83). Obviously, this was no extremist or marginal operation!

Portnoy continues, “Advertised in the Yiddish press, Yom Kippur balls, lectures, and nosh fests were decidedly communal events created by and for an alternative community…Some people partook to spite a god they did not believe in. Others participated to antagonize their parents, and still others to harass the religious establishment. In fact, harassment may have been the biggest draw. In addition, holding an antireligious Yom Kippur event was often a way to get free publicity.” (p. 84).

Atheist Jews also affronted religious Jews directly, and in an in-your-face manner. Portnoy cites a 1927 article in HAYNT, “‘And if the meeting itself went without incident, they [atheists] went out into the Jewish streets the morning of Yom Kippur and hawked old issues of the magazine THE FREETHINKER while people were on their way to shul.’” (p. 86).

The hatred exhibited by the atheists was palpable. Portnoy remarks, “In September 1925, for example, MOMENT reported that an antireligious mass meeting held in a theater during the evening of Yom Kippur in Warsaw, during which speakers fulminated furiously against religion in general and against Yom Kippur specifically, ended without any violence whatsoever.” (p. 88).


Eddy Portnoy points out that most Jewish journalists had come from religious homes, but had become secular. (p. 90). This shows up in what they wrote.

Author Portnoy assesses Shmuel Yatskan, a famous editor of the leading Yiddish newspaper, HAYNT, as follows, “With an understanding that a popular newspaper should have a broad mandate, Yatskan printed a lot of sensationalistic trash along with high-quality literature and excellent cultural and political criticism.” (p. 90).

As another example, Portnoy notes the Warsaw KHRONIK, and says that it was, “A popular chronicle of crime and scandal, it lasted until World War II.” (p. 218).

The appeals to the reader’s base instincts came in many forms. For instance, Portnoy comments, “The Yiddish crime blotter wasn’t really just a crime blotter. A one- or occasionally two-page section found in the back pages of the dailies, it contained a variety of outrageous or scandalous stories of local interest, some criminally minded, others not…included explosive little blurbs that peered into broken lives, eavesdropping and reporting on events that perhaps weren’t so appropriate for public consumption but that the reading public eagerly devoured.” (p. 217).

All this was well-organized, and based on a profiteering motive, as elucidated by Portnoy, “Operating on the understanding that an element of scandal and sensation sells papers, the reporters of the Yiddish press mined all kinds of sources for this fare: street peddlers, bums and bag ladies, doctors and nurses at the Jewish Hospital, the police, rabbis, neighborhood finks, and anyone else who might be able to give them the lowdown on whatever freak show just happened in the vicinity.” (p. 218).

To summarize the seamy themes of Yiddish newspapers, Portnoy writes, “The stories touch on a huge number of issues: superstition, petty theft, smuggling, homosexuality, love affairs, poverty, prostitution, and gambling, to name just a few.” (p. 219).

In addition, and in reference to criminal-turned-writer Urke Nachlnik (Yitzhok Farberovitch), Portnoy quips, “…Yiddish papers included lots of ‘Urke’ material, ranging from interviews to stories to bad underworld jokes…Nachalnik’s serialized stories of the Jewish lowlife were a huge hit among the Jews of Poland…” (p. 111).


Portnoy’s last quoted statement is hereby continued: “…in early 1934 actors involved with La Scale Yiddish Theatre decided to stage a play based on his [Nachlnik’s] tales. La Scale wasn’t one of the top Yiddish theaters in Warsaw, but it always managed to snag an audience with an attractive combination of classics (such as Nachalnik’s DIN TOYRE [Thieves Trial]). DIN TOYRE, which opened just after Christmas 1933, drew big crowds not only because it brought the master criminal-turned-auteur to the premiere, but also because the play portrayed the street life of Jewish pimps, prostitutes, and criminals in its own raw reality, complete with authentically foul language and nasty behavior.” (p. 111). In contrast to some Jews who objected to this filth, “Yiddish theatergoers, however, seemed to enjoy the mud and didn’t necessarily mind being dragged through it. The play was a minor hit.” (p. 112). Evidently, this kind of material, and the nihilistic mentality behind it, was increasingly becoming embraced even by mainstream Jewish thinking.


In 1936, Polish Cardinal August Hlond warned of Jews as freethinkers, vanguards of Bolshevism, and a bad moral influence on Poles. For just saying this, Hlond has been pilloried in just about every book on Polish-Jewish relations [I know; I have reviewed them], and transformed into an indictment of Polish Catholic culture in general. As Portnoy’s book inadvertently makes crystal-clear, Hlond was on to something, and his self-appointed critics would do well to take a hike.

The kinds of Yiddish activities described in my review also gave a bad name to Jews even in more secular nations. There were widespread concerns about the impact of Jewish influence in journalism and in the then-new movie industry. One can think of 1920s USA (Henry Ford) and Weimar Germany (Adolf Hitler in his MEIN KAMPF). Unfortunately, the content of Yiddish newspapers and theater eventually became ammunition for the Nazis and their teaching that Jews, as they rise to positions of influence, cause the degeneration and decay of societies. For a candid analysis of this development, by a recent American rabbi, please see the first comment under my review.
Report abuse       JEWISH                      JEWISH HOLLYWOOD: A LEGITIMATE ISSUE

With reference to the likes of Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Ruth Westheimer, Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, and Ron Jeremy:

Rabbi Daniel Lapin. 2005. Our Worst Enemy. TOWARD TRADITION January 24, 2005. Now (May 2017) at: http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/LapinEnemy.php

"You'd have to be a recent immigrant from Outer Mongolia not to know of the role that people with Jewish names play in the coarsening of our culture. Almost every American knows this. It is just that most gentiles are too polite to mention it."

Rabbi Daniel Lapin continues:

"By now, some Jewish readers will be cringing. You might be cursing me for making public the role of Jews in debasing the culture. Perhaps you subscribe to the notion that nobody has noticed. I sympathize and want you to know that I write about it only for the purpose of trying to solve the problem. Make no mistake, it is a problem, and the solution lies not in attempting to defame the critics, but in stepping forward to criticize the defamers. Indeed, if we Jews do not ourselves condemn the wrong that our brethren do, others with less sympathy eventually will do so.

This excerpt from Adolf Hitler's MEIN KAMPF shows how that evil megalomaniac roused his nation to hurl an avalanche of destruction at the Jewish people:

Was there any form of filth or profligacy, particularly in cultural life, without at least one Jew involved in it? What had to be reckoned heavily against the Jews in my eyes was when I became acquainted with their activity in the press, art, literature, and the theater....It sufficed to look at a billboard, to study the names behind the horrible trash they advertised....Is this why the Jews are called the "chosen people"? The fact that nine tenths of all literary filth, artistic trash, and theatrical idiocy can be set to the account of a people, constituting hardly one hundredth of all the country's inhabitants, could simply not be talked away; it was the plain truth. (MEIN KAMPF, Adolf Hitler, Chapter II)

It does not excuse Hitler or his Nazi thugs for us to acknowledge that this maniacal, master propagandist focused on a reality that resonated with the educated, and cultured Germans of his day. Not once in MEIN KAMPF did that monster charge Jews with being complicit in the killing of Christ two thousand years earlier. He knew that long-ago event, shrouded in mystery and theological profundity, would never goad enlightened people to murder. Instead, he drew attention to the obvious and inescapable; that which every German knew to be true.

The sad fact is that through Jewish actors, playwrights, and producers, the Berlin stage of Weimar Germany linked Jews and deviant sexuality in all its sordid manifestations just as surely as Broadway does today. Much of the filth in American entertainment today parallels that of Germany between the wars."
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