Cover of Bad Rabbi by Eddy Portnoy
Bad Rabbi
And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press
Eddy Portnoy

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October 2017
280 pages.
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Cloth ISBN: 9780804797610
Paper ISBN: 9781503604117

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Stories abound of immigrant Jews on the outside looking in, clambering up the ladder of social mobility, successfully assimilating and integrating into their new worlds. But this book is not about the success stories. It's a paean to the bunglers, the blockheads, and the just plain weird—Jews who were flung from small, impoverished eastern European towns into the urban shtetls of New York and Warsaw, where, as they say in Yiddish, their bread landed butter side down in the dirt. These marginal Jews may have found their way into the history books far less frequently than their more socially upstanding neighbors, but there's one place you can find them in force: in the Yiddish newspapers that had their heyday from the 1880s to the 1930s. Disaster, misery, and misfortune: you will find no better chronicle of the daily ignominies of urban Jewish life than in the pages of the Yiddish press.

An underground history of downwardly mobile Jews, Bad Rabbi exposes the seamy underbelly of pre-WWII New York and Warsaw, the two major centers of Yiddish culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With true stories plucked from the pages of the Yiddish papers, Eddy Portnoy introduces us to the drunks, thieves, murderers, wrestlers, poets, and beauty queens whose misadventures were immortalized in print. There's the Polish rabbi blackmailed by an American widow, mass brawls at weddings and funerals, a psychic who specialized in locating missing husbands, and violent gangs of Jewish mothers on the prowl—in short, not quite the Jews you'd expect. One part Isaac Bashevis Singer, one part Jerry Springer, this irreverent, unvarnished, and frequently hilarious compendium of stories provides a window into an unknown Yiddish world that was.

About the author

Eddy Portnoy is Senior Researcher and Director of Exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

"Eddy Portnoy's Bad Rabbi is an extraordinary thing: a gateway to the lost world of Jewish street life in pre-World War II New York and Warsaw. The Yiddish newspapers Portnoy mines were free from piety and light on decorum; instead they present a vast, roiling canvas of human behavior in all its extremes, from comedy to horror, with fiercely unbuttoned characters declaiming eloquently as stoopside choruses annotated their rants. Portnoy's book is undomesticated history; it is a time machine to an eradicated past; it is pure pleasure."

—Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

"Having devoted his misspent youth to combing the Yiddish press for seedy, shady, and shocking stories, Portnoy, the bad boy of Yiddish studies, brings bad rabbis and other miscreants into the light in this erudite and thoroughly entertaining book."

—Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, author of Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage

"This fascinating book contains the strangest Jews I've ever met in my life. It should appeal to every history buff out there—Jewish, gentile or otherwise. What's Yiddish for 'Buy this book, or may all your teeth fall out except one to give you a toothache'?"

—A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

"Only a historian with the wit and comic sensibility of Eddy Portnoy could succeed in resurrecting these dead and forgotten Jews of New York and Warsaw. Through his painstaking research, we can vicariously experience their desperation and lack of self-control, their strange passions and their various forms of mental illness – predicaments we're just one step away from ourselves."

—Ben Katchor, comic artist and creator of Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer

"Bad Rabbi is a masterful set of finely-tuned scholarship and critical zingers that brings detailed archival history of 'downwardly mobile' nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jews alive through vivid, erudite, and spit-take funny storytelling. Portnoy heads straight for the urban immigrant underbelly, opens up the newspapers, and uses portraits of a vanished people and a vanished culture to not just deliver a bygone way of life, but to explode some of our most dominant conceptions of modern Jewish culture."

—Josh Kun, author of Audiotopia: Music, Race and America

"Exuberantly vulgar, blithely unconcerned with gentile opinion, these nuggets of low-class Yiddishism won't let us forget how rough-and-tumble life in Yiddishland really was."

—Michael Wex, author of Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods