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



A Brief and Not Entirely Uncomplicated History of the Yiddish Press

Yesterday at approximately 7 a.m., passersby on Bzhozova Street suddenly heard a high-pitched woman’s scream: “Catch that bandit!”

The shriek had come from a fat woman with disheveled hair who was running down the street wearing one shoe, holding a rolling pin in one hand and brandishing an iron fire poker in the other. Twenty feet in front of her ran a middle-aged man, gasping for breath. The man also wore only one boot, but held another in one hand and his jacket in the other.

Before confused passersby were able to figure out what was going on, a terrible mishap occurred with the two runners: The man’s clothes began to fall off of him and he was forced to stop and cover himself. In the meantime, his pursuer caught up with him and began to beat him over the head with the iron poker.

Chaos ensued. Some of the witnesses tried to get involved and pull them apart. Eventually, a policeman came running and the pair was brought to the precinct, where it was discovered they were a married couple, Moyshe and Yenta Gampel.

From the crime blotter of the Warsaw Yiddish daily Moment, May 5, 1927

The Jews are a strange nation. Some people don’t even think of them as a nation. They see them only as people who practice a particular religion. In this day and age, some of them might be right. But a century or so ago, it was a different story. The Jews of Eastern Europe and their diasporas were most definitely a nation. An oppressed, politically and socially disenfranchised nation, they were a distinct ethnic, religious, and social polity living in a number of dominant cultures and among a number of other minorities. Not unlike their brethren elsewhere, Eastern European Jews had their own unique culture, their own foods, their own folktales, their own music, their own literature—all carried by their own language, Yiddish. The only thing they lacked was their own country. Or did they? After all, they lived in Yiddishland.

Where is Yiddishland? It’s wherever you need it to be. Yiddish, a 1,000-year-old language based grammatically on Jewish variants of medieval German and written in Hebrew characters, also includes copious amounts of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic languages. It is a fusion language that easily absorbs elements of other languages. Yiddish can have bits of English, French, Spanish, or other languages thrown into the mix, depending on where the speaker lives—and this could be in dozens of places around the globe. Yiddish is terribly flexible and became the way it did in part because of the peripatetic nature of its speakers: Jews who were either on the move or on the run.

You can find anything in Yiddishland. It has food, it has music, it has song, it has dance. It walks and talks in its own unique way. Yiddishland has highbrow literature and trashy novels. It has dirty jokes, expressionist poetry, and brilliant philosophers propounding on a wide variety of linguistic, political, religious, and social matters. A century ago, about three-quarters of the Jews on this planet did their thing in Yiddish. Boxers boxed in Yiddish. Babies shit themselves and cried in Yiddish. Bums begged in Yiddish, and hookers turned tricks in Yiddish. Parents beat their children in Yiddish. Farmers planted crops in Yiddish, and lovers made love in Yiddish. Criminals stole in Yiddish, and scholars researched in Yiddish. This world, now a tiny sliver of what it was before the Holocaust, was vast. Anything and everything was done in Yiddish. And a great deal of this world wound up in the media, because the national sport of Yiddishland was journalism.

There are 8 million stories in the Yiddish naked city, and those in this book are just the tip of the iceberg. That iceberg is the Yiddish press, the largest chronicle of Jewish daily life ever produced. The millions of crumbling, yellowed newspaper pages disintegrating in archives and on library shelves contain some of the most bizarre and improbable situations in Jewish history, products of the concrete jungles that migrating Jews fell into during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Vaulted out of their small, impoverished Eastern European towns, Yiddish-speaking Jews found themselves in pitiless urban shtetls, where poverty still ruled but where new dangers lurked and life moved at a wicked pace. If migrants didn’t also learn to step lively, they were often doomed. And to journalists, Yiddish and otherwise, there continues to be nothing quite so enthralling as quality doom.

Jews responded to new urban environments such as New York and Warsaw as many others did. Some did well for themselves, although most immigrants just muddled through, waiting to hand the reins of upward mobility to the next generation. A great many failed, some of them spectacularly. Although the preference is often for immigrant success stories, it is the screwups, the bunglers, and the blockheads whose stories are often more compelling. Just when they thought their lives were going well, their plans collapsed in a heap, or, as they say in Yiddish, their bread landed butter side down in the dirt. Disaster, misery, and misfortune—there is no better chronicle of these attributes than the Yiddish press, whose readers loved nothing more than a massive failure.

During its early-twentieth-century heyday, the Yiddish press provided its readers with an onslaught of Jewish disaster, a daily chronicle of pitiful problems encountered by newly urbanized Jews. No similar record of Jewish life appeared before, and nothing like it has appeared since. When this press was king of all Jewish media, from the 1880s to the end of the 1930s, newspapers carried far more information than they do today. Without competition from radio, television, and the Internet, the newspaper was the heart of world media. It is difficult to imagine today that not so long ago people got all their news from one outlet: a sheaf of papers they bought on the street from a grizzled old man or a dirty kid with a runny nose. Considering the immediacy and ubiquity of contemporary news delivery, the notion of having to wait for the news, or having to leave your house to get it, just seems weird. People had to wait around—quite literally—to find out what was going on in the world.

What’s strange about the Yiddish press is that it didn’t really get started in earnest until the Jews hit New York en masse in the 1880s. Before that, one might have expected that Yiddish-speaking Jews would have had loads of newspapers in the Pale of Settlement, the area to which they were restricted by the Russian imperial government. The Pale had more Jews than any other place in the world and, at the turn of the twentieth century, nearly 98% of them claimed Yiddish as their mother tongue. But the Russians didn’t want to broaden the worldly knowledge of the subversive fifth column they perceived the Jews to be, so during much of the nineteenth century, they refused nearly every request to publish a Yiddish newspaper or magazine. They restricted the media of other minorities as well, but they were especially severe to the Jews.

Although the Russian government made nominal attempts to modernize this backward community using educational methods in other languages, they didn’t meet with great success. Besides, the general attitude of the imperial government toward their Jewish subjects ranged from disinterest to outright antipathy. Perhaps a comment attributed to Konstantin Pobedonestsev, a nineteenth-century adviser to three tsars, summed it up best: “One third of them will convert, one third will starve to death, and one third will emigrate.” If this was how the government felt, why would it have bothered to permit something like newspapers, requests for which must have seemed to be just another unpleasant irritant from another minority they didn’t like. It has always been in the interest of authoritarian regimes to keep their citizens either misinformed or uninformed, and, as a result, the Russians did their best to keep Yiddish publications to an absolute minimum and the Jews they ruled, clueless.

Culturally, it was an odd situation. Unlike the peasantry, the 4–5 million Jews of the Russian Empire were, thanks to their traditional religious education system, a reasonably literate population—but entirely without any form of mass media. Information about their own communities and the world at large was forced to travel slowly by way of the post office and often inaccurately by word of mouth. Jews doubtlessly saw newspapers in Russian, German, and Polish and could sometimes read them, but their own perspective was shut out of the media equation. In other words, they had no voice. If Jewish readers wanted news about their own community, they had no choice but to accept it through the cultural lens of some other nationality’s press. Needless to say, Russian or German perspectives on Jews and their affairs were not exactly what most Jewish readers were looking for.

Those Jews who could read foreign languages were typically better educated and better off financially than most. And because of their exposure to wider European cultures through business contacts and foreign-language books and newspapers, they became more open to different cultural currents and, ultimately, a bit more worldly. Some of these Jews came to understand that their duty to their people was to enlighten them, to uplift them intellectually and to help them engage with the modern world. The question was how to do it.

These Jewish modernizers, known as the maskilim (the enlightened ones) strove to bring a mostly religious and superstitious community into the then “modern” nineteenth century. Their greatest hope was that the backward Jewish bumpkins of the Pale and elsewhere would learn European languages, a step forward that would hopefully make them a bit more modern and help them earn citizenship in the countries in which they resided. Although their influence would eventually be significant, most Yiddish-speaking Jews of the period were suspicious of these modernizing types and shunned their advances. In the eyes of many nineteenth-century Eastern European Jews, modernity was a plan to take their culture away from them. Many of them knew that this modernization policy had been successful in Central Europe, where a variety of internal modifications in Jewish cultural and religious practices had already occurred. Beginning in late-eighteenth-century Germany, for example, most of the Jewish population exchanged Yiddish culture for German culture and became something called Germans of the Mosaic (as in Moses) persuasion, the first step to identification as Jews by religion only. What resulted from this process was that German Jews no longer dressed or spoke Jewish and some of their religious services even began to imitate a Protestant service. To Eastern European Jews, there wasn’t much Jewish about them at all anymore.

And yet these Jews in transition could hardly be blamed for wanting to be full-on Germans, whose proto-capitalist economy was in solid shape and whose eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture produced fantastic literature, music, philosophy, and technology. Cultural conditions where Jews lived in Eastern Europe were different: Dominated administratively by the Russians, Jews of the Pale were mostly surrounded by a peasant culture that didn’t much appeal to them. Sure, there was a class of educated and wealthy Poles too, but there wasn’t much chance of Jews joining that—not unless they converted. As a result, the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe did not have much interest in acculturating to that which they saw around them. But Jewish modernizers kept at it and, after the ascension of Aleksander II to the throne in 1855, things began to creep forward. Known as the Liberator Tsar, Aleksander II freed the peasants and loosened some of the laws restricting the Jews, allowing, for example, wealthy and educated Jews to live outside the Pale.

One of those well-off Jews, Aleksander Tsederboym, an Odessa-based ladies’ ready-to-wear dress manufacturer with intellectual pretensions, used his connections to obtain permission to publish a weekly newspaper in Hebrew. Why Hebrew, a liturgical language not spoken by anyone at the time? The tsar’s government, despite the new quasi-liberalism, still did not trust the Jews with their own media. Hebrew, the language of prayer and the literary vehicle of a small but growing coterie of intellectuals, was not accessible to the masses as a vernacular, so it would be relatively safe to publish a weekly in a language most Jews did not understand. Hameylits, the first Hebrew paper in the Russian Empire, appeared in 1860 and garnered about 150 subscribers—from a population of 4–5 million Jews—a pretty shabby result for the first Jewish paper in the region with such a large potential readership.

Tsederboym, however, was on a mission to educate and elevate his people. When he realized that it could not be done in Hebrew, he came to understand that if Jews were going to read a newspaper, it would have to be in Yiddish, the language that the vast majority of Jews spoke. But there was a hitch.

Men of Tsederboym’s intellectual station considered Yiddish a lowly gutter language, a jargon that, some of them said, couldn’t generate intelligent thought. Imported from Central European lands where Jews had acculturated to and assimilated into Germanic culture, this idea that Yiddish wasn’t a real language, that it was bastardized version of German, was a result of newly Germanized Jews having accepted the dominant culture’s negative perceptions of Jewish culture. In other words, as Sander Gilman has pointed out, because German culture conceived of Yiddish as ugly and deformed, Jews who became culturally German also accepted those sensibilities. So began the rift between German and Eastern European Jews.

Yiddish was associated with an immutable Jewishness, something that could not be assimilated into other cultures and a linguistic feature that was thought to prevent Jews from becoming proper citizens in the lands in which they lived. As a result, nineteenth-century Jewish intellectuals held a powerful bias against Yiddish, and many of them thought that Jews would never be able to become civilized if they used that language. After all, true intellectuals wrote and conversed in German, Polish, or Russian, or, if they really needed a classical Jewish language to do it, Hebrew.

So when Tsederboym began to publish a Yiddish supplement to his Hebrew paper near the end of 1862, it was actually somewhat of an embarrassment. In fact, he was so ashamed to publish a Yiddish paper that in the second issue he explained, “We won’t wait for jokers to inquire; we’re going to admit right here that our coarse Yiddish is definitely not a language, it’s really just corrupted German.” Ridiculous on the face of it, the statement gives insight into how Jewish intellectuals perceived Yiddish, the language of most of Europe’s Jews and the carrier of its culture for nearly a thousand years. There’s also the value-added irony of publishing an entire newspaper in a language that Tsederboym claimed wasn’t even a language.

Despite Tsederboym’s embarrassment, his Yiddish paper with a Hebrew title, Kol mevaser (A Heralding Voice), was a hit. It was full of interesting and unusual articles on topics about which Jews had never heard, because they had never been permitted a newspaper in their own language, and readership far outstripped Tsederboym’s Hebrew paper, and sold thousands weekly. Kol mevaser also became the vehicle in which modern Yiddish literature found its voice, a place where the best writers (writing mostly under pseudonyms because they too were embarrassed to be writing in Yiddish) tested their literary mettle and produced the first modern Yiddish classics: sarcastic satires that appeared each week, serialized stories that were so popular, readers wrote in with bitter complaints if chapters didn’t appear regularly. By producing all kinds of new reading material for a mass Jewish audience, Yiddish, a so-called jargon that wasn’t supposed to even be a language, was unwittingly becoming modern and was dragging its cloistered and superstitious speakers with it.

In addition to literature, Kol mevaser contained all manner of popular historical and scientific articles, subject matter that was entirely new to Yiddish audiences. In issue 3, which appeared in early November 1862, Kol mevaser printed an article that described the giant sequoia trees of California. The existence of enormous trees “wider than a house and taller than the highest tower” and estimated to be “eight to ten thousand years old” must have sounded completely unbelievable to the Jews of the Pale. And, indeed, shortly thereafter, the editors published a letter from a reader that asked, “How can a tree be eight to ten thousand years old, when the world God created is only 5,623 years old?”

In a nutshell, this question dutifully evokes the mind-set of the shtetl Jew and helps to explain why the advent of the newspaper was so important to the development of Jewish modernity. In the shrouded world of the shtetl, behind the dual veils of Jewish tradition and Russian oppression, the Jewish masses were mired in a swamp of ignorance. The nineteenth century was exploding with new inventions, new ideologies, new science, new technology, and new knowledge, and the newspaper was the vehicle that mediated news of this new world to the old. Without access to a press in their own language, Jews would be deaf to progress. Quite literally, the Yiddish newspaper transformed Jewish life, hooking readers like fish and reeling them in the direction of the modern world.

Unfortunately, the Russian Empire was a lousy place to greet modernity. Its rulers, despite occasional, brief jerks toward liberalization, did not want an educated or politically engaged populace that might grow to threaten their rule, so even the newspapers they permitted were always subject to severe censorship. And despite the popularity of Kol mevaser, subsequent permissions for other Yiddish papers were refused, even though numerous requests were made. In fact, when Tsederboym left grubby Odessa for posh St. Petersburg in 1870, he was not allowed to take the Yiddish paper with him, so he left it with the printer, who, in two and half short years, managed to let the whole enterprise fall apart.

No Yiddish paper would be allowed to appear again in Russia until 1881, when Tsederboym tried his hand with a literary-oriented weekly called Yidishes folksblat (Jewish People’s Paper), again, the only Yiddish paper permitted in the entire Russian Empire. It lasted until 1889, after which the government banned the publication of any Yiddish paper until 1903 and then allowed only one new paper to lure Yiddish readers away from foreign newspapers, as well as the increasingly popular, illegal underground socialist press. The Yiddish press truly wanted to blossom in Russia, but the tsars and their minions kept cutting the buds.

In the meantime, something else entirely was occurring in the United States. Although Yiddish-speaking immigrants had been trickling in since the Colonial Period, they had never numbered enough, nor were they cohesive enough, to create the critical mass necessary to require a Yiddish newspaper. But by the 1870s the number of Yiddish-speaking immigrants arriving in New York was on the rise. The odd thing was that it wasn’t the Jews who noticed.

Instead, it was Tammany Hall, the corrupt political machine that ran New York City politics. Famous for buying votes and for general corruption, the machine noticed a bump in the number of Yiddish speakers in New York City and wanted to take advantage of it. They cut a deal with an immigrant Jewish educator by the name of Y. K. Bukhner and paid him to create a Yiddish newspaper that would, first and foremost, supply news to Yiddish readers but, secondarily, convince them to cast their votes for Tammany Hall’s candidates. The paper, Di yidishe tsaytung (The Jewish Newspaper) wasn’t such a grand success, but its 1870 appearance prompted other Jewish immigrants to try their hand at newspaper publication. As a result, a number of different Yiddish papers began to appear in New York during the 1870s, none of them terribly successful either, but still interesting attempts to get into a Yiddish media game that would feed a growing audience.

Back in the Russian Empire of 1881, the Jews were getting fed up. In the wake of decades of oppression and poverty, a major political assassination, a flurry of intense pogroms in the southern regions of the Pale, and a slew of new laws that made their lives even more difficult, Jews began to engage with revolutionary political ideologies in growing numbers. But the one ideology that appealed to most Jews was simply to get out of Dodge: They began to leave—in droves. Some went to Palestine. Many more went to Western Europe or South America. The vast majority of them trundled into the putrid bellies of massive ships and spent two weeks in steerage dry-heaving their way to North America. Between 1881 and 1924, 2 million Jews left the hot mess of Eastern Europe and settled in America, concentrating most heavily in and around New York City, thereby creating the largest Yiddish-speaking diaspora in the world.

In a strange and unfamiliar land, this large, unwashed mass of immigrants needed something to guide them in their new surroundings. That guide was the Yiddish newspaper. That which had required government permission and which had been severely censored in Russia had neither of these impediments in America. As a result, the Yiddish press that existed in fits and starts during the 1870s exploded, and from the mid-1880s through the 1930s hundreds of Yiddish publications—dailies, weeklies, monthlies—appeared on the streets of New York and in other major American cities. The same happened in Warsaw and throughout Eastern Europe, but only after the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. By the 1920s in newly independent Poland, the Yiddish press had become a phenomenon similar to that in New York, and in a strange case of reverse immigration, the Yiddish papers of New York served as models for the Yiddish press in such places as Warsaw, Lodz, and Pinsk.

The Yiddish press catered to virtually every political and social orientation. Everything from anarchist to traditionally religious—and whatever lay between—appeared on newsstands. Among umpteen others, one could find women’s magazines, socialist literary magazines, vegetarian monthlies, satirical weeklies, and religious dailies—all available on the corner for just a few pennies. Because the press was the only form of mass media, every organization under the sun published something. Yiddish magazines for Jewish atheists? Jewish farmers? Jewish hatmakers? theater lovers? Yiddish avant-garde poets? artists? It’s all there—and more.

Unfettered by government interference and buoyed by the huge influx of news-hungry Yiddish-speaking immigrants, the Yiddish press grew exponentially in America. Without Yiddish universities, the press became not only a central forum for news and information but also a home for literature, arts, and education. Nearly every Yiddish paper, from communist to religiously conservative, published poetry and fiction on a regular basis. Some published columns that described and explained basic political, scientific, and social concepts to an audience of poor immigrant laborers who had no formal education and no way to get one. Most other American dailies did not offer such broad fare to their readers. Fifty or so years after its inception, the original idea to educate the people was still central to the mission of the Yiddish press.

The Yiddish press became a weird locus for literature of every persuasion. Pages were often a wild pastiche, and it was not uncommon to have socialistic poetry on the same page as a chapter from a trashy novel or a column of suggestive jokes next to a translation of Tolstoy. Raucous literary, political, and religious debates played out in the pages of the Yiddish press, only to have their proponents caricatured later on by Yiddish cartoonists. One can read about rabbinic conferences on one page and Jewish circus performers on another. You want to read about innovations in medicine and psychiatry? Go ahead—it’s a page away from a story about a Jewish gangster getting his head blown off, or a Jewish girl stabbing her lover to death, and another blink away from the Yiddish crossword puzzle, in which, yes, a six-letter word for “Sabbath stew” is cholnt. The Yiddish press was one huge, crazed mash-up of an intensely lived Jewish life that found itself lurching across a wide variety of geographic, political, religious, and social landscapes.

One of the fascinating aspects of the Yiddish press in both the Old and New Worlds was not only the holy/profane intellectual patchwork of the papers’ interiors but also the ways in which the news itself was gathered. Before the 1880s there was no such thing as a Yiddish journalist—it was an occupation that had to be invented. Those who reported on all kinds of local matters were typically struggling writers or poets. Nearly every great Yiddish writer was also, at some point in his or her career, a journalist. And as journalists they mined every possible resource inside and outside the Yiddish-speaking community. Another important matter: Before the advent of Jewish-run newspapers, Yiddish speakers had rarely, if ever, served as journalistic sources for news.

Readers of Yiddish acclimated quickly to newspapers. It wasn’t as though Jews hadn’t seen papers in other languages; there were already models in English, German, Polish, and Russian for them to follow. But how did the Yiddish press differ from those presses? There was certainly a great deal of overlap—that is to be expected. But as the Yiddish press grew, its editors understood that it had to appeal to a unique audience, one that expected and required certain things that were specific to its minority culture.

Some basic issues were mediated and explained in the Yiddish press that one could not find elsewhere. For example, American Yiddish newspapers needed to help immigrants acclimate to their new surroundings, so they did simple things like print articles explaining what this popular American sport “baseball” was and how to play it. The editors didn’t think that immigrants would actually go out and play (although some surely did), but they knew that their kids played and that it was culturally important to understand the game. Quite simply, it was part of the process of Americanization. They also described to readers exactly how to vote in an election, something most of them had never done in the old country. Newspapers printed a replica of a ballot and explained how and where to make an X. They helpfully added that Yiddish-speaking voters should look for the party symbol as a visual, in case they couldn’t read English. The Yiddish press also provided all kinds of helpful tips to immigrant readers, such as how to avoid pickpockets on the Lower East Side, or why it would be beneficial to join a labor union, or how to buy a pair of shoes without getting ripped off. There is a plethora of information to help immigrants live their daily lives. This was a distinct type of information that was extremely important to uneducated immigrants: a guide to life in their new land in their own language—a language they could understand, a linguistic home away from home. Yiddishland really could be any place you needed it to be.

Because their readership was entirely Jewish, the Yiddish papers focused on what was happening in specifically Jewish neighborhoods. This means that, in addition to news about Jewish communities and affairs worldwide, there were many localized stories on specifically Jewish matters—holiday goings-on, Jewish thugs, Jewish prostitutes, Jew-on-Jew crime, matters relating to kosher food—all kinds of things that the journalists of the general press usually didn’t bother with because, on the one hand, most of the city’s residents weren’t terribly interested in specifically Jewish news, and, on the other, they didn’t have the access that Jewish journalists had. Or, rather, they didn’t have the linguistic facility—they didn’t have Yiddish.

Yiddish permitted entry into worlds to which other journalists had none. You need the skinny on a particular Jewish gangster or access to an important rabbi? Do you need to query street peddlers, shopkeepers, or bag ladies about a crime they may have witnessed while panhandling in the Jewish quarter? Yiddish is your ticket of admission to the Jewish street. Without it, you’ve got nothing.

As Yiddish journalism grew into a profession, specifically Jewish beats developed. The largest internal Jewish minority in Warsaw, for example, was the Hasidim, who made up about one-fourth of all Jews in the city. Newspapers thus assigned journalists to the Hasidic beat to report on the goings-on in and around those communities. More often than not, reporters assigned to write on the Hasidic world either were once Hasidim themselves or were still but had one foot out of the shtibl door (a shtibl is a small Hasidic synagogue). Knowledge of this world and their connections in it placed them in a perfect position to dredge up details of their internal communal affairs that outsiders could never have had access to. Not only did they already speak the distinct language unique to this community, but they also likely still had relatives and friends on the inside feeding them even more information.

And just as all regular newspapers have court reporters, Yiddish newspapers had rabbinic court reporters. The rabbinic court, particularly in Warsaw, was a rich resource for journalists, not because of the import of certain cases but because of the prevalence of violence between petitioners, especially in divorce cases, where pent-up emotions often boiled over into uncontrollable rage. Editors always knew that a juicy, explosive story was unfolding before the rabbis, and they frequently sent reporters to expose these awful personal moments of marital failure to the Yiddish-speaking world at large. The journalists understood their role as well; the tragic reports from the rabbinic courts were typically written with a heaping side dish of Yiddish snark and mark the spot where Isaac Bashevis Singer meets Jerry Springer.

Along with the creation of a modern Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia whose major forum was the daily press came an occasionally mock-folkloric style of reportage, especially crime stories in which writers treated both victims and perpetrators with sympathy and sarcasm. Journalists sometimes wrote local news as though they were telling the story to their friends or families. Subjects were sometimes called by their first names and even by diminutives. The stories were often written with a humorous tilt and tinged with irony. Even tragic stories were written with a touch of humor. It is another of the striking features of Yiddish journalism: the tendency to hitch humor onto real human tragedy.

Upping the ante, writers sometimes inserted literary jokes into articles and headlines. For example, a 1926 article about a Warsaw merchant’s daughter who was taken to the hospital with terrible stomach pains only—to her family’s shock and surprise—to give birth upon arrival, was headlined “Khatos ne’urim” (Sins of My Youth). Though it certainly fits the bill, the phrase is also the title of an 1873 Hebrew-language autobiography of Jewish intellectual Moyshe Leyb Lilienblum, which details his youthful intellectual awakening within a traditional world.

The Yiddish press is peppered with inside jokes such as these, references to Jewish literature and lore that serve as ironic markers, dragging high-flown literary works down into the gutter of the Yiddish underworld. A crime blotter blurb describing a violent nighttime gang attack on a group of homeless people in Warsaw who had gathered to collect scraps of food in an outdoor market is titled “Bay nakht afn altn mark” (At Night in the Old Marketplace), which is also the title of a 1907 expressionist play by Y. L. Peretz. Not only were headlines like these funny to those who got the jokes, but they also created a kind of bond between members of the Jewish intellectual class who recognized the references and were in on the wordplay.

Journalistic twists like these created a certain intimacy between writers, their subjects, and their audiences, all subcultures within the broad communities of newspaper readers. And these communities could be quite large. During the 1920s and 1930s Jews made up one-fourth of New York’s population and one-third of Warsaw’s population. Both cities had a Yiddish readership large enough to accommodate four or five Yiddish daily newspapers, in addition to a plethora of weekly and monthly periodicals. Between New York and Poland there were millions of daily readers of Yiddish. These demographics gave highly concentrated Jewish neighborhoods a distinct ethnic flavor. Nativists complained that walking around the Lower East Side of Manhattan or on Nalevkes in Warsaw was like being in a foreign country. At the time, no one conceived of these neighborhoods as Yiddishland, but that was their cultural reality.

Instead, these Jewish neighborhoods were usually referred to by outsiders as “Jewtown” or “the ghetto,” areas that tended to be impoverished and dirty. Garbage and manure-filled streets were densely populated by poor migrants who dressed, spoke, and acted differently. Their emotive language and wild gesticulations were the butt of mockery not only by nativists but also by Jews who had begun to acculturate. Immigrant Jewish neighborhoods in big cities were rife with crime and prostitution. They were considered dangerous. These neighborhoods—also packed with families and the working poor—were full of people just trying to get by and, if possible, to get out.

But in addition to the poverty, crime, and the daily grind, both New York and Warsaw had flourishing Yiddish theater scenes, were major Yiddish intellectual and literary centers, and had raucous Yiddish lecture circuits. Like ethnic neighborhoods everywhere, they had their own distinct café scenes and restaurants. These two major centers of Yiddish culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also the primary cultural centers of their respective countries, a fact that allowed Yiddish culture to feed into and feed off of the other surrounding cultures. This is significant, because Yiddish never exists in a vacuum. Part of its linguistic and cultural lifeblood has always been to interface with other languages and cultures, giving and taking what it needs, enriching itself and the others reciprocally.

As Jews flooded into these urban centers, they partook of their various and sundry entertainments and sometimes created their own unique variants. Yiddish-speaking freak shows on Coney Island and in Warsaw’s Luna Park? Certainly. Professional wrestling in Warsaw and Lodz? Of course. There were Yiddish-speaking professional wrestlers—with legions of Yiddish-speaking fans. Because of their immigrant status—external immigrants in the United States and internal migrants in interwar Poland—and because of their linguistic difference and their low economic status, Jews in these urban centers formed part of the underclass and thus participated in its general culture, which ultimately meant low-culture pursuits. Jews who got rich and were educated and who wanted to engage higher modes of culture generally did so in English and Polish. Moving on up also typically meant moving on out, both geographically and linguistically.

But high literary culture also existed in both cities. Yiddish belles lettres were a significant cultural force and also a major component of the Yiddish press. Although Yiddish literature is better known as a discrete cultural product, it would hardly have existed without the press, which functioned as its main vehicle. Moreover, and as previously noted, most Yiddish authors were also journalists at one point or another, including such esteemed novelists as Nobel-prize-winning Isaac Bashevis Singer. Journalism was one of the few ways a writer could actually make a living. Only in rare cases could one do so only by publishing books.

As Yiddish journalists, the roles of these literary figures varied. Some did straight news reportage. Others translated from the foreign press. Those who had connections in the Hasidic community covered Hasidic-related news. Writers who grew up in dangerous, poverty-stricken neighborhoods exploited their own street smarts to get the stories they wanted. Yiddish journalists thus dredged incredible human interest stories from the Jewish ghettos of Warsaw and New York or even small towns in the middle of nowhere. Warsaw-based journalist Menakhem Kipnis, for example, wrote about everything from folk music to professional wrestling. Also an ethnographer and musicologist, Kipnis was interested in whatever Jews were doing. If Jews were to be found at the circus, he wrote about it. They showed up at wrestling matches? He wrote about it. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s older brother, Israel Joshua Singer, who was much more famous in his time, wrote a huge number of brilliant human interest stories about all kinds of bizarre goings-on among the Jews of Poland during the 1920s and 1930s. When accused of writing sensationalistic tripe, he sneered right back and said, “Good journalism is also good literature.”

And Singer doubtlessly was right, for the most part. The papers are full of riveting tales, some beautifully crafted; others, not so much. Shackled by deadlines and an urgency to get news out as quickly as possible, journalists did not always have the time to shape their stories into high literary form. Instead, we wind up with intense little narratives that are pared down to a bare-bones minimum. Even then, with a little bit of context, these stories can be unpacked and unfurled as the explosive little culture bombs that they seem to be.

Many of the reporters of the Yiddish press remain nameless. Thousands of blurbs from the Yiddish crime blotter had either no byline at all or only an initial or two that supposedly identified the author. The names of the many writers who mediated the raw energy of street Jews to large-scale newspaper readerships are unknown. It may be that, because they frequently dealt with criminals and informers, they did not want their names made public. And then, they may not have wanted their names on seemingly insignificant stories about Jewish urban blight and were saving their real bylines for their serious literary endeavors.

In the often contentious world of Yiddish letters, the worst insult that could be heaped on a writer was to call him a producer of shund, or sensationalistic trash. With the huge increase in the number of newspapers came an attendant increase in the number of writers: good, mediocre, and absolutely awful. Recalling the early days of the Yiddish press in the Polish capital, one Warsaw-based journalist, Aren Fridenshteyn, wrote, “If Jews were once ‘the people of the Book,’ they have now transformed themselves into a ‘people of the pen.’ No nation has so many writers, poets, journalists, and plain old spillers of ink of all kinds like we Jews do” (Bal Haturim 1938: 44). The huge number of Yiddish periodicals produced during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries bears this out proportionally. Books, mind you, we haven’t even discussed.

Emerging from a culture for which the written word enjoyed a venerated status, writing and writers played an enormously important role in the modernization and secularization of Jews. “The writer had become a kind of rabbi, a new rabbi. Not one that takes queries and payments, not one who gives blessings and advice, but one who teaches. He says something new, something beautiful, something electrifying,” noted self-serving critic Aleksander Mukdoyni about the role of the writer in modern Jewish society in the early twentieth century (1955: 35). For an increasingly secular Jewry, writers and journalists were part of a new intellectual class that was supplanting rabbis as a communal authority.

Not that rabbis didn’t continue to garner respect—they did. In fact, for the amkho, the poor, explosively angry, and occasionally half-witted Jewish underclass, rabbis retained a high-value societal position. But in the new urban environment the secular writer seemed better placed to provide guidance to the common man than the Old World rabbi. Yiddish journalists and writers became authority figures, doling out advice to troubled newcomers who were having difficulty acclimating to the city, and thereby helped turned newspapers into a major social force in Jewish life.

The Yiddish newspaper was also a place where Jews could be Jews. There was nothing exotic about them here. They could be brilliant or stupid, religious or secular fanatics, or they could be average and uninteresting. A chronicle of Planet Jew, the Yiddish press opens a window onto everything one could and could not imagine Yiddish-speaking Jews doing. Jewish opium addicts? Jewish tattoo artists? Jewish drag queens? They’re all there. Everything from the highest levels of literature, philosophy, politics, and science to the lowest levels of beggary, poverty, pimpery, prostitution, and inept stupefaction. Every echelon of Jewish life appears; all of it smuggled its way into the Yiddish press in tiny, convulsive news blurbs—and all to the absolute delight of its readers.

When it came to the novelties of reporting on Jewish life in big cities, even the Yiddish journalists themselves understood they were onto something interesting. A 1932 article in the Warsaw daily Unzer ekspres (Our Express), took notice of the plethora of headlines in its own pages that were exposing the previously unknown goings-on in the city’s nightlife: “A Secret Gambling Den Has Been Uncovered with a Roulette Wheel and Baccarat”; “Arrests Made After Lesbian Night Club Discovered”; “A Secret Narcotics Den Was Uncovered: Opium and Cocaine Found”; and so on. The list of urban Jewish subterranean enterprise goes on and on. And although none of it is the stuff of what most people think of as Jewish history, there it is—in black, white, and Yiddish.

Similar sounding tales can be found in other urban newspapers throughout the world. 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 ironic juxtapositioning. 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 wind up with a people who cannot help but mock themselves and everyone else. What produced humor in Yiddish—a language that some erroneously claim is inherently funny—was its speakers and writers, who had no choice but to express themselves under social and political conditions that were nothing less than absurd. One of the by-products of the twisted Jewish road to modernity was an awareness, in Yiddish, that there really was something funny going on.

Another significant factor concerning the uniqueness of the Yiddish press is the Jews themselves. Put in the strange position of living as an unloved and sometimes virulently despised minority throughout Europe, Jews had a semipermanent position as the continent’s Other. Even Jews who assimilated and converted to Christianity were often still suspect and were derided for their immutable Jewishness. They weren’t to be accepted as naturalized Europeans but were perceived as loathsome infiltrators. If Jews who converted to Christianity, either because of true belief or for societal benefits, were perceived as poseurs, those who stuck with what they had and maintained their own culture—Yiddish speakers, in other words—were considered complete aliens on European soil. They spoke their own strange language, ate a weird diet, dressed differently, and, with their often Mediterranean looks, were sometimes also physically different from their neighbors. Europeans never really liked foreigners (mind you, they don’t much like each other either) and, as you may already know, the story does not have a happy ending.

But while they were there, the Jews of Eastern Europe created a fantastic culture, their own explosive variant of urban creativity. What Yiddish produced in Europe—Yiddish literature, theater, music, satire, from the smallest joke to the fattest philosophical treatise—is a stunning example of what a minority culture can do, even while under the boot. Europeans should be proud to know that it flourished on their soil, and they should punch themselves in the face every day to remind themselves that they destroyed it.

Again, the story is different for the millions of Jewish immigrants from the mess that was Europe who brought their culture with them to the United States, where, for a few generations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Yiddish culture flourished on a mass scale as well. With a social dynamic that was far different from that of Europe, Yiddish culture declined slowly, chipped away by the forces of acculturation and assimilation rather than incinerated. Jews loved America so much that they conceded 1,000 years of culture for it.

This book is an attempt to retrieve some of the flotsam and jetsam of Jewish history, focusing specifically on what happened to Eastern European Jews as they tried to make their way into new urban and industrial environments. Most of these stories are sourced in the Yiddish press, although in some cases they have been augmented with material from the English-language press. But Yiddish serves as the core, and its culture provides the context in which the protagonists lived their lives and did their deeds.

The contents appear in a vaguely chronological sequence, beginning with a nineteenth-century immigrant abortionist in New York City and followed by a murderer, an alcoholic poet (I know, not much of a novelty perhaps), violent gangs of Jewish mothers, and a Lower East Side clairvoyant. From there we go transnational for some Jew-on-Jew Yom Kippur violence in both New York and Warsaw. This is followed by a series of Warsaw-based narratives ranging from journalistic snark wars in the Yiddish press to Hasidic brawls, professional criminals, beauty queens, divorce court, and hardcore promoters of Sabbath observance. From there we briefly return to the United States for a look at Jewish professional wrestlers. Turning back to Warsaw, a rabbinic bigamist on hard times is considered, followed by a flurry of examples from Warsaw’s raucous Yiddish crime blotter. Some chapters are short; others are longer and more detailed. All depend on how much information was available. The episodes are discrete and are as disconnected as the lives that appear in them. What unites them is deviance, disaster, and Yiddish.

Part of the reason this collection of stories came about was a desire to learn about how Jews lived before World War II. What was life like for migrant Jews in cities like New York and Warsaw? What did the city do to them? How did it affect their culture? Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers provides an excellent, if flawed overview of the world of Jewish immigrants in New York City. No book can cover everything, and although Howe’s book provides a broad outline of the main features of Jewish life in New York—labor, politics, press, literature, and theater—many of life’s other features are left out. One of those is the nitty-gritty of daily life, the quotidian grind, the stories of the criminals and lowlifes, the human detritus that gets washed away and forgotten, the undocumented losers, failures, and freaks who are so common in immigrant neighborhoods of big cities.

Warsaw, an even more unwieldy Jewish city than New York, has no English-language chronicler like Howe. There are a number of fine memoirs, some excellent anthologies, and one great historical work, but none of them address pre–World War II Jewish urban life in a broad narrative style as World of Our Fathers does. The Yiddish press—covering the big stories, the small stories, and everything in-between—is perhaps the best available chronicle of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Poland. The press, however, was not created to function as a historical narrative; its job was to report the news to its daily readers. But distinct narratives can be extracted from its pages, bits and pieces cobbled together that bring detail to the stories of the unknown and unsung Jews, some of whom lived on a knife’s edge but didn’t know it or didn’t care.

We will never have anything close to a complete picture of the Yiddish world that was. But dredging up even a little enriches our sense of it because it reveals how much we do not know. These little bits, these leftover crumbs of Jewish life, are so rich and so compelling that it continues to be worth the effort to pore over thousands of crumbling newspaper pages looking for the big stories, the small stories, and those that reveal the unexpected in a Jewish world that has disappeared.

The stories in this book do not tell us a great deal about these cities’ famous writers, musicians, businessmen, communal leaders, or politicians. A fair amount of that work has been done and can be found in the domain of traditional historiography. Instead, these forgotten stories offer a look at the seamy underbelly of Jewish urban life, a peek into the depths of Jewish poverty and insanity, into the frequently troubled world of migrants in big cities, where any misstep is potential news. The lives of average people hit the headlines only when someone gets pushed out of a window or when somebody throws acid into another’s face—in other words, when disaster strikes. With such “Jew bites dog” dramas, it goes without saying that these stories of Jewish lowlife do not represent the great masses of Jews; they found their way into the newspaper precisely because something went terribly wrong. As a result, they are not exactly representative of the majority, but, in the hinterlands of their narratives, they evoke an idea of what is supposed to be Yiddish normal.

Looking at the press to find out what life was like in a certain society must therefore be done with a watchful eye and with great care. In fact, if the study of human society were based only on newspaper reports, 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.

So what is the historical value of these stories to us? Because it is clear that they are not broadly representative of Jewry at large, what do they show us? In every society some level of the populace is considered—by those who do the record keeping—lowly, uncultured, uneducated, poor, dangerous, frightening, ugly, and worthy of attention only from a safe distance. And yet, even from a protracted distance, these Jews have something to say about themselves. They are easily stereotyped, yet they break the mold into which they are supposed to fit. They are secular, religious, and a little bit of both. The prewar Yiddish press, a complex mix of shtetl folklore and urban poverty, reveals multitudes of mediocre Jews, many of whom lived on the verge of modernity yet were often backward and stupid. They worked odd jobs. They were desperate and they were frequently violent. But whatever they did, whether they were brilliant or slack-jawed stupid, they were all part of the Jewish story, rising, falling, and failing with Yiddish on their tongues.

And, for the most part, historians have ignored them. Whereas social history has become an important element in the field of Jewish studies, Jewish historiography has tended to be a relatively conservative field and, for a long time, most of its worker bees have not much liked stepping too far away from normative history. As a result, rabbis, communal leaders, businesspeople, politicians, traditional artists, scholars, writers, and their related institutions fill the rosters of Jewish history books—not that there’s anything wrong with that. To be honest, it’s vital. But even the growing number of Jewish social history texts tend to place their emphasis on acculturation and upward mobility. Granted, it is much easier to focus on traditional personalities and economic and social strivers because they typically leave paper trails. Bums, drunks, murderers, small-time crooks, and the legions of two-bit nobodies usually do their best to disappear without a trace. Coupled with the destruction of this Jewry in Europe, documentation is often limited. This is the reason that the Yiddish press becomes such an important resource for discovering information about downwardly mobile and marginal Jews. If it hadn’t been for the resourcefulness of Yiddish journalists, we probably would not have any records of these things at all.

What we do decide to record is telling: History’s mandate should cover a broad swath, but nostalgia dictates that we remember only certain things. Unpleasant matters might get lip service but are rarely dwelled on. Family lore conveniently forgets that Zeyde the antiques dealer was actually Zeyde the beggar, or that Bubbe the saintly seamstress was also Bubbe the hooker, who turned tricks during the slack season to make ends meet. These elisions are the lies we tell ourselves to elevate our pedigrees and to make ourselves look palatable in the mirror of history. But along the way, if we decide to ignore the sometimes ugly realities of our pasts, we lose some of the pieces of the story that make us human and we do a disservice to the historical record.

It has been said that the telling of history rarely comes close to the way life was actually lived. History, as it is told, lacks the tastes, the smells, the aching tedium, the frustration, the fleeting excitement, and the spontaneity of everyday life. This is part of the reason that literature sometimes works as a stand-in for often dry historical texts. But is it a good one? Journalism may not be able to convey these things either, but what it does provide is a slightly less contrived, more immediate, and an arguably more authentic representation than either historical or literary works.

If ordinary people have any familiarity with pre–World War II Eastern European Jews, it usually comes from such hypermediated pop culture fantasy phenomena as Fiddler on the Roof, the paintings of Marc Chagall, or perhaps the photographs of Roman Vishniac. Then there’s the Holocaust and its many mediations that also contribute to the image of this world. It is not a particularly nuanced conception: hunched-over rabbinic scholars, swaying yeshiva boys, women selling goods in the marketplace, wholesome families, scholars, musicians, writers, maybe a pogrom here or there. It is a historical image that can be rich and compelling, but one that has also become saccharine and glib. It is also only a small part of the picture. True stories of downwardly mobile Jews plucked out of Yiddish dailies not only help expand our conception of this world but also explode many of our preconceived ideas about it.

It should not normally require mention that the presence of the sometimes unsavory Jews in this book does not mean that all of them are like this, but their history as a despised minority warrants it. What it does mean, though, is that Jews are not exceptional. They have their freaks, their criminals, their morons, their vicious bastards, and their complete bores. They are not all Einsteins, even if some of them think they might be. Uneducated, ugly, and boorish but sometimes clever, creative, and resourceful, the amkho, the uniquely Jewish rabble, deserve a place in the historical record. Every culture has characters like these—the only difference is that the main players are Jews and that the events generally occurred in a Jewish context, a fact that lends some unique cultural characteristics to the stories.

Another aspect makes these stories unique: The Jewish culture that existed when these stories took place is largely gone. Yiddish mass culture has disappeared. Either destroyed in the Holocaust or worn down by acculturation and assimilation, its vessel was the Yiddish language. Though English is a weak substitute (the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik claimed that reading in translation is like kissing through a handkerchief), one can still tell the tales, the stories of an urban Jewry experiencing the birth pangs of modernity and expressing their angst in a language that was rich in folklore and folkways, a language that crashed head on with the modern city and that made it its own. They are the stories of the common folk, the rabble, the people who don’t make history but who are crushed by it. For most of human history they have been nameless and faceless. Only thanks to the advent of the press and mass culture do we know anything about them at all. Fragments of fragmented lives that wound up at the bottom of birdcages or as wrapping for dead fish, their stories briefly caught the eye of distracted readers, shocking them, entertaining them, and, perhaps most important, functioning as a moralistic directive, telling them how not to behave.

Destroyed in a bacchanalia of hatred in Europe and slowly killed by kindness in America, Yiddish culture is a tiny sliver of what it once was. Its main vehicle, the newspaper, once had circulation in the millions. A raucous chronicle of Jews and their ancient culture in a cage match with modernity, the Yiddish press allows us to see the interior of a fascinating culture that exists today only as an echo of an echo.

For 2,000 or so years the common denominator of Jewish culture has been the retelling of their ancient stories. For these same millennia the tales of the listeners themselves never made the cut, but they still deserve to be heard. Here are but a few. Millions more are waiting to be told. Welcome to the Yiddish naked city.