Trawling through the Jewish dailies of yore reveals a world of outlandish goings-on.
Even on its scrappy margins, idiots, psychics, brawlers and criminals do not play a particularly significant role in Jewish historiography. This isn’t because such figures don’t exist among Jews, but more because the general trajectories of Jewish historiography, with the obvious exception of the Holocaust, tend to emphasize upward mobility. Unless they wound up as success stories, the lives of those in the lower echelons of the Jewish societies haven’t served as a major research interest for most historians in this field. There is a minor literature on Jewish gangsters, but it’s also contextualized as a distinctly one-generational, upwardly mobile phenomenon.
Historiographical research norms in the Jewish corner of the field tend to lean heavily on organizational life, as well as on figures such as politicians, artists, writers, scholars, and at least a few rabbis, among others of this ilk. This stands to reason, not only because these are doubtlessly among the leading types played in any society but also perhaps more importantly, this cast of characters typically leaves a longer paper trail than your average person. Figures like the aforementioned criminals, psychics, brawlers, et al, seem to do their best not to leave much data in their wakes for historians to plumb.
But when I began to explore the urban interwar Yiddish press as a graduate student, I discovered a huge amount of data on average and below average Jews situated in societal depths, a bizarre chronicle of common folks in a Yiddish cultural context, people whose striking stories wound up in the papers mostly because something in their lives had gone terribly wrong.
By trawling the Yiddish newspapers of New York and Warsaw, I found a chronicle of a Yiddishland about which I hadn’t been taught.
Amid the usual fare that newspapers offer, what I found peppered throughout the Yiddish press were uniquely Jewish variations on urban blight which included typical urban types such as drunks, murderers, a great deal of violence in a variety of guises, and criminals of many kinds, to name a few. Finding this compelling trove of data lit the dark corners of Jewish immigrant and urban life and led me to reassess what I had learned in graduate school to include elements of society that we knew were there, but about which few had spoken and which so few scholars had bothered to consider in any depth.
Take, for example, the following excerpt from a crime blotter article from the Warsaw Yiddish daily, Moment, of December 11, 1927:
Police investigators have announced that criminal elements have been cheating in Yankl Bavarnik’s well-known “card club” with the use of a new “invention”: mechanical cards. The “trick” with these cards is that queens suddenly turn into kings, kings turn into jacks, and numbered cards change from high numbers to low according to the wishes of the cheater.
During the course of the investigation, a large number of agents visited Yankl Bavarnik’s on Thursday night. A group of twenty-six people were killing at a game of tertl-mertl using the “mechanical cards.”
The entire group, along with Yankl Bavarnik, was soon taken into the investigations bureau, where it became evident that part of the group consisted of “suckers” and the rest, clever con artists. They included: Tuvie Mlinazh, who had come to Warsaw “for pleasure” from Hamburg, where he is known as a swindler and safe-cracker; Vatslav Bartshinski, a fence; Shmuel Bartsh, a well-known specialist in the art of pickpocketing;Yankev Torma, who has served time for fraud; Shiye Piltz and Ber Yudashka, both well-known crooks; Yitskhok Bronshteyn and Leyb Rafes, both arrested for robbery six times; Moyshe Zalevski, also known as “Litvin,” regarded as the best lock picker up until a year ago; Aren Shnayderman, a safe cracker; Leyzer Flokshtrom, a house burglar.
Revealing not only the engagement of Jews in illegal gambling activities, the excerpt also provides an interesting taxonomy of different kinds of crooks. While there may be nothing terribly unusual about the involvement of individual Jews in such activities, the discovery of such pieces reveals an underground universe that has received little attention in scholarly circles. What’s more, Yiddish newspapers contain innumerable articles on a wide variety of societal transgressions among urban Jews and function as unique historical resource on the lives of poor Jews as a migrant and immigrant minority in different urban settings.
When I first discovered this large cache of data on the Yiddish lowlife, I had no intention of writing a book, or, to be honest, doing much with it aside from regaling my friends and colleagues with these odd and often humorous nuggets of Jewish weirdness. Truth be told, I simply enjoyed the stories that I had stumbled upon while scrolling through miles of microfilm. I never thought the piles of primary source detritus I had found would become a dissertation spinoff.
By trawling the Yiddish newspapers of New York and Warsaw, I found thousands of stories that clashed with popular conceptions of early 20th-century Yiddish-speaking Jewry. A chronicle of a Yiddishland about which I hadn’t been taught, these small local debacles were laden with a cultural richness that other primary sources hadn’t been able to deliver. Whether it was Jewish involvement around professional wrestling or violence in rabbinical courts, there were dozens of aspects of a Yiddish urban lowlife that had never managed to surface.
The result of all this is Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press. Offering a purview of some of the most severe blockheads, freaks, and lowlifes of late 19th- and early 20th-century Jewish history, it also contains stories of average folks who may not have been terribly bright, who perhaps had terrible luck, and who were unlucky enough to have had their personal disasters and mishaps reported in the newspapers for large urban readerships.
Common folk like this stand in the shadows of Jewish history. The screw-ups, bunglers, and blockheads in Bad Rabbi aren’t any less Jewish than the great figures who are said to fire the engines of history, or the upwardly mobile success stories of this same world, but they still deserve to become part of the historical record and their stories are equally, if not more compelling than those who made it. They may not have been actors of significance on the historical stage, but some of their stars shined brightly within the constellations of Yiddish mass culture before they came crashing down to earth.