May 26, 2019 | 78° F

Former Rutgers professor discusses his new book, media coverage of Jewish-immigrant culture in the 30s

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Former Rutgers Professor in the Department of Jewish Studies and Yiddish culture scholar, Edward Portnoy stopped by campus on Monday to discuss his latest book "Bad Rabbi." He discussed how media coverage in the early 20th century glossed over the lives of low-income Jewish-immigrants.

Edward Portnoy, a former Rutgers professor in the Department of Jewish Studies and Yiddish culture scholar, returned to campus on March 19 to give a talk about his new book “Bad Rabbi” that retells the obscure and outrageous stories of the Yiddish presses in the United States and Warsaw, Poland from 1880 to 1930.

The book, published in October 2017, is the culmination of stories collected over the years by Portnoy from Yiddish newspapers in New York and Warsaw, the two cities that were known to be the centers of Yiddish culture in the early 20th and late 19th centuries.

Most Hebrew literature focuses on the elite and upwardly mobile members of the Jewish community, Portnoy said. Rarely is there any writing on the more raucous, less formal, everyday city life that most Jewish people were accustomed to in major population centers like New York and Warsaw. The majority of Jewish newspapers were written in Yiddish, the colloquial language of most European Jews. These papers reported on the everyday life of both dignified and less so Jewish people and provide a unique insight into historical Jewish societies.

“Jewish history, like most other history, is largely about elites. Rabbis, scholars, writers, artists, politicians, businesspeople and their rank, rightly fill the rosters of our history books,” Portnoy said. “There has been a more recent focus on social history, but that also often has an upwardly-mobile trajectory. So yes there are a lot of Jewish success stories, but what about the downwardly-mobile Jews? What about the failures?”

Most scholars and journalists did not take an interest in wrestlers, pickpockets and other socially downward people. The Yiddish press did. They published about all types of Jewish people, from renowned scientists to rowdy bar brawlers, Portnoy said. Yiddish daily newspapers described the nuances and trials of the thousands, sometimes millions, of Jews living in cramped and poor conditions. Fights over divorce proceedings, murders, affairs and blasphemy regularly made headlines and showed the more unruly side of Jewish immigrant life.

Aside from providing now humorous headlines describing the foolishness of some community members, the Yiddish press was also an important source of information for Jewish people. These papers brought the outside world, including news, politics and science, to the European Jewish community and opened their minds to the different possibilities and opportunities that existed. It helped disseminate all kinds of information to Jewish communities and catalyzed the spread of ideas.

In the United States, approximately 2 million Jewish people entered the country from 1881 to 1924. Unlike in Eastern Europe, newspapers in America were not particularly censored by the government, and people could print whatever they desired. As a result, dozens of different magazines, dailies and other papers written in Yiddish appeared, catering to the particular needs and tastes of Jewish society in America, Portnoy said. These newspapers provided immigrants with vital information that allowed them to assimilate and adapt to life in a new country.

Portnoy described his new book as the culmination of many years of research that includes interesting press clippings from archives and libraries. Over his academic career, he procured and compiled stories he found intriguing from Yiddish printings, and they became the basis for “Bad Rabbi."

“While I was doing research, I started finding strange stories in the Yiddish press that appealed to me, and I would copy them and set them aside for later. I would come back to them and do more research on these stories. It took a period of years," he said.

Yiddish is a language once spoken by millions of Jews all over the world, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. Its roots lie in the socially isolated communities of Jews that existed in Europe, who combined German, Hebrew, Slavic and other languages to form a new and unique method of speaking and writing. The language became a character of Jewish culture, and when many Jews left to America, they brought Yiddish with them.

The elimination of most of Europe's Jewish population in the Holocaust and Soviet oppression decimated the prevalence of Yiddish as a major language in the world, according to the library. Now, a small population of orthodox Jews still use it as their primary way of speaking and it is the subject of much scholarly research and academic interest.

Portnoy, who serves as the academic advisor and an exhibition's curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, is an expert on Jewish and Yiddish culture. As a former Rutgers professor who taught as well as worked at the Rutgers Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life for eight years, he is a frequent speaker on campus and has been published in numerous academic journals. 

Andrew Petryna

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