Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange But True Stories From The Yiddish Press, By Eddy Portnoy
Stanford University Press, £14.99
A Financial Times colleague, brought up in Hampstead, was expounding at a dinner his theory of the sociology of diaspora Jews. “You’ve got Book Jews and Money Jews,” he said, “and they’re totally different tribes.”
As the only other Jew present, I asked: “What about Taxi Jews?” He looked blank, as I described Gants Hill, where I come from, where Jews who weren’t black-cab drivers were mostly small-business owners or employees, such as pressers, in the shmutter trade.
It was the first he had ever heard of this parallel world to NW3’s Jewish academics and financiers, and our co-diners also seemed to be unaware that not all Jews are hoykhe fentsters. But, as American historian Eddy Portnoy details in Bad Rabbi, there is a fourth estate of Jews, which I would categorise as the lobbesses.
As the son of an East-End amateur boxer, the grandson of a woman who was briefly a beggar and the relative of a man who did time during the Second World War for dealing in black-market onions, I should not have been surprised by Portnoy’s fabulously entertaining, yet always scholarly, work.
Nevertheless, it was still oddly refreshing to be reminded that Jews, as Portnoy reminds us, span “everything from the highest levels of literature, philosophy, politics and science to the lowest levels of beggary, poverty, pimpery, prostitution and inept stupefaction.”
He writes: “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.” The “two-bit nobodies” to whom Portnoy — a wickedly sparkling writer, by the way — dedicates Bad Rabbi include out-and-out criminals, crazies, eccentrics, hopeless dreamers and aspirant intellectuals. But they all share one thing — failure. Lobbes-dom is a wonderfully rich seam to mine, and mine it Portnoy does, using as excavating tools the unrestrained journalism of ancient file copies of Yiddish newspapers published in Warsaw and New York.
I was enchanted by his accounts of the likes of Naftali Herz Imber, a notorious phoney, drunk, philanderer and shnorrer born in 1856 to a Chasidic family. Imber showed early promise as a writer, and was a winner as a teenager of an award for poetry from the Emperor Franz Joseph. His peripatetic grifting took him to Palestine, India and the United States, where he set up shop as a white-robed mystic and died in 1909 as a once-again poet.
Portnoy is a genius at putting the sting at the end of every chapter, and it is at one such point that we learn of Imber’s one legacy — a poem, Tikvateinu, that he wrote on the road in Romania in 1877, and known to us as Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.
If I have the tiniest of bones to pick with Eddy Portnoy, it is that some of the statistics he quotes from contemporary Yiddish newspaper sources could do with qualifying. He reports, for instance, that 10,000 people turned out for Imber’s funeral in 1909. Seems like an awful lot.
And he tells us that, when a rumour spread through the Lower East Side in 1906 that Jewish children were “having their throats slashed” at school by New York City Board of Health doctors (they were actually taking out some children’s tonsils), this caused “50,000 Jewish mothers” to run riot.
Speaking as someone from best lobbes stock who was also once a tabloid journalist and familiar with the compulsion to dramatise, I would counsel caution against those numbers.
I can’t prove it, but I suspect they were massaged upwards a tad for journalistic effect.
Jonathan Margolis is a Financial Times journalist