Portnoy, Senior Researcher and Director of Exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, has written an entertaining account of a relatively obscure aspect of Yiddish life in Poland and the United States in the decades prior to World War II. The stories in this book, taken from the Yiddish press, focus on the underbelly of Jewish life. Unlike immigrants who escaped poverty in Europe and successfully assimilated in the New World, Portnoy’s Jews found little success in the U.S. These are the stories of troubled migrants, who inhabited a world of poverty and crime.
Portnoy argues that Irving Howe, author of World of Our Fathers, the classic monograph that painted an idealized picture of Jewish life in New York, overlooked key aspects of the culture. According to Portnoy, Howe failed to include the criminals, the bigamists, the professional wrestlers (Portnoy notes that Jews like the 600-plus-pound Blimp Levy dominated the wrestling scene of 1920s New York), and “the human detritus that gets washed away and forgotten” — “the undocumented losers, failures and freaks that are so common in immigrant neighborhoods of big cities.”
Operating under the understanding that scandal and sensation sold newspapers, the reporters of the Yiddish press mined all kinds of sources for their articles, which included street peddlers, bums, doctors, police officers, rabbis and “anyone else who might be able to give the lowdown on whatever freak show that just happened,” and verify what was told to them. It was among the talkative lower classes of Jewish Warsaw that reporters found some of their best sources. The rendering of their speech into prose, observes Portnoy, was one of the great joys of reading the Yiddish press.
In his thoughtful introduction to the book, Portnoy asks: “What is the historical value of these stories to us?” He admits that the stories are not representative of Jewry, but insists that in every society there is a group of people who are lowly, uncultured, uneducated, poor, and worthy of attention. Portnoy concludes that “these Jews have something to say about themselves…they are secular, religious, and a little bit of both…yet they’re often backward and stupid…They’re desperate and frequently violent. But whatever they did…they were all part of the Jewish story, rising, falling, and failing with Yiddish on their tongues.”