Monday, November 27, 2017

"Bad Rabbi"

The fat guy was named Martin "The Blimp" Levi. He weighed 600 to 700
pounds, and was a sensational wrestler. You can also learn about his promoter,
who specialized in publicity for all kinds of freaks. Wow!
Suppose you want to read news items about sensational divorces and bigamy cases, bizarre sports figures, petty but colorful crimes, tales of pimps or their victims, neighborhood brawls, violent murders and family fights, religious zealots trying to force others to obey their rules, anti-religious people fighting back, or other diverse facts? You'd go right to your favorite click-bait locale on the internet, right?

Suppose you want to read about the same types of mindless and entertaining stuff that happened in Jewish Warsaw or Jewish New York in the early part of the 20th century? You can go to Eddy Portnoy's recently published book Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press. Obviously, if you can read Yiddish, you can go find microfilms of the various Yiddish newspapers of that era for yourself, but how likely is that? I'm telling you: read Bad Rabbi! Nothing has changed except the language. And you'll enjoy the illustrations taken from the original papers.

Bad Rabbi offers all kinds of dirt that was dished by the resourceful journalists of New York and Warsaw. These stories were published alongside very serious journalism about society, politics, etc. in the Yiddish papers. Illicit lovers pushed their paramours out of windows. Fistfights broke out at ritual circumcisions, at weddings, and at other usually innocent events. A habitual criminal failed to steal a side of beef from a delivery truck because the delivery men chased him down the street. In 1929, we learn, all sorts of readers in Warsaw -- those who followed both the Yiddish and the Polish press -- were fascinated by the "Miss Judea" contest, eventually won by a girl named Zofia Oldak. A criminal who worked under the pseudonym Urke Nachalnik (meaning: "brazen master criminal") wrote a popular autobiography in 1933, and later wrote other successful works. For a while, he studied criminal lingo in documents at the pre-war version of YIVO, but he got in big trouble with his fellow criminals who thought he was betraying their secrets.

Sadly, as we read, we are often reminded of the coming fate of the Jews who stayed in Warsaw, but they didn't know what was coming. For example: "No one seemed to know what happened to Zofia Oldak. An octogenarian cousin of hers who lived near Tel Aviv said she couldn't remember if Oldak went to Australia or to Treblinka. But she was pretty sure Miss Judea ended up in one of those two places." (p. 142) And the criminal/linguist Urke Nachalnik joined the underground, tried to organize reprisals against the Nazis, and sabotaged rail lines to Treblinka. He "was eventually caught by the Germans in 1942 and as he was being led in shackles to his execution... he attacked his guard and nearby soldiers shot him to death." (p. 114) Another colorful character, it's said, "went up in smoke." Literally.

The Rabbinical divorce court in Warsaw was a popular place for journalists to uncover these sensational bits of human interest. For example, there's the story of Rivka Tsadik, who wanted a divorce because her husband didn't like her cooking: "If she cooks him potatoes and egg drop soup, he yells that he'd rather have potatoes and borsht. If she cooks him potatoes and borsht, he'd rather have potatoes and egg drop soup. In short, they start fighting and the husband eventually runs out of the house with an empty stomach." Rivka was willing to take an exam "to see if she can cook a good lunch or not." It seems that we'll never know if she passed her exam or not -- she went home to wait for the rabbis to call her back. (p. 159-160)

Bad Rabbi has lots of good blurbs by quite famous writers.

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