January 2018: Handpicked

Each month, the Yiddish Book Center asks a member of our staff or a special friend to select favorite stories, books, interviews, or articles from our online collections. This month, we’re excited to share with you picks by Eddy Portnoy.

Eddy Portnoy, the Academic Advisor and Exhibits Coordinator at YIVO, is one of the leading scholars of Yiddish popular culture. He loves—and knows—it all: cartoons, humor magazines, puppet shows, the underbelly of the Yiddish Press, and, famously, the fighters. His research on the popularity of wrestling among Jews in interwar Poland led to the widely successful YIVO exhibit, "Yiddish Fight Club."

After delving into his selections, scroll down to read a short interview with Eddy about his choices.

We were were lucky enough to present the exhibit at the Book Center in 2016, and host Eddy on our podcast, The Shmooze. He explained:

“You had Jewish wrestlers who were given Jewish personas. Some of them were said to be Yeshiva bokhrim, could still read a blatt gemora (or a page of Talmud), they were particularly fond of Hasidic women—all kinds of interesting elements that would make them appeal to Jewish audiences at the time.”

True to YIVO’s origins as the center for the scientific study of Yiddish culture and Yiddish linguistics, the centerpiece of Yiddish Fight Club was a three-page list of Yiddish fighting terms. Familiar words took on new valences. A shmir (spread) also meant “an open-handed smack to the face.” Der gubernator (the governor) described a semi-illicit move: “To take one’s thumb and jab it under a person’s ribcage, or into his side.” Yiddish was truly a language of modernity.

Eddy’s new book, Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange But True Stories from the Yiddish Press, continues his fascination with the unusual stories captured by the Jewish press, the realia of the lives of Yiddish speakers. It’s a learned (and deeply fun) look at downwardly mobile Jews, the unsuccess stories that communities enjoy hearing—but didn’t advertise too widely.

Handpicked:

Noyekh Shteynberg, Yidish amerike, Farlag amerike, New York 1929

A long, strange trip through 1920s era Yiddish literature and poetry accompanied by some amazing illustrations. This anthology includes the works of writers like Moyshe Leyb Halperin, Isaac Raboy, Moyshe Nadir, Hey Leyvik, among others. Illustrations by Chagall, Manievetsh, Gropper, Lozowick, etc. The only Yiddish book I know of wrapped in ersatz lizard skin covers.

Urke Nakhalnik, Mayn lebnsveg, Warsaw 1938

The story of a yeshive-bokher gone bad. Yitzkhok Farberovitsh joins a shtetl crime gang and eventually works his way up the ranks, ultimately becoming a “master criminal.” A jailhouse memoir, the book became Poland’s best-selling title of 1933 and won its author an early release. Nakhalnik subsequently became a popular Yiddish writer and playwright.

Moyshe Leyb Halperin, Di goldene pave, Farlag grupe yidish, Cleveland, 1924

Cutting poetry by one of the bad boys of Yiddish lyric, Moyshe Leyb Halperin, who emerged from the loose literary group, Di Yunge (The Young Ones), that promoted “art for art’s sake.” Illustrated with raw ink drawings by Yosl Cutler. 

Yosl Cutler, Muntergang, New York, 1934

A mish-mosh of wildly creative stories and illustrations by Yosl Cutler, one of the most original and unique characters in Yiddish cultural life. Includes one of the first Yiddish science fiction stories, “Afn shtern mars” (On the Planet Mars), as well as a great deal of left wing political work in prose, poem, and cartoon.

Yoysef Tunkl, Mitn kop arop, Warsaw, 1924

Parodies by the top satirist in 20th century Yiddish literature. Der Tunkeler (Tunkl's pen name) captures the voices of his targets and runs riot with their prose. From Shomer to Sholem Aleichem, from Dovid Berglson to Der nister, no one is safe from the poison pen of Yoysef Tunkl. From the highest heights of Yiddish literature and theater, to their critics and analysts, Tunkl parodies every major aspect of Yiddish literature.

Q&A

Eddy Portnoy talks to Eitan Kensky, the Yiddish Book Center’s director of collections initiatives, about his Handpicked choices.

Eitan Kensky: Can I start by saying that I'm a little disappointed. I expected your selection of Yiddish books to be much more obscure!

Eddy Portnoy: That seems more like a comment than a question. I guess I could have chosen more obscure books, but when I started thinking about your collection and the things I like in it, these were the first things that popped into my head. So my apologies.

EK: None necessary! It's true, also, that as much as scholars read (and enjoy) books like Yidish amerike, your average Yiddish reader has probably never glanced at it.

EP: That's probably true. And then, who is your average Yiddish reader?

EK: Moishe Nadir had a great comic essay about the "average theater goer." Nadir claims that the average theater goer just wants to visit some place warm: “I just go to rest my feet a little.”

EP: Yes, I remember that. It makes sense. Some place warm, or some place to sit down. To a certain degree, he's probably right.

EK: So I suppose that's what your average Yiddish reader is looking for: something to do when they sit down. Here’s a longer quote from Nadir: "I frequently go out for a walk, just so, out on the avenue and something stirs within me and there is no saloon handy, so I walk into some theater and presently I find myself seated upstairs perfectly contented."

EP: That sounds eminently reasonable. Plus, the saloon may not have been the respite of choice for Jews. There's an early article in the Forverts, sometime in 1897 or 1898, about how since the Jews have supplanted the Irish on the Lower East Side, most of the saloons have disappeared. When the Jews moved in, what were the Irish saloons replaced by? What do Jews need more than saloons?

EK: Dairy restaurants?

EP: Nope. Keep guessing.

EK: Appetizing stores?

EP: Nope. What do Jews need more than anything else? Pharmacies.

EK: But back to Noyekh Shteynberg. Yidish amerike is a book that scholars might delve into, but many readers today—it strikes me—only read fiction, and never read literary criticism, or literary vignettes, even though that genre was very popular in its day.

EP: I think that's right. I don't think anyone but scholars would look at this book today. But what's interesting about it is that it seems to have been created by bibliophiles for bibliophiles. From the unusual cover to the amazing illustrations, it's really a unique looking book. There really isn't anything else like it from that period. It's almost as if he took the idea from periodical publications, that you should sprinkle compelling illustrations that will break up the text and make the piece more visually appealing.

EK: Right. Many of those illustrators were also printed in the literary journals produced by Di Yunge.

EP: Yes. There's a Shriftn-like quality to it.

EK: I like the way that you described it as having an "ersatz lizard skin cover."

EP: It's so weird. He made another attempt with Yung amerike about a year later, but it's not as good. A lot of Yiddish books have great illustrations and stunning endpapers, but there's nothing in Yiddish literature as pimped out as Yidish amerike.

EK: The Urke Nakhalnik book seems as if it's being constantly reintroduced and rediscovered. Does that impression strike you as accurate?

EP: Is it? I don't know. Gwido Zlatkes wrote about Urke Nakhalnik and translated part of the book for Polin 16, which came out in 2003. Other than that, I'm not sure how many times it's been considered. The Yiddish press dealt with it when it came out, but only occasionally afterward.

EK: I was surprised to learn that it was Poland’s best-selling title of 1933. Do you mean it was the best-selling Yiddish book, or the best-selling book in any language published in Poland that year?

EP: It was the best-selling book in Polish, not Yiddish. Urke Nakhalnik's Życiorys własny przestępcy (Mayn lebsnveg in Yiddish) was published in book form in Polish in 1933. The book was serialized in Yiddish in 1933 in Haynt and in a number of Yiddish papers outside of Poland. It was in the papers where most Yiddish readers read the story. It was published in book form in Yiddish in 1938, and, while it probably sold reasonably well, it is not likely to have been a bestseller five years after it was serialized. What is interesting is that Nakhalnik, whose Polish was apparently not very good, was far more active in the Yiddish literary world following his release from prison. During the latter half of the 1930s, the Warsaw Yiddish press published many of his stories and novels. The Yiddish theater also performed a number of plays he wrote.

EK: Can you say a little more about his later work?

EP: No. Okay, maybe a little. About a year after he got out of prison, he wrote a play in Yiddish called Din toyre, which was a drama about Jewish pimps, prostitutes, and criminals. Apparently written with realistic dialogue, it caused an uproar in the Yiddish press for being offensive. One reviewer said that it felt like someone spit in his face. Some theater critics were furiously upset and even called for it to be banned. This, of course, made people want to go see it even more, and it thus became a minor hit.

During the second half of the 1930s, he also serialized a fair number of novels in the Warsaw afternoon dailies, which were much more tabloidy and sensationalistic than the morning papers. Novels like Nakht mentshn and Yoldishe neshomes offered up stories of the Yiddish criminal underworld as sensational and raw melodrama. This was real Yiddish pulp fiction, not stories of Yiddish criminals rendered in high literary style, as Asch and Opatoshu offered. True, they’re great writers, but neither was a criminal or a thug. There’s an authenticity to Urke Nakhalnik’s work that other Yiddish writers don’t come close to. The writing isn’t as good, but the content is unparalleled.

"Humor and satire do play a significant role in the development of Yiddish literature. If you consider the maskilic origins of modern Yiddish literature, then satire is extremely important. It’s somewhat of an unusual thing, that the genesis of this literature is so reliant on satire."

EK: How common was it for Yiddish books to become bestsellers in Poland—or at least receive wide recognition?

EP: Because there are no extant sales figures, this is difficult to answer. But books that received extensive reviews are noted in the press as having been exceptionally successful. The reality was, however, that most readers looked to the daily press for their fiction. Yiddish dailies the world over always contained serialized fiction, short stories, and poems. Since people were buying the papers already, there was often no need to spend extra money on books, which were often considered a luxury item by poor Jews. This is not to say that people didn't buy them, but perhaps less so than one might imagine.

EK: Any other books by Yiddish-speaking master criminals that you want to recommend? 

EP: He's not a master criminal, but Avrom Karpinovitsh wrote fantastic stories about Vilna's criminal underworld. Opatoshu's Zikhroynes fun a ferd ganef is also great. So is Asch's Motke Ganef. Because there was a lot of crime concomitant with the rise of modern Yiddish literature, there is a fair amount of literature that considers it.

EK: I never previously noticed that Halperin’s Di goldene pave was published in Cleveland. How widespread was Yiddish publishing in the American midwest? As a Detroit native, is this something you've researched?

EP: This isn't something I've explored, even though I am aware of some Yiddish publishing in places like Cleveland, Detroit, and Toronto, although more so in Chicago. It's actually a good topic for research. It's nice to look at the peripheries.

EK: I like the way that you described Halperin as a "bad boy" of Yiddish lyric. He's become so canonical that it's difficult for people to see him in that frame. 

EP: That's the problem with canons. They change the context in which people wrote. Poems like "De la hester" and "Zlotshev mayn heym" were pretty raw. Yiddish poetry isn't typically thought of as something angry or rebellious, although a lot of it is. Obviously, specialists know this, but your average Yiddish-inclined reader may not.

EK: Halperin, also, was a veteran of the humor magazines. Would you say that Yiddish humor plays an underdeveloped role in the story of Yiddish modernism?

EP: This is a complicated question and depends what you mean by modernism. Humor and satire do play a significant role in the development of Yiddish literature. If you consider the maskilic origins of modern Yiddish literature, then satire is extremely important.  It’s somewhat of an unusual thing, that the genesis of this literature is so reliant on satire. It does quickly mature and blossom into a very broad literature, but there’s a constant undercurrent of bitter satire that never really goes away. So I wouldn’t say that the role of humor is underdeveloped in Yiddish modernism (if, what you mean is literature of the nature of Di yunge/In zikh/etc.). This is a broad movement. Humor and satire is there when it’s needed, but, if anything, I wouldn’t say it’s underdeveloped. Halperin, for example, did a lot of bitter, satiric work. It’s not a rollicking kind of humor, but bitter and comic takes on a variety of issues.

EK: When did you first discover Der Tunkeler? 

EP: I first discovered Der Tunkeler as a cartoonist, not a satirist. My initial academic interest was in cartoons, and Tunkl drew them for Der kibitser, the satire journal he was running in New York in 1908. As I meandered through Yiddish humor magazines and the daily press as well, I found that he gave up drawing for writing and became an excellent and prolific satirist. He returned to Poland in 1912 to run the daily Der moment's humor column, "Der krumer shpigl." He also published a number of one-time satire magazines and about a half dozen books as well. Parody was popular in Yiddish humor magazines, and he was just about the best at it. 

EK: How does he compare to other Yiddish humorists?

EP: There are a lot of good Yiddish humorists, but no one was as finely tuned as Tunkl in the realm of parody.

EK: What other Yiddish humorists should people read?

EP: Outside of the usual suspects? Moyshe Nadir, Yosef-Shimen Goldshteyn, Yankev Adler (not the theater actor/director). There are a lot more. A lot of people who wrote in Yiddish humor magazines did so under pseudonyms. It's really best to peruse old Yiddish humor magazines. There's a huge amount of great material in them. 

EK: If I may be permitted an indulgence, your research really emerges as a bridge between different worlds. It captures the interconnection of Warsaw and New York, and the movement between those spaces. It also emerges as a bridge between the “low” culture of humor and cartoons and Yiddish high culture (Halperin as a prime example). Lately, you’ve served as a kind of bridge for contemporary creators to explore earlier Yiddish art. Your research into Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler sparked interest into their work. How involved were you in the production of Muntergang? What was it like getting to see it performed? And can you say a little about who they were?

EP: Sure. Maud and Cutler were two artists who worked as cartoonists and book illustrators. They worked very closely with a number of writers connected to Di Yunge and illustrated a number of their books. In 1925, they created a Yiddish puppet theater called Modicut (a combination of their last names) that received wide acclaim. They were two funny, bohemian artist types active in the Yiddish sphere. There really weren’t too many like them.

I loved seeing Great Small Work's production of Muntergang. It quite literally brought my research to life in such a unique and compelling way. They took a lot of what I had written and transformed it into art. That's an amazing thing in and of itself. What more does anyone want? As far as actual involvement, I did some translations and fielded a lot of questions, but Great Small Works ran with the story and created a really fantastic show.