January 2021: 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 is the academic advisor and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford University Press, 2017).
The weekly newspaper of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union is great not only to learn about the goings-on in American's biggest union but also for the entertainment. You might think that a union newspaper would be all business, but, to a certain degree, it's also a forum for Yiddish literature, poetry, and commentary. It's also got great advertisements, ranging from cigars to laxatives, everything an overworked garment worker needs to relax on his or her day off.
There are hundreds of fascinating interviews on the Yiddish Book Center's website, and this one is a blast. Fay Webern is touching and often hilarious. She tells the unvarnished stories of her family and childhood, many of which are not what you necessarily expect from a Yiddish childhood.
Rivington Street, a street that cut through the Lower East Side, is the center of a sort of epic poem by famed Yiddish satirist Moyshe Nadir. Written in the early 1930s during the throes of the Depression, the poem is a marvelous memorial to Jewish life on the Lower East Side, which was beginning to dissipate. Published as a small book, it also contains illustrations by some of the Yiddish Left's best known artists.
The Yiddish Book Center winds up with items in its collection that are not books but often somehow related. This includes Yiddish typewriters, which are amazing mechanical relics. The year before COVID-19, I curated an exhibit on Yiddish typewriters at YIVO, where some of the machines are the same as those in the Center's collection. This short investigation into the Center's collection is fun to read and highly informative.
Some of the other Yiddish detritus the Center finds in its collections is what remains inside books, typically left there by readers. These include notes, stamps, letters, newspaper clippings, and other such items, often left there as bookmarks. Stuck in books that are no longer used, they are lonely markers of pedestrian human activity.
Eddy Portnoy talks to the Yiddish Book Center's communications editor, Faune Albert, about his Handpicked choices:
Faune Albert: You mention that the newspaper of the International Ladies' Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) includes Yiddish literature and poetry as well as the more expected news and updates. Can you say more about this? What kind of literature and poetry did these newspapers tend to feature? Was it work designed to appeal to garment workers specifically (for instance, work directed toward a female readership or toward workers) or does it run the gamut?
Eddy Portnoy: One of the fascinating things about occupational newspapers and magazines is the appearance of literature in them. This happens because, on the one hand, editors understand that readers need more than just news and information, and also because there were always more Yiddish writers than publications that could print their work. This is true with labor union papers like Gerechtigkeit, which had a circulation large enough to attract top writers, or The Butcher Worker or The Laundryman, two occupational magazines that were smaller but still contain fiction and poetry, the appearance of which points to the importance of these forms among the readership and also the fact that print media was the only media.
The type of literature in Gerechtigkeit doesn’t necessarily seem geared for a general readership with an emphasis on local and national labor news, strikes, and, specifically, ILGWU happenings. It also included news about Jews in Poland and elsewhere, as well as articles on health and science. One thing to note is that it had a very long print run: 1922–1969, so I haven’t seen all of it. Edited by the anarchist ideologue Shaul Yanovski, who previously edited the Fraye arbeter shtime (Free Voice of Labor), it also includes a fair amount of political reporting by him and others—novels and short stories by the likes of Tolush (Isur Muselevitsh), Nokhem Yud, Yosef Opatoshu, Avrom Reyzen, Miriam Karpilove, humor columns by Der lebediker (Yankev Adler), economics columns by Dr. Herman Frank, among many others. Notably, it was a coup for Gerechtigkeit to have hired Yanovski as their editor because he was so well connected among Yiddish writers and cultural figures that he was able to get very high-quality writing to what was ultimately a niche, occupational paper. Most Yiddish occupational papers didn’t have that kind of sway or money (the ILGWU was a huge union and had more money than most) to pay big name writers, so Gerechtigkeit is exceptional in that regard.
FA: Inspired by Fay’s oral history, do you have any favorite memories from going to the Yiddish theater, whether as a child or adult?
EP: I wish I was old enough to have experienced the heyday, or even the actual decline of Yiddish theater, although I do consider myself lucky to have gotten to see performers like Lillian Lux and Mina Bern perform with the Folksbiene. But the first Yiddish theater performance I ever saw was in Israel, in Givatayim, a suburb of Tel Aviv. It was in 1988 or 1989 and a troupe of older actors performed funny skits in a small but full, 200-seat theater. In the middle of the performance, an elderly man seated in the third or fourth row got up, took a few steps toward the stage, and collapsed on the ground. Someone from the audience rushed to him. The actor on stage, who saw this happen, stopped the performance and said, “Er lebt nokh?” (Is he still alive?). The woman tending to him nodded her head. The actor thrust his finger into the air and yelled, “Vayter!” (Let’s go!), and he launched back into his monologue. The man on the floor was eventually helped to get up and shuffled back to his seat. The show, after all, must go on. And, as they say, “in yidishn teater iz altsding meglekh” (Anything’s possible in the Yiddish theater).
FA: Most poignant moments, for you, in Moyshe Nadir’s epic poem? Scenes or passages where the beginnings of the dissipation of Jewish life on the Lower East Side are most evocative or most resonant, or where that tension between the vibrant Jewish life there and the shifts taking place comes most into focus? How does Nadir’s background as a satirist inflect the way he tells this story?
EP: The story begins with an unnamed “proletarian poet” paying a visit to Rivington Street to recall the past. It’s the 1930s and the Great Depression has made the already impoverished Lower East Side even poorer. Full of slang expressions and the English/Yiddish of the Lower East Side, it offers a rich panorama of local color and characters, all collapsing under the weight of the Depression. Nadir’s background as a sharp-witted satirist is apparent, as he engages his usual poison pen to craft harsh descriptions of the neighborhood and its denizens.
The poet arrives on a Lower East Side that’s under construction, a reference to the reality of large public works projects that took place there during the early 1930s. There he meets a raggedy peddler, who he uses to describe the pitiful scenes on the street. Nadir describes the peddler as having a “meaty mouth full of moldy gold-capped teeth, as if a graveyard with ancient fallen tombstones was smiling,” and asks him if this is really Rivington Street. The peddler responds with a storied neighborhood history of political radicals and Yiddish writers, immigrants arriving and working in sweatshops, strikes and street gangs, and then climbing the economic and social ladders. Full of English written in Yiddish letters, Nadir evokes the accented language of the immigrant generations who suffered and grew on the Lower East Side only to suffer again during the Depression with its crashing banks and ruined lives.
Although it paints a depressing picture, the poem is also a very moving excavation of the decaying Yiddish culture of the Lower East Side. Nadir, who was affiliated with the communists at the time, brings the poem to a close with the Lower East Side engulfed in the flames of revolution. It’s an angry scene, as he lists all the streets and shops that will burn. With Nadir, there is always anger—but there is always hope as well.
Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle’s book Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land includes a comic version of Nadir’s Rivington Street written by Joel Schechter together with the legendary comix artist Spain Rodriguez. The comic itself is a tiny capsule of the poem, but it’s great, and, to be honest, the whole book—graphic retellings of Lower East Side Yiddish stories—is terrific and worth your while.
FA: I love the way that Adah, a former fellow at the Center and the author of the typewriter piece, breaks down the Yiddish typewriters, including the reasons to love each. Each one is different and special in its own way. Of course, I have to ask—do you have a favorite Yiddish typewriter, whether in our collection or in the exhibit that you curated for YIVO? And what qualities do you prize most highly in a Yiddish typewriter?
EP: Yes—she does a great job. The variety of Yiddish typewriters that came into existence during the first half of the twentieth century is interesting. There are huge and hefty desktop models that weigh 40 to 50 pounds and then there are much smaller and more refined portables—the laptops of the old typing machine, which come in ersatz alligator skin carrying cases. This latter style includes one of my favorites: the Corona 3 XCR, which is probably the smallest portable available in Yiddish. In order to reduce its size, they removed a number of the keys, including double vov and double yud, which you’d normally find on a Yiddish typewriter. In fact, the only key they left that makes this a Yiddish typewriter was the komets alef.
The Center and YIVO have a lot of the same typewriters: Underwoods, Remingtons, Coronas, and a Hammond Multiplex with a snazzy wooden base. YIVO’s typewriter exhibit, Rise of the Yiddish Machines, included a number of typewritten manuscripts by famous Yiddish writers, among them Isaac Bashevis Singer and Avrom Sutzkever. When I was curating the exhibit for YIVO, I asked the archivist working on Khayem Grade’s archive if she had a typewritten manuscript of his that could be used in the exhibit. She told me there were many but also that there were a few typewriters among his belongings. We went into the stacks to take a look, and, sure enough, there were three typewriters in Grade’s archive. I opened one of the older cases to find a dusty 1930s-era Hebrew Remington, along with a partially typed Yiddish manuscript still in the machine. This was an amazing find, and I imagine it to be the last thing Khayem Grade ever typed.
YIVO also has Max Weinreich’s custom-made Yiddish Remington, which includes a number of diacritics required by linguists, as well as Aren Toren’s desktop Royal KMG, which he got when he became editor of the anarchist weekly, Di fraye arbeter shtime, in the early 1950s. The Center has Blume Lempel’s and Chava Rosenfarb’s typewriters, which are also incredibly special artifacts to have. The mechanical conduits through which they wrote, specific typewriters were sometimes very important to writers.
FA: Most interesting/weird/unexpected piece of ephemera you’ve found within a Yiddish book?
EP: I’d say the most common item left in books is newspaper clippings used as a bookmark. Sometimes they’re short articles, sometimes they’re larger ones that are folded up. It’s hard to convey the importance of clippings to twentieth century newspaper readers. Saving clippings is like the physical version of having a million tabs open on your browser. I’ve also found a clipping or two of cartoons, items which people used to save fairly frequently. You also find little notes with messages or phone numbers on them. I’ve found a few grocery lists and, occasionally, bills of different kinds. Also, once, an old, flattened cigarette. These things that I sometimes find in second hand books I always leave where I found them because, at this point in the life of the book and in the life of the item, they’ve been together so long that they are one. You know this because the item sometimes leaves part of the page indented or discolored. The most annoying thing I’ve ever found in books—and this has happened more than once—is gum. Who would park their gum in a book? Sheesh.