Colour­ful ras­cals’ com­pen­dium

Jonathan Mar­go­lis and Alan Mon­tague con­sider books, one non-fic­tion, one fic­tion, writ­ten from un­likely an­gles Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange But True Sto­ries From The Yid­dish Press

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Eddy Port­noy

Stan­ford Univer­sity Press, £14.99

AFINANCIAL 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 codin­ers 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 Naf­tali Herz Im­ber: ‘phoney, drunk, phi­lan­derer and shnor­rer’ —— and source of Is­rael’s na­tional an­them

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.

the saintly seam­stress was also

the hooker’

Jonathan Mar­go­lis is a Fi­nan­cial Times jour­nal­ist

Re­viewed by Jonathan Mar­go­lis

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