‘Bad Rabbi’ exposes seamy underbelly of early 20th century Jewish life


Photo Credit: Stanford University Press

Thugs. Thieves. Blackmailers. Deadbeats. Murderers. These are the kinds of Jews who populate “Bad Rabbi and Other Strange But True Stories from the Yiddish Press,” a new book published this month by Stanford University Press.

Contrary to what Hollywood, popular culture, and family lore would have us believe, not all Jews who lived in the first part of the 20th century — in the old country and new — were pious, honorable and upwardly mobile. One need only peruse the back pages of the many Yiddish dailies published in New York, Warsaw and other heavily populated Jewish cities in the decades leading up World War II to see that life was a series of daily disasters for many average members of the tribe.

Of course, the catch is that the vast majority of today’s Jews cannot read Yiddish, and thus do not have access to the robust and ribald press read by 75 percent of the world’s Jews a century ago. These newspapers were the main source of news for Yiddish speakers, and they had everything in them, from the biggest international news items to the most bizarre local “man bites dog” stories (or “woman bites man’s penis,” as in the 1927 case of the scorned Reyzl Shulkleynot and her unfortunate ex-fiancé Feivel Goldshvartz of Warsaw).

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