Courtesy of Jewish Book Council

Hidden stories of the Yiddish Press

Scholar Eddy Portnoy comes to campus

How do cultural myths homogenize individuals within that culture? How do we express the variance within American Jewish culture? If you’re Eddy Portnoy, the solution lies within existing and unheard histories of Jewish identity. 


On Jan. 30 in the Smith Memorial Ballroom at Portland State, the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies held the 15th annual Solomon Memorial Lecture. The guest lecturer this year was Eddy Portnoy, senior researcher and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research. Portnoy has several published works, but his most recent endeavor is his book Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.


Portnoy began his graduate research at Columbia University, where he found copies of an old publication from the 1920s called The Yiddish Press. It was there that he discovered how many stories went untold in Jewish popular culture. Portnoy realized that many traditional Jewish narratives are based on a very repetitive story of Jewish immigrants coming to America, starting their businesses from nothing and eventually making their way to a successful and assimilated American life. According to Portnoy, there were no stories representative of “stupid jews,” meaning there were only stories of objective success, a hard and somewhat unattainable idea. 


What was found by Portnoy in The Yiddish Press, however, was a multitude of stories that deviated from traditional Jewish narratives. The title “Bad Rabbi” is actually a chapter in Portnoy’s book about a Hasidic rabbi who comes to America and marries a woman for money, despite already being married, then having to go through a very long and begrudging trial to try to not end up in prison. Other stories in the book include a Jewish drag queen, a wrestler, several murderers and a tattoo artist.


The intent of publishing all of these stories in Portnoy’s book was to try to represent instances of Jewish cultural diversity. Portnoy said, “a lot of Jewish-American historiography within the last century is full of Jewish immigrant success stories.” Portnoy’s book highlights what he calls “Jewish immigrant failures” where a long series of trial and errors is brought to the forefront of each story.


Portnoy brings up a very valid point—that becoming a success story is a very constraining pressure that is put onto many immigrants, not just Jewish immigrants. It is a pressure that can cause a single homogenous story, one that not everyone can identify with. The pressure to be considered a “success” or “successful” can also create cultural stereotypes, and not accurately represent a culture and the people who identify with that specific culture. What Portnoy’s book shows the public is that it is okay to create your own narratives in a culture that you identify with. Nobody is perfect, and that’s not a bad thing.