Bad Rabbis, Brawlers, Psychics and Thieves at Columbia University

Eddy Portnoy shocked and dazzled a crowd of about eighty Yiddishists, Yiddish enthusiasts, and students at the annual Naomi Prawer Kadar Memorial Lecture at Columbia University. After words by the Naomi Foundation’s Maya Kadar Kovalsky and an introduction by Columbia’s Jeremy Dauber, Portnoy spoke about “Bad Rabbis, Brawlers, Psychics, and Thieves: Sensationalism in the Yiddish Press.” He regaled the audience with stories printed mainly in the New York and Warsaw Yiddish newspapers about family feuds, divorce scandals, murders, and theft of clothing off the clothes line.

Portnoy’s work paints a picture of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Jewish life, which was colorful and bustling, where people enjoyed and got into all kinds of crime and mischief, including gossip. Some combination of the modern-day Page Six and a crime blotter, stories of folly were immensely popular in the widely-circulated Yiddish papers.

History may frequently be written by the academics, politicians, and high society, but at the memorial lecture, but Portnoy exposed the seamy underbelly of the two major centers of Yiddish culture and shattered – or at least expanded – the audience’s preconceived ideas about propriety and upwardly-mobile late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Jews.

In his touching introduction, Portnoy also spoke about his relationship with Naomi Prawer Kadar.

When I started grad school at Columbia University, I studied with Naomi Kadar. There were four or five students in our mid to late twenties, and then there was a student older than us who spoke a wonderful Yiddish and had a family… [Naomi] was so fantastic to have around because she was a den mother. She gave us advice in all realms of life; it was so meaningful to have her as part of our program, and it’s especially touching to be able to speak at this lecture in her name.

Watch the lecture, delivered on March 20, 2018 at the Columbia Faculty House, embedded below.

Portnoy’s book, “Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press” recently published by Stanford University Press, is available in stores and here on Amazon.