Book Review: The Roots of Jewish Secularism in Prewar Poland

Little-Known Facts on Pre-WWII Polish-Jewish Relations

By Jan Peczkis

Bad Rabbi: And Other Strange But True Stories From the Yiddish Press, by Eddy Portnoy. 2017. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Stanford University Press, California.

Author Eddy Portnoy is a researcher with the YIVO Institute. The setting of this fascinating work is foreign-ruled Poland, and the Jewish immigrant community in New York City, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Owing to the fact that radio, television, and the internet were yet to be invented, the Yiddish newspaper had much more importance to Jews than today’s newspapers have to their readers. The heyday of the Yiddish press was the 1880s—1930s. (p. 3).  Author Portnoy opines that the Yiddish press is the best way to learn of Jewish life in Poland before the German-made Holocaust. (p. 20).

This book serves as a corrective to the usual treatment, in a vacuum, of Catholic concerns about Jewish influence on Polish society, as well as the use of these concerns as an anti-Polish polemic. The latter is occurring today as one outcome of the Israeli-Polish dispute about Poland’s new law.

Militant Jewish Atheists and Their Organized Profanation of Yom Kippur

Author Portnoy informs us that, “The Free Thinkers, as they were known, had bureaus all over Poland, clubhouses for nonbelievers where lectures and meetings were held…” (p. 180). To disbelieve the truth claims of religion and/or to find religious practices irrelevant, is one thing. To be openly disrespectful of religion is quite another. The following statements are by Eddy Portnoy:

“Yom Kippur dances, organized initially by anarchists in the mid-1880s, started in London and migrated to New York and Montreal. Smaller nosh fests and public demonstrations were also celebrated by Jewish antinomians in other locales. Unorthodox Jews in interwar Poland could pull hundreds of locals into small venues on Yom Kipper in shtetls such as Kalish and Chełm. In larger cities, for example, Warsaw and Łódź, they could sell out 5,000-seat circuses.” (p. 83). Obviously, this was no extremist or marginal operation!

Portnoy continues, “Advertised in the Yiddish press, Yom Kippur balls, lectures, and nosh fests were decidedly communal events created by and for an alternative community…Some people partook to spite a god they did not believe in. Others participated to antagonize their parents, and still others to harass the religious establishment. In fact, harassment may have been the biggest draw. In addition, holding an antireligious Yom Kippur event was often a way to get free publicity.” (p. 84).

Atheist Jews also affronted religious Jews directly, and in an in-your-face manner. Portnoy cites a 1927 article in Haynt, “‘And if the meeting itself went without incident, they [atheists] went out into the Jewish streets the morning of Yom Kippur and hawked old issues of the magazine The Freethinker while people were on their way to shul.’” (p. 86).

The provocations led to violence, “Yom Kippur fisticuffs, it should be known, were not unique to New York City. Warsaw, with its large Jewish population, was also a flashpoint for Jew-on-Jew Day of Atonement fury.” (p. 86). This was hardly limited to the High Holidays, “Willing to fight at the drop of a hat, the Free Thinkers and the Shabbos enforcers often came to fisticuffs.” (p. 180).

The Yiddish Press: Sensationalism, Frivolity, Cynicism, and Dissoluteness

Eddy Portnoy points out that most Jewish journalists had come from religious homes, but had become secular. (p. 90). This shows up in what they wrote.

Author Portnoy assesses Shmuel Yatskan, a famous editor of the leading Yiddish newspaper, Haynt, as follows, “With an understanding that a popular newspaper should have a broad mandate, Yatskan printed a lot of sensationalistic trash along with high-quality literature and excellent cultural and political criticism.” (p. 90).

As another example, Portnoy notes the Warsaw Khronik, and says that it was, “A popular chronicle of crime and scandal; it lasted until World War II.” (p. 218).

The appeals to the reader’s base instincts came in many forms. For instance, Portnoy comments, “The Yiddish crime blotter wasn’t really just a crime blotter. A one- or occasionally two-page section found in the back pages of the dailies, it contained a variety of outrageous or scandalous stories of local interest, some criminally minded, others not…included explosive little blurbs that peered into broken lives, eavesdropping and reporting on events that perhaps weren’t so appropriate for public consumption but that the reading public eagerly devoured.” (p. 217).

All this was well-organized, and based on a profiteering motive, as elucidated by Portnoy, “Operating on the understanding that an element of scandal and sensation sells papers, the reporters of the Yiddish press mined all kinds of sources for this fare: street peddlers, bums and bag ladies, doctors and nurses at the Jewish Hospital, the police, rabbis, neighborhood finks, and anyone else who might be able to give them the lowdown on whatever freak show just happened in the vicinity.” (p. 218).

To summarize the seamy themes of Yiddish newspapers, Portnoy writes, “The stories touch on a huge number of issues: superstition, petty theft, smuggling, homosexuality, love affairs, poverty, prostitution, and gambling, to name just a few.” (p. 219).

In addition, and in reference to criminal-turned-writer Urke Nachlnik (Yitzhok Farberovitch), Portnoy quips, “…Yiddish papers included lots of ‘Urke’ material, ranging from interviews to stories to bad underworld jokes…Nachalnik’s serialized stories of the Jewish lowlife were a huge hit among the Jews of Poland…” (p. 111).

The Yiddish Theater and Its OWN TITILLATION OF Base Instincts

Portnoy’s last quoted statement is hereby continued: “…in early 1934 actors involved with La Scale Yiddish Theatre decided to stage a play based on his [Nachlnik’s] tales. La Scale wasn’t one of the top Yiddish theaters in Warsaw, but it always managed to snag an audience with an attractive combination of classics (such as Nachalnik’s DIN TOYRE [Thieves Trial]). DIN TOYRE, which opened just after Christmas 1933, drew big crowds not only because it brought the master criminal-turned-auteur to the premiere, but also because the play portrayed the street life of Jewish pimps, prostitutes, and criminals in its own raw reality, complete with authentically foul language and nasty behavior.” (p. 111). In contrast to some Jews who objected to this filth, “Yiddish theatergoers, however, seemed to enjoy the mud and didn’t necessarily mind being dragged through it. The play was a minor hit.” (p. 112). Evidently, this kind of material, and the nihilistic mentality behind it, was increasingly becoming embraced even by mainstream Jewish thinking.


In 1936, Polish Cardinal August Hlond warned in his pastoral letter of Jews as freethinkers, vanguards of Bolshevism, and a bad moral influence on Poles. In the same letter he condemned also the anti-Jewish attitudes imported from abroad which were present in the prewar Poland. Hlond said: “One can love his/her nation more (than other nations), but no one is allowed to hate anyone. Neither Jews.” In the public and scholarly discourse today, the message of Hlond’s pastoral letter is, unfortunately, falsified, misinterpreted, and selectively used to attack the Polish people and the Catholic Church as alleged anti-Semites. The justified and necessary condemnation of unethical and sometimes deeply pathological behaviors, independently of ethnic background was, is and always will be at the core of teaching of the Church. Expecting otherwise would be a perversion of religion.

But for just saying the truth, Hlond has been pilloried in just about every book on Polish-Jewish relations, and transformed into an indictment of Polish Catholic culture in general. As Portnoy’s book inadvertently makes crystal-clear, Hlond was on to something, even if it was not politically correct by today’s standards.


Congress of Free Thinkers in Warsaw, 1926. Source:  Polish National Digital Archive.

Image at the top: A page out of Haynt, Yiddish daily newspaper, published in Warsaw from 1906 until 1939. Source, Wikipedia, public domain.