23 January 2010

Tablet: A fine young criminal

Tablet magazine is presenting a series of articles based on historic newspaper accounts.

The introduction to the series reads:

One of the convenient aspects of studying Jewish history is its 3,000-year-old paper trail—the texts and records of the rabbinical and intellectual elite allow us to examine contours of Jewish law and history. But we tend to know less about the lives of average Jews, who didn’t receive much attention in the writings of the intellectuals. That began to change in the late 19th century, when the Yiddish press hit the streets, for the first time recounting the lives of the unwashed masses of Jews in the public record. Tablet Magazine offers some of their stories, reconstructed from century-old newspaper accounts.

Tablet previously carried the Benjamin Nathan case, and today's piece is the story of Yitzhok Farbarovitsh, a yeshiva boy who became a gang member and then wrote about it in plays which "portrayed the street life of Jewish pimps, prostitutes, and criminals in its own raw reality, complete with nasty language and foul behavior."

Read Eddy Portnoy's story about Farbarovitsh, later known as Urke Nahalnik (Yiddish, brazen master criminal).

Yitzhok Farbarovitsh was known as a good kid in the shtetl of Vizne, a small town in Russian-ruled Poland, in the years just before World War I. He excelled in cheder, Jewish elementary school, and, when he reached his tweens, was sent to another town in the Pale of Settlement to attend a yeshiva. Yitzhok was on track to fulfill his mother’s dream that he become a rabbi. But not long after his bar mitzvah, his mother died, sending the Farbarovitsh household into a depression, and throwing Yitzhok’s life onto a different track.

The detailed story contains blockbuster elements: sex, crime, religion, jail, bad boy makes good, theater, spicy Yiddish slang and mentions YIVO along the way.

About one of his plays, the story relates:

Warsaw’s Jewish underworld was not the only group dissatisfied with the play. The socialist Bund’s arts magazine fulminated angrily against what they called theatrical “trash.” On the front page, an editorial griped that “when the prostitutes are on stage, talking their dirty talk, and the thieves are doing business in their pubs and hideouts, it’s ugly, it’s disgusting…. For three hours, the audience and the theater is dragged through the mud.”
The critics didn't like it, but the people did and it was a minor hit.

Farbarovitsh was also involved in some of the first attacks on the Nazis, according to the article, and demanded funding from Jewish underground leaders to organize attacks against the Nazis. Although they refused, he returned to his town of Otwock, outside Warsaw, where he sabotaged rail lines to Treblinka and helped Jews escape the trains and hide in the forest.

He was caught by the Germans in 1942. As he was being led to his execution in Otwock, he attacked his guard and nearby soldiers fatally shot him.

Read the complete story at the link above. Tracing the Tribe is waiting for the next article in the series.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds fascinating. Old newspaper articles are a gold mine for people interested in history.