Simon Rabinovitch on Yiddish Fight Club
Yiddish is rich in the vocabulary of street-violence, taken from the ring, the docks, and the factories of Eastern Europe and New York. A new exhibit highlighting this language called Yiddish Fight Club, created by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and on display at the Center for Jewish History in New York until September 1, has garnered broad media coverage, including articles in the New York Times, Haaretz, and a feature on NPR’s Only a Game. When I asked the exhibit’s curator (and MRB contributor), Eddy Portnoy, why he thought the modest exhibit has become the focus of so much attention, he answered that the key to its success has been in capturing just the right balance of weirdness couched in real scholarship. The single long wall that makes up the exhibit displays larger than life black and white images of Jewish wrestlers and boxers juxtaposed with Yiddish terms used to describe the specific techniques of violence they might inflict on one another.
If, for example, you’d like to suggest you will beat someone lightly, you’d say to him “kh’vel dikh drazgen.” If you’d like to warn someone of a more severe beating, you have a lot of options, but you might want to suggest “kh’vel dikh doyresn” (I’ll trample you). How so? Well, you might want to make “a bentsh in kop” (literally, to put a blessing on his head) — in other words, to smash him in the head with a piece of wood. But be careful. Yiddish is a nuanced language, so if you prefer instead to use a stick, that bentsh would be called a palmes (literally, an autopsy), or to beat with a non-wooden object would be to give a solid “mek iberen kop” (a “mak” on the head). Yiddish has many words for putting hand to face, including a flask or a frask, for an open-handed slap, flik for a hard smack, shtaysl for an uppercut under the chin, klung for a punch in the teeth, or dos bintl finger — literally a bundle of fingers — for a punch in the mouth; all of which should be delivered with enough strength to leave your khsime (your signature of course!) on your adversary’s face. The vocabulary for punches, kicks, and jabs elsewhere to one’s body is equally colorful and variegated.
The root of the exhibit’s popularity and surprisingly extensive news coverage, Portnoy suggested, may also lie in the way it contradicts “the popular stereotype that Jews don’t do this sort of thing.” Jews did of course do this sort of thing, and developed a vocabulary to describe it. In fact, the exhibit is based on an article called “Fighting Words” that appeared in Filologishe shriftn, published by YIVO in 1926, when it was still based in Vilna (then Poland). The images and short biographies of Jewish wrestlers and boxers in the exhibit Portnoy intended as a hook to encourage people to learn about Yiddish, a point much of the news coverage has misunderstood.
Portnoy has been on the forefront of scholarship on Jewish popular culture, chronicling the Jewish strongmen, fakirs, and wrestlers of Poland and the United States in the early 20th century. It may be difficult to imagine today, but in 1920s Warsaw, professional wrestling was a spectacle and sport with a large Hasidic Jewish fan following, where crowds of the faithful would chant psalms to empower their favorite Jewish wrestler locked in battle with a Pole, a Ukrainian, or one of the other national participants in Warsaw’s wrestling season. That’s right, wrestling season, which followed circus season and ran through May and June, took the format of an international tournament pitting representatives of the world’s various nationalities against one another in violent — albeit fixed — feats of grappling. Whether the wrestlers actually hailed from the countries they purportedly represented was questionable, and in one sordid incident in 1922 a Ukrainian wrestler appealed to the crowd from the ring that the entire tournament was concocted by a cabal of German Jews.
Each year the tournament concluded with a Polish wrestler facing off against a Jewish wrestler, and the Jew losing. Jews were not only wrestlers in Warsaw’s tournaments but also made up the majority of the audience. When the infamous Polish wrestler Leon Pinyetski — a.k.a. the “Polish National Hercules” — kept winning with his signature full-nelson, many fans doubted his authenticity due to his “Jewish nose” and some even travelled to Lodz to determine his origins, claiming to out him as one Leybush Pinhas. In Europe and in the United States Jewish wrestlers became local heroes, and wrestling a relatively safe outlet — not only among Jews — for the rivalries of national groups living in the close quarters of teeming urban centers.
Wrestling was a safe outlet for the rivalries of national groups living in the close quarters.
Colorful personalities peppered the wrestling scene, perhaps none more so than Jack (Yankev) Pfefer who, to quote Portnoy, “was the pioneer of introducing freakery into wrestling.” Pfefer, who carried a cane with an ivory knob handle, claimed to have started out managing opera singers and turned to importing Jewish wrestlers from Warsaw to New York. Among the fighters in Pfefer’s stable was Max Krauser, who began his career in Lodz but was on tour in Australia when World War II broke out. Krauser travelled to the United States by ship (where the registry listed his occupation as “wrestler”) and spent a long career fighting for Pfefer. Among Pefer’s other wrestlers were Abie “The Jewish Tarzan” Coleman, Blimp Levy, and the father of Israeli bodybuilding, Rafael Halperin.
Wrestlers almost by definition have idiosyncratic biographies, but Halperin’s is in a class of its own: born in Vienna, Halperin moved to Palestine as a child and settled with his family in the religious neighborhood of Bnai Barak, received permission from his rabbi (Avrom Yeshaye Karelitz, also known as the Chazon Ish) to take up weight-lifting, started a chain of gyms in Israel, began wrestling and promoting, served as personal trainer to Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, got into trouble with the police, ran (and lost) for mayor of Tel Aviv, returned to Yeshiva, founded a political party (called Otzma, strength), and became extraordinarily wealthy through businesses including hotels, restaurants, the most successful optical chain in Israel, and, finally, a kosher ice cream shop with separate lines for men and women.
Jewish involvement in sports in general, and boxing in particular, has become something of a scholarly fetish, and certainly the topic of Jews in theater of all kinds has received its share of attention too. But this genre, combining theater and sports into a single form of entertainment, has largely escaped scholarly attention, despite the rich vocabulary and personalities involved. Partly this is because wrestling left less of a written record, but it is also because as Jews moved into the American middle class they took to forms of entertainment they associated with the class they aspired to, and wrestling — let alone the Yiddish vocabulary of street fighting — was little more than a strange relic from poorer days.
I asked Portnoy if he knows if Yiddish-speaking Jews in the Hasidic communities around the world still use this vocabulary. He apparently showed his glossary to an ex-Hasid friend from Brooklyn who confirmed that some of the expressions are still used today, I imagine especially among Hasidic children, who, like all other children, fight with their friends and noogie their brothers.
By the way, ever wonder how to say noogie in Yiddish? Barne. You’re welcome.