Blog

Ain’t No Party Like a Shnorer Party: The Wild and Short Life of a Literary Support Group

Eddy Portnoy

If you peruse the New York Yiddish press from the late teens through the early 20s (of the previous century), you will most certainly stumble across advertisements for thousands of events run by a broad host of different Jewish organizations from landsmanshaftn to yeshivas and synagogues, to newspapers and union locals, among many others, all of which advertised their respective dances, picnics, gala dinners, and a plethora of other affairs. Couched among these thousands of mostly pedestrian notices for debates, lectures, readings, protests, and other social gatherings, you may also find advertisements for a smaller variety of public events hosted by a mysterious organization known as “The Shnorer Association.”

Other than these occasional advertisements, only wisps of information about this enigmatic group can be found — in spite of their terribly memorable name. The Shnorer Association, also sometimes known as The Shnorer Club, sponsored a variety of cultural events from 1915 through around 1925. A shnorer, as many In geveb readers will know, is more or less a beggar, although the term has also come to mean a person who begs for money but acts like they deserve it. Who were these shnorers and why did they need to be organized into a formal association? What little we know is that they were a Yiddish arts organization founded in 1915. They arranged readings and events, among them annual Sholem-Aleichem yortsayt concerts. They organized the first Yiddish raves. They had a Shnorer King whose name was Velvl Binder. 1 1 An advertisement for a Shnorer publishing event lists V. Binder as “King of the Shnorers,” Fraye arbeter shtime, 6 April 1918, p. 6, col. 4.

Though it is unclear who actually ran the Shnorers, who belonged to it, and whether or not their king was a ceremonial position, their mission, according to Maurice Schwartz, was to generate interest in quality Yiddish arts, literature, and theater. 2 2 Shvarts, M. “Moris shvartz dertseylt,” 3 April 1941, p. 2. Schwartz, who briefly mentions them in his autobiography, appreciated their work and said that he’d never forget the support they generated for his Art Theater. Not everyone in Yiddishland, however, was so keen on the Shnorers and their activities. Moyshe Shklarsky, best known as the publisher of high tone Yiddish historical works like Bialik and Ravnitski’s Yidishe agodes and Yisroel Tsinberg’s magisterial Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur, admitted that the Shnorers had one of the best Jewish libraries in New York City, but intimated that they didn’t deserve it and that the collection would be better off if they gave it to a group like the Yiddish Teachers’ Seminary. 3 3 Shklarsky, M. “A shpatsir iber di bibliotekn, Fraye arbeter shtime, 10 May 1919, p. 5. Shklarsky also outed two of the key figures in the Shnorer Association as being none other than arch-satirist, Moyshe Nadir, and the subversive poet, Moyshe-Leyb Halperin. Without explaining exactly why (and it would have been very useful to know), Shlkarsky claimed that the Shnorers were a plague that spread cynicism and debauchery over the whole of Yiddish literature and went as far as to liken their literary activity to the destruction of Jerusalem. 4 4 Shklarsky, M. Dos yidish bukh in amerike: a bletl geshikhte, Nyu-york, 1924, pp. 34-35.

The Shnorers apparently wreaked all of this literary havoc from a clubhouse whose location meandered from block to block on the Lower East Side: one year it was on East 4th Street, another year on 2nd Avenue, and yet another on St. Mark’s Place. 5 5 Advertisements indicating the changing locale of the Shnorer clubhouse: Fraye arbeter shtime, 3 January 1920, p. 8, col. 1 Forverts, 1 May 1922, p. 2, col. 2; Morgn frayhayt, 14 March 1925, p. 6 col. 4; among others. In spite of its peregrinations, the Shnorer klub managed to maintain an excellent library, the same library that Shklarsky sheepishly admitted had a stellar collection, the books of which were stamped with official-looking “Shnorer Ass’n” stamps. A number of those books now reside in the YIVO Library.

What we learn from the stamps is that the library actually belonged to an internal subgroup within the Shnorer Association called the “Vinkl grupe” (corner group). Who, what, and why this was is somewhat hazy. And while we don’t know if the Shnorer Club had members in any kind of formal capacity, we do know the origins of at least a part of their library. When the writer and poet Aren Karlin decided to take a trip out west to drum up support for Di feder, a literary magazine he edited, he had to vacate his apartment. He had hundreds of books and didn’t want to pay for storage, so he gave his personal collection to the Shnorers, who turned it into their clubhouse library. They were allegedly supposed to have given it back at some point, but that seems not to have happened. 6 6 Karlin, A. Mayn sakh-hakl: lider un iberzetsungen, Nyu-york 1971, pp. 64-65.

The Shnorers also had an ace in the hole with their own librarian, known only as “Meyer,” a dedicated bibliographer who not only collected books for the Shnorer library in a variety of creative ways, but functioned as a reference librarian extraordinaire, with an alleged ability to answer virtually any question about Jewish history or literature, or at least have the ability to locate it. 7 7 Sh-s, M. “An intervyu mit dem bibliotekar fun di shnorer,” in Unzer vinkl, Nyu York, 1922, pp. 7-9.

The library was quite clearly the Shnorers’ crown jewel. The “Vinkl grupe” that created it was apparently called as such because their library was an attempt to recreated the “vinkl,” or “corner” of the traditional beys-medresh (study hall) of the shtetl, where one could while away the hours immersed in a book, surrounded by sagging shelves of old, worn tomes, though in the Shnorer library, it was in a modern setting that included the best of Yiddish literature, from the Bove-bukh to the latest periodicals. 8 8 Ibid, and Shnorer Ball program, 1920.

In addition to their library, the Shnorers also appear to have had an archive of sorts. Historian Yankev Shatsky records that he used material from their archive for historical research. In his the Goldfaden bukh, a book of memoirs about the father of Yiddish theater, Avrom Goldfaden, Shatsky cites an original Goldfaden letter from the Shnorer Library that proved useful for his work. 9 9 Shatsky, Y. “Goldfadns a brif fun yor 1904,” Goldfadn bukh, Yidish teater muze, New York, 1926, p. 73-75. Where the Shnorer Association got such items isn’t known. But their connections in the Yiddish archival underground were evidently put to good use in obtaining them.

It is also of note that the Shnorer’s Vinkl group was responsible for publishing Moyshe-Leyb Halperin’s first book of poetry, In nyu-york in 1919. They were also supposed to publish Moyshe Nadir’s six-book anthology, Zeks bikher, around the same time. This was a much larger, six volume project, and they ended up publishing it via Verbe Publishers. It’s not clear if the Shnorers were involved with someone else on that project, but these two publications seem to have been the reason that Moyshe Shklarsky didn’t like them. Whatever the case, the Shnorers appear to have ceased their publishing activities after 1919.

Better known for their literary and culture evenings than their library, the Shnorer Association held their first known event in April 1915 in the auditorium of the Forverts building, which included a musical performance, followed by a dramatic reading of the Sholem Asch play, Mitn shtrom (With the Current). 10 10 Advert FAS In the years that followed, they held all manner of literary events, dances, as well as an Anarchist third seder for Passover. 11 11Fraye arbeter shtime, 7 April 1917, p. 1, col. 4.

Literary historians also might find it useful to know that in 1916, the Shnorer Association was the initial organizer of the annual Sholem-Aleichem yortsayt events, joyous affairs at which readings of the great humorist’s work (as he had requested in his will) took place, which they organized and co-sponsored for nearly ten years before they dwindled away and let other organizations take over the event. 12 12 Adverts As with other matters, not everyone was entirely pleased with the Shnorers handling these yortsayt events. Writing in Der tog, B.Z. Goldberg, who happened to be Sholem-Aleichem’s son-in-law, griped that while the early years of the Shnorer sponsorship were great — they conferred with the family, they discussed who would perform, and they published the amount of money donated — by 1923, however, the original Shnorers had disappeared and, according to Goldberg, whoever was in charge then basically did what they wanted without informing anyone. The events were still popular and successful, and what seems obvious is that Goldberg wanted the family consulted and, just maybe, some of the money.

Outside of the annual Sholem-Aleichem events, some of the other affairs held by the Shnorers included a going away party for the poet Shmuel-Yankev Imber, at which a number of well-known Yiddish writers and theater actors performed, among them Celia Adler, Ludwig Satz, Maurice Schwartz, Sholem Asch, Moyshe Nadir, and Imber himself. The event was co-sponsored by the Arbeter Ring branch of the Zlotshover Landsmanshaft, Imber’s hometown organization.

Although not terribly different from any other literary or theatrical readings, what made the Shnorers stand out was the quality of the talent they attracted to their events and also the visual quality of many of their advertisements. It’s unknown who created them, but the Shnorer advertisements are rendered visually in far more interesting ways than virtually all other announcements for similar events throughout the breadth and girth of the Yiddish press. Ads of such an artistic quality skew the historical view, making the reader of 100 years hence think there was something terribly unique or important about this group. Maybe there was. But, also, we really have no idea.

The Shnorers also weren’t relegated to New York – there were Shnorer branches in Chicago and Los Angeles, which also held events, some of which, as a notice that appeared in the Forverts in 1920 tells us, were fundraisers to help support destitute Yiddish writers in Europe. 13 13Forverts, 13 Nov 1920, p. 16, col 5. The Shnorers, it appears, also functioned as kind of a literary support group tended to by both writers and their fans.

In addition to literary events, the Shnorer Association organized annual dances beginning in 1916, which appear to have been truly grandiose affairs. Modeled on the 1890s-era Parisian Bal des Quat’z’ Arts created by the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Shnorer bal fun finf kunstn (Shnorer Ball of Five Arts) appears to have been the Yiddish version of a rave. With crowds of up to five to six thousand attendees all dressed in costumes that were in some way related to arts, music, or literature, the Shnorers would dress up and party and dance all night long to live music.

The Seven Rules of Our Ball

1) Time: Shabbos evening, 13 November 1920.

2) Place: Hunt’s Point Palace 163rd St, Southern Boulevard (It’s in America).

    3, 4, 5, 6) Costumes: You have to show up dressed as one of the five arts. Figures from literature, drama, music, painting, and sculpture.

    7) Dancing: Are you serious? Until 6am.

    8) Decorations: Leave it to the Shnorer artists.

    9) Music: Shiller’s band will not let you sleep.

    10) Know-it-alls: the real deal.

    11) Gifts: One of them will be the historical goat.

    12) A bargain: One ticket, 99 cents, includes war tax, and clothing, and this, that, and the other.

    All night parties with 6000 Jews decked out in literary and artistic costumes, the Shnorer Balls must have been wild. One can only imagine the thousands of partiers cosplaying their favorite characters from literature and the arts all at the behest of the Shnorers. Tragically, there don’t appear to be any reviews, reminiscences, or photographs of these events. What happened at the Shnorer Ball apparently stayed at the Shnorer Ball. An ongoing mystery, the Shnorers seem to have thrown the best parties Yiddish immigrant New York ever saw.

    And yet, all that’s left of them is some old advertisements and their stamp in a bunch of their old library books in YIVO’s library. Once the avant-garde of the Yiddish literary party world, they have almost completely disappeared. Like many things in the Yiddish world and in life in general, the Shnorers passed into a nether world of forgotten greatness. What was it like to go to their library, or one of their literary events? Or, better yet, one of their famed Shnorer Balls of Five Arts? It is our cultural tragedy that we’ll never get to know the tastes, the smells, and the sounds of a Shnorer Ball. We can read and write all we want about Yiddish literature, but what do we know about the communities of readers that were created? How did readers of Yiddish create those communities and how did they function? For those of us who yearn for analog culture, there may be a lot to see here. And it may just be that we’re too deep into a multiplicity of different media to even grasp what it might have been like to live culture this way. The Shnorers raise more questions than answers.

    MLA STYLE
    Portnoy, Eddy. “Ain’t No Party Like a Shnorer Party: The Wild and Short Life of a Literary Support Group.” In geveb, October 2023: https://ingeveb.org/blog/shnorer.
    CHICAGO STYLE
    Portnoy, Eddy. “Ain’t No Party Like a Shnorer Party: The Wild and Short Life of a Literary Support Group.” In geveb (October 2023): Accessed Mar 02, 2024.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Eddy Portnoy