The Jew Box: An Interview with Eddy Portnoy

Sarah Ellen Zarrow


Eddy Port­noy is Senior Researcher and Exhi­bi­tion Cura­tor at the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research in New York City. He also serves on In gevebs Board of Direc­tors. He sat down with Man­ag­ing Edi­tor Sarah Zarrow to dis­cuss the future of Yid­dish teach­ing, Yid­dish humor, and boxing. 

Professional Jokers,” much of the material was loaned, but for the YIVO sections of the exhibit, I specifically curated Yiddish material. You can find something in Yiddish that fits the bill somehow because there’s such a ridiculously wide variety of things, it just can’t be helped. I think that no matter what the exhibit is, there’s always something in Yiddish to include.

SZ: In terms of the Yiddish-speaking public, and the Yiddish-loving public, which might be two separate groups, are there topics that seem particularly popular? Some of your exhibits have been a little controversial. . . .

EP: Well, I don’t know about controversial, but as an example: the first exhibit I did was Yiddish Fight Club, which was based on scholarly research performed by YIVO linguists in the 1920s. Basically linguists went out into the streets of Vilna and Warsaw and collected the language of Yiddish-speaking street thugs. It was very forward-thinking to seek out material like this—but this is how linguists think; they’re very forward-thinking people. So that exhibit was a combination of research I had done on Jewish professional wrestlers and boxers, combined with this vocabulary collected by YIVO in the 1920s. So it was essentially a linguistic exhibit, combined with an element of sport and popular culture. As a result, I think both groups, Yiddish-speaking and Yiddish-loving, were interested.

SZ: Ripped from the pages of Filologishe shriftn.

EP: Right, exactly! It was a gag to write it like that, but it’s really what it was. The original article came from the first volume of Filologishe shriftn, which was YIVO’s first publication. I think Yiddishists liked it for obvious reasons. It’s a language exhibit, an exhibit about language. And then some time after that, I can’t remember when, probably months later, the people who do development and social media wanted a hook for an online quiz, and it was suggested that they do “do you know your Yiddish curses” quiz. Which we did, and it was the most popular thing they had ever done online. But it appealed to a completely different audience. Yiddish Fight Club appealed to everyone, because it had academic/linguistic and pop culture components and was thus kind of well-rounded. But the quiz offended some Yiddishists, for obvious reasons. It pigeonholed Yiddish as a kitschy, novelty language, as if it’s good for curses and jokes and that’s about it. I don’t necessarily care either way—as far as I’m concerned, if you want to interest people in Yiddish, especially those who have no idea what it is, you have to give them some element of what they know, or what they’re familiar with, and people tend to be familiar with these things—curses and jokes, they’re entertaining and people tend to like them.

One of the issues at hand is that, to a certain degree, YIVO has a branding problem. When I tell people who are unfamiliar with it that I work at a place called “YIVO,” they’re like, “what?” They don’t know what that means. It has to be explained . . .YIVO is a Yiddish acronym, who’s going to know that? Obviously, only the people who are already connected to it, academically or otherwise. As an organization, it has to constantly evolve its programming to appeal to different audiences. YIVO unfortunately can’t live on the goodwill of Yiddishists. It’s too bad because, they do have a lot of goodwill. But you can’t survive on it, you have to appeal to a much broader audience. In a way, I feel bad. Maybe I don’t feel bad, I don’t know. I completely understand them, but it’s easier to get people’s attention with a pop culture hook than by doing something about noun declension in Estonian Yiddish dialects. If YIVO is going to survive, it needs a broad base. Yiddish is obviously a part of that, but it’s not the whole thing. You have to appeal to a wide audience.

SZ: Is there a difference between the public-facing realm and the academy there?

EP: Yes, definitely. The academics and Yiddishists who work at YIVO and use their resources understand its history and what it is. There is also an informed public who also understands what YIVO is. But the broader Jewish public has no idea and this is the problem we run up against in trying to raise funding. As a result, YIVO has to appeal to people who have never heard of Max Weinreich or Ber Borokhov. They have, however, heard of Fiddler on the Roof and, for better or for worse, that is the direction you have to take. In spite of that, it’s not all pop culture. YIVO has and will always have high level academic lectures and exhibits on serious topics. My personal interests are in popular culture, but the whole picture has to be a mix of high, low, and everything in between.

But even in the academy, especially now, if you want students to take your classes, you can’t just call it “Modern Yiddish Literature.” You have to have a sexy title to try to get students into humanities classes. It’s really difficult. You have to come up with a compelling title, compelling class topics. Even things I did [in the university] that were considered guaranteed winners, like “Jews and the Graphic Novel,” had diminishing enrollment. fifty students one year, twenty-five two years later, then ten students. It’s a huge problem, it’s been all over the Chronicle of Higher Ed and elsewhere. Other than “terrible,” I don’t know any other way to describe it.

SZ: I was told, if I was doing a course on European Jewish history, regardless of time frame, that I should put the word “Holocaust” in the title, to “sex it up.”

EP: Of course! Because the Holocaust is very sexy.

SZ: This gets me to another question. We wanted to ask you about Yiddish and American pop culture, as one of your research and curatorial interests. It seems that Yiddish is often portrayed as vulgar on the one hand, and mournful and elegiac on the other. How have these opposing or complementary images of Yiddish shaped its afterlife, or the postvernacular?

EP: To a large degree, as far as pop culture goes, it’s not so lachrymose, or at least the perception of it isn’t. Unless you’re dealing with the Holocaust—if there’s a Holocaust Yiddish pop culture matter, I can’t really think of one off the top of my head, although whenever there’s a movie, and they want to use a Yiddish song, and it’s a sad scene, they use “Afn pripetshik,” which is really annoying.

SZ: And it’s in the Roman Vishniac book, Children of a Vanished World, as well, with the song interspersed among the images.

EP: And that’s interesting to me, Yiddish with images. There’s no language, but the pictures invoke Yiddish. Oh! It’s so funny, this is right here. . . . I was just looking at this letter. This is a cool thing about working in YIVO, that I can just turn around and say, here is a letter . . . it’s a letter from Ab. Cahan to the photographer Menakhem Kipnis, telling him what kinds of things to shoot. He basically says, “shoot Yiddishy things.” They curated this idea of a Yiddish image. Pre-Holocaust. But then people see that, when they see Polish Jewry, they think Holocaust. It’s a professional hazard. That was one of the values of Yiddish Fight Club. I got to show all of these boxers and wrestlers from Poland. They weren’t being murdered, and they weren’t in yeshiva. How do you express the existence of a broad, well-rounded community? People don’t want that, they want it simple, in a little box. It’s like a Jew box. Here’s my box, here’s what it looks like, there’s a little Jew in it. And he can only look one way.

SZ: I think you’re right, unfortunately. I come up against it in my teaching all the time.

EP: Yeah—so the elegiac, lachrymose sensibility of Yiddish is not as . . . when you see pictures, yes, people think that. But in pop culture, Yiddish as a comic foil is a much more common phenomenon. It really fascinates me, and Jewface was the origin of that in America. It’s not even Yiddish; there’s little actual Yiddish in it. A few Yiddish words here and there, and the accent. But it’s the first time it happens, and it sets a precedent. Other cultures have it too, at the same time, but it lasts so much longer with Yiddish. You still have people telling jokes in Yiddish accents! It never disappeared. It’s so tenacious, and I find that so compelling as a cultural and linguistic phenomenon. The masses of immigrants stop coming in the mid-1920s. That accent, it’s unstoppable. It’s so weird. But you know what? It keeps me busy.

SZ: Will you talk a little about this most recent exhibit you were working on?

EP: I love the old Jewish comedians. Despite the fact that 90 percent of them changed their names, they were beholden to this sort of postvernacular Yiddish. Most of them used Yiddish in their acts. I recently got a cassette tape of old roasts, and the content is so very Jewish.

In the panel the other night, I mentioned this: there’s a roast of this Italian comedian, Pat Henry—another name-changer, I believe his real name was Patrick Henry Scarnato. He was close with Frank Sinatra, in fact, Sinatra was at the roast. And Milton Berle was there, and George Jessel was there, and Jan Murray was running it, Sid Gould . . . you don’t know these people!

SZ: I know Milton Berle!

EP: So one of the issues that comes up whenever you talk about Milton Berle is his penis. It’s unfortunate. But these old comedian obsessors, they can’t stop talking about it. It’s like a constant topic. Our panel spent nearly fifteen minutes talking about it. This legend is like seventy years old and the jokes about it are legion. Anyhow, at this particular roast, Sid Gould got up and said, “if you lined up Pat Henry, Guy Marks, and Milton Berle, and put their shlongs next to one another, you could bring in a woman to braid the khale.” It’s outrageous, but this joke brings down the house. I told this joke at the panel on Monday night, and there were a lot of laughs, but it didn’t bring the house down. It’s a generational thing. These comedians probably saw their mothers and grandmothers braiding khale, which makes the image in the joke that much more monstrous. How many people still braid a khale? Most people buy now.

I don’t know why I just told you that. You probably shouldn’t put it in the interview. But the number of Yiddish terms bandied about at that roast was significant and completely commonplace. As for the exhibit, there’s a whole wall of record albums most of which have Yiddish in them. If you want to talk about postvernacular Yiddish, that is an incredible location for it. Comedy recordings from the ‘50s and ‘60s are chock-full of postvernacular Yiddish. It would be a great study. In fact, I would suggest to readers of In geveb that some student look at that. There’s so much more to say. That’s one of the values of putting up an exhibit like this. First of all, no one expects you to put up an exhibit like this at a historical institute, because this is crap to a lot of people. But it’s also hugely valuable culturally, especially if you consider the role of postvernacular Yiddish in American culture.

SZ: I want to switch directions a little, and talk about Yiddish and gender, Yiddish and masculinity.

EP: I’m a terrible person to ask about this! You have books by Janet Hadda and Naomi Seidman, you have stereotypes of weak Jewish men and strong Jewish women, which is actually kind of a nice stereotype. For me, I wasn’t really thinking about gender when I did the Yiddish Fight Club exhibit. I was thinking about language. I did think to myself, I don’t really like the fact that all the figures in the exhibit are men. So I got a photograph, two or three photographs, of Jewish women’s boxing classes from various places, from Washington Heights, from White Plains. I wanted to put them in the exhibit, but then there was a whole wall I was supposed to be able to use that got cut out of the exhibition space. So we couldn’t use them. I did, however, use them all in my lecture at the opening. I wanted to show that this was a modern society, and yes, obviously professional boxing and wrestling is dominated by men, but women are doing this stuff too, even in the 1920s. Showing an image of women boxing allows you to broaden your perspective on immigrant Jewish women.

Everyone has these preconceived ideas about late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Jews, and whether it’s got to do with gender or not, one of the things I want to do is just break the stereotype, to show that this was a community where people did everything. Men did all sorts of things, women did all sorts of things. I wrote an article in The Drama Review, in which there are all sorts of sideshow performers in Poland before World War II, some really transgressive people. . . there’s all kind of stuff that Jews did. People don’t know, and should know. It’s the Jew box, and what people look at when they peer inside. They always see these old-world Jews. The reality was that it wasn’t like that at all. It’s not just gender. I just want to show a world that people today don’t expect, but that was actually pretty common.

SZ: Could you pontificate at all about the future of Yiddish, not as a spoken language, but institutionally, in the academy or elsewhere, and in culture more broadly?

EP: It’s hard to say. In universities . . . I was hired to teach Yiddish, but once Rutgers instituted a policy to not run classes with fewer than eleven students, that was essentially the end of Yiddish at Rutgers. I never had more than ten. I understand that there’s an economic impetus to save money, but at what expense? As there’s more and more distance from immigrant generations, there’s less and less interest in Yiddish. Obviously Hebrew classes have more students than Yiddish classes. But for any student who wants to study European Jewish history, or American Jewish history, at least at a certain time period, they have to know Yiddish. And there have to be places where they can learn it. Obviously the YIVO summer program, the Beit Sholem Aleichem summer program—there are all these summer programs. But to be able to take a semester-long course in the language, where it’s constantly being enforced is invaluable. The summer programs, as great as they are, are short and intensive, and it’s easy to burn out. Losing semester-long courses is sad, and bad for the field. But online classes, like what Kolya Borodulin and Pearl Teitelbaum run, are fantastic. You have students from all over. And YIVO is running its first online class—I think you have something to do with it—and it’s so popular. I think that’s an interesting way to do things, as technology develops and improves. Just for the practice of speaking Yiddish, it’s a great thing.

Roundtable on Professional Jokers: Jewish Jesters from the Golden Age of American Comedy, YIVO

Zarrow, Sarah Ellen. “The Jew Box: An Interview with Eddy Portnoy.” In geveb, April 2016:
Zarrow, Sarah Ellen. “The Jew Box: An Interview with Eddy Portnoy.” In geveb (April 2016): Accessed Feb 26, 2024.


Sarah Ellen Zarrow

Sarah Zarrow is on the editorial board of In geveb. She is Professor of Jewish History at Western Washington University, where she teaches courses in Jewish history and the Holocaust.