[A] steady stream of Jewish hoboes, jocularly known in their own circles as "trombenicks," knocks at the doors of charity day in and day out, begging for food, clothing and shelter...As in every other walk of life, the Jew has fully contributed his peculiarly characteristic subtlety, native shrewdness, and quaint dry humor to the already baffling person of the hobo, like pungent oil poured over an inextinguishable flame.
From the J-Vault: "Trombenicks" or Jewish Hoboes (1928)
Astrofsky is writing not as a disconnected observer, but rather as a social services worker who has been immersed in helping Jewish hoboes:
I have interviewed two thousand men in some four years, listened to their hard luck stories, heard them tell their experience in their colorful language, and observed the reckless disregard of the accepted conventions and open contempt for the contented and respectable wage-earners by the more misanthropic vagrants...
"Nature won't let me break away," "Jerusalem Slim" told me. He was one of a large and poor family who had to leave his home at the age of fifteen to support himself, and he has been a hobo since. "In school, some guys were naturally born math sharks, but nuts, say, in history. Well, I'm the nut in the course of life. But I should worry. Some guys can even beat life and play tricks on it, but I'm always the grand joke. Maybe, if I was a fink (professional strike-breaker) I could make enough money to settle down. But I got my principles. Oh, well, I guess I'm a bum and ain't got no excuse."
Unafraid of sweeping generalization, Astrofsky compares Jewish and Gentile hoboes:
The Jewish hobo who, in spite of himself, drifts into vagabondage, becomes more enthralled to the road after each futile effort to free himself, but unlike his Christian companion, still expects at some future date liberation and a home through marriage. Your Gentile hobo loses hope, fills his stomach with rotten liquor at every opportunity, and shoots needles into his arms to relieve his aching heart. The Jewish tramp will take refuge in metaphysics or "riddles," as he calls it, break up a game of dice to which he is not adapted, and start a poker game instead...
Unlike the Gentile hobo, the "trombenick" does not allow himself as readily to become the victim of an older and unscrupulous tramp of homo-sexual tendencies, commonly known among them as a "wolf." Sex perversion is generally frowned upon by Jewish hoboes, although they freely indulge their normal desires in the cheapest brothels where they never once fail to admonish an inhabitant of their own faith for her disgraceful profession.
The whole piece, written shortly before the onset of the Great Depression, is fascinating reading. In the following years, Astrofsky followed it up with Homeless and Transients, Report of the National Committee on Transients, and A National Approach to the Transient Problem.
To learn more about Jewish homelessness and poverty in the greater New York area in our times, visit the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.