On the "Native Shrewdness" of Jewish Hoboes

[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.

Thus wrote Ralph Astrofsky in March 1928, in the Jewish Social Service Quarterly (now the Journal of Jewish Communal Service).

J-Vault logo

 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.

Download this publication...

More information about this publication...

Other J-Vault items...

J-Vault logo

To learn more about Jewish homelessness and poverty in the greater New York area in our times, visit the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

Who Will Rest, and Who Will Wander: The Jewish Transient & Yom Kippur

J-Vault logo

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time...

During this week leading up to Yom Kippur, many Jews will ponder the words of the High Holiday prayer Unetanneh Tokef, which promises that the unique mitzvah of giving tzedakah can improve one's prospects for the coming year.

...Who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning....

As the weather turns colder here in New York, our thoughts may turn to those who have no homes to keep out the cold.

...Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

This week, a special holiday J-Vault: The Jewish Transient (1932)

"Throughout our history," said Emma S. Schreiber at the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, "responsibility for the stranger has been one of the finest examples of the manifest actions of our social conscience." But Schreiber did not intend to flatter the Jewish community; instead, she painted a bleak picture of a terrible problem:

Jewish communities themselves, believe that [Jewish] transients turn to Jewish resources almost entirely. Seven of the 85 communities [in a nationwide study] reported free use of non-Jewish facilities, while the others felt that Jewish transients use them to a limited extent or not at all...

...Discussions with shelter caretakers, representatives of shelter groups, and individuals in the community clearly show that these groups despise the transient, even while they consider it essential to extend him shelter service. The condition of the shelters is the best proof that this spirit exists. In a general way, the Jewish transient is certain of a minimum amount of care in the elementary necessities of food and shelter. In individual cases, the provision is generous. Usually, transients can expect from one to three nights' care and two or three meals a day, although practices vary greatly from place to place. But beyond these elementary provisions, the administration, in terms of sanitation, is below any acceptable community standard...

...All age groups are represented in the transient population, but the Jewish transient is more likely to be in the age group 20 to 30 and less likely to fall into the ages 60 and over... Seventy-nine and three tenths per cent were single men and only 9.5% reported no kinship ties. Almost half of the transients who claimed relatives reported parents as the nearest tie. The Jewish transient is not close to the immigrant period. Fifty-seven and six-tenths per cent were native born and even the foreign born had been in the country long enough to become citizens. Eighty-seven and five-tenths per cent were citizens and 8.4% had their first papers.

Interested? Download the entire publication.

But repentance (teshuvah), and prayer (tefillah), and charity (tzedakah) avert the severity of the decree!

Please consider a donation to one of the many organizations working to end homelessness. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty provides housing for the homeless, and of course there are many fine non-sectarian agencies, such as Pathways to Housing and Project Renewal. (Know of more? Please share them in the comments section.)

Gemar chatimah tovah.

J-Vault logo