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).

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 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.

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

Yom Kippur Occupies Wall Street

As the Forward reports, hundreds of Jews (and others, one presumes) gathered in the midst of the ongoing financial district protests on Friday and Saturday for Yom Kippur prayers:

The high point came during one part of the sermon, as Getzel’s voice rose louder and louder:

“Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf! What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship! It is the fallacy that gold is God!”

...There are plans to build a sukkah at New York’s Occupy Wall Street and to continue holding Shabbat services until the protest is over.

That Jews should become involved in this (largely) economic protest is unsurprising. As Steven Windmueller has written, the economic upheaval of recent years has "devastating implications" for the Jewish community. Much economic coverage in Jewish media sources have focused on the effects of this crisis on Jewish philanthropists and communal organizations, but Windmueller also notes that "A new class of 'near-poor and new poor' Jews is one of the outcomes of this economic crisis." Jews, too, can be have-nots.

Speaking personally, it rubs me the wrong way that an occasion for repentance should be mixed up in an occasion of rebuking/protesting the actions of others. Of course all of us should criticize society when we feel societal structures are unjust, but shouldn't Yom Kippur be a day when it is important to turn around the scrutiny on oneself, focusing on one's own actions, beliefs, and responsibilities rather than on others? A sermon such as the one quoted above, attacking the greed/idolatry of others (a perfectly appropriate topic for another day) seems to miss the mark, in my opinion, on that day. Yom Kippur should be a day to ask urgently: what am I doing wrong?

Click here for more BJPA resources on the economy.

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

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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.

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From the J-Vault: Immigrant Jewish American Farmers

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The year is 1902, and Jewish organizations are welcoming poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and teaching them a new way of life -- a new way to think about being Jewish, a new vocation, and a new relationship to the land. They are teaching these new immigrants to be farmers.

This description, however, has nothing to do with the kibbutz movement, or with the Yishuv (the pre-1948 Zionist Jewish community in the land of Israel). The land to which these Ashkenazic-refugees-turned-yeoman-farmers had immigrated was America.

This week from the J-Vault: Agriculture, A Most Effective Means to Aid Jewish Poor (1902)

"Whenever one of the Jewish poor drifts into a smaller community," writes Rabbi A.R. Levy, "and there applies for help to the Jewish residents, he is generally shipped to the nearest large city where, it is assumed, he must find work in the sweatshop or in the factory." This is undesirable, Levy explains, not only because the lifestyle is inherently unpleasant, but because the tightly packed "ghetto" life in urban centers mixes poorly with the character traits Levy perceives in Eastern European Jewish immigrants. (Levy's condescension to his immigrant kin is sadly characteristic of the attitude of many early 20th century Jews born in America.)

The better solution, according to Levy, is the one advocated by the Jewish Agriculturists' Aid Society of America.

Farm life works wonders, Levy reports:

A most marked and happy change in the character of our Jewish farmers ds the self-reliance they manifest... Our farmers go about their work with an air of self-reliance that is cheering and encouraging. It has been said that no work within the scope of human activity makes for the better in all that is good in human character as does tilling the soil. Our farmers are a telling testimony to the truth of this assertion.

Farm life also means isolation from other Jews, and from Jewish communities. Levy acknowledges this, but claims that such isolation has "proven to be of no damaging effect as far as the religious life and habit of the Jew is concerned." Indeed, being disconnected from traditional religious observance seems, to Levy, to be a positive rather than a negative factor:

No one will fail to recognize the virtue of the religious practices and habits of the Russian Jews as they are maintained by him in Russia. They are undeniably overdone and exaggerated, but they are eminently helpful to the life as it must be lived by him in Russia. For, where man's activity in the sphere of usefulness is so limited that he is forced to exist in idleness, it is the height of wisdom that he betakes himself to the field of religious enjoyment. Long and many prayers, many and extravagant ceremonies that require much time and attention are, under stated conditions, a true blessing... However, to follow up such ceremonies where divine and human agencies offer an opportunity for honest and useful toil, would lie working against the interest of religion and not for it... [T]he life of usefulness on the farm will wean him of, and bring him away from many a superfluous ceremony and obsolete observance, the practice of which is more in accord with superstition than with religion.

Read the whole article here.

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Barriers to Jewish Participation: Poverty

Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute addresses the problem of financial need among some unaffiliated American Jews in an article for e-Jewish philanthropy:

At any given time, the majority of US Jewish households are not affiliated with Jewish institutions like synagogues or JCCs. There are many reasons why, perhaps the most important being that the organized community hasn’t made a strong enough case for the meaning and value of being affiliated. There’s a subset of the unaffiliated, however, who already understand the meaning and value – or who, like most affiliated households, simply want or need the services provided – but do not affiliate because of their own personal financial situations. And the size of this subset has likely grown during the recent Great Recession.

The problem, writes Golin, is not that Jewish organizations are unwilling to make accomodation. "[T]here is almost universal agreement among Jewish communal professionals that their organizations will make accommodations," he explains. "However, how that actually works is in no way uniform and in fact represents a serious barrier to participation. In most organizations, those accommodations are not advertised in any way – the impetus is on the financially-challenged to ask for assistance."

 Rabbi Mordechai Liebling made a similar point in 2005 in an article called "Money in Synagogues":

Many congregations state that dues payments should not be a barrier to membership, and reduced rates are available. But studies show that the process of applying for a dues reduction is humiliating. In some congregations the process itself is unfriendly — even to the point of asking for income tax forms.

(A digression: it's comical to me that we need studies in order to tell us that asking for a dues reduction is humiliating.) Rabbi Liebling also points out, however, that the outright payment of dues is not the only way in which socioeconomic status can become a barrier:

How obligated is the institution to help members feel comfortable? Little can be done about the cars members drive, the schools children attend, or the vacations families enjoy. But a great deal can be done about the assumptions that the synagogue makes. The synagogue needs to be very conscious of the underlying economic assumptions made vis-à-vis programs and public statements. Presuming that everyone is at least “middle class” and won’t have trouble spending the extra $10 or $20 for a special program or school event is incorrect.

Celebrations are perhaps the most visible manifestation of wealth differences. Synagogues can set standards or guidelines about the lavishness of a kiddush or even a bar or a bat mitzvah party... Hundreds of years ago medieval Jewry created sumptuary laws to regulate conspicuous consumption; perhaps we need to reconsider them.

To learn more about poverty in the American Jewish community, start with "Economic Vulnerability in the American Jewish Community", a report based on the the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-1. In 2008, the AJC published "The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvement and Barriers". The BJPA also has many more holdings under the topic of Socioeconomic Status.