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.

What Do We Owe Peter Stuyvesant? Jewish and Non-Sectarian Social Services

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"In 1652, Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New Amsterdam, now New York, received a promise from the Jews who came to settle there that they (the Jews) would care for their own poor. Ever since then, the Jews of this country have prided themselves that this sacred promise which the first Jewish settlers in America made has never been broken."

With this quote I.M. Rubinow opens his discussion of the relationship between Jewish social services and the broader social and economic trends, questioning whether the story reflects "good history", and, more importantly, challenging the notion that it reflects "good sociology, good social ethics or good social work."

From the J-Vault: What Do We Owe to Peter Stuyvesant? (1930)

Speaking at the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, Rubinow asks: "Have we made a promise? Just what kind of a promise did we make? Have we fulfilled the pledge? And is the promise still binding?" The original promise not to be "a burden" was originally a concession to "Stuyvesant's bigotry", according to sources Rubinow quotes.

If this be a promise, evidently it was obtained under duress, under threat of expulsion... It would be funny if it were not so sad. For as a matter of fact, this whole misconception, supported by a curious mixture of holy tradition, race pride, and a typical Jewish sense of group guilt, has definitely colored both the theory and practice of our work, and much of the social philosophy of the American Jewish community. No more tragic illustration may be found of the truth of the statement that necessity may be made into a virtue...

In any event, Rubinow explains, this "promise" has not really been kept:

non-Jewish contributions have been made to Jewish drives and campaigns. They have been diplomatically solicited in secret. Just why do we find a situation of this nature so very damaging to our pride? Is it because we are still a "chosen people" ? Is it because we still live in a ghetto and must not disclose our sores to the enemy? Is it because we are so proud, or because we are afraid to admit the ugly truth?

Rubinow argues that the truth is that the Jewish community cannot continue to conceive of its socioeconomic needs as existing in a vacuum:

Jewish poverty is not a result of intra-group conditions. It is a part and parcel of the whole economic and social problem of wealth production and wealth accumulation of the country as a whole. The expectation that the problem of Jewish poverty can be met individually, may be hoped to be eliminated irrespective of those general economic forces, is an expression of excessive group pride uncontrolled by scientific research and thinking. The sermon of independent group responsibility becomes a definite anti-social force if it destroys Jewish force—if it destroys Jewish interest, and Jewish participation in national progressive social movements.

Jewish communal and social service should not therefore be subsumed into larger social movements, however:

Jewish social service... has largely grown for at least three reasons: (1) To perform functions which, otherwise, would have been left undone. (2) To give expression to the need and desire of communal co-operation. (3) To enable the Jewish minority to make its contribution to development of cultural, ethical and even social values and concepts in the community in which we live.

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Why Do Jews Cluster in Certain Jobs?

...We know perfectly well, judging from experience in New York and other cities, that the Irish make very good policemen and firemen. The Scotch have more than their proportionate share of excellent engineers, the Norwegians predominate in navigation, and the Italians and Germans have had more than their share of musical leaders. Why may not the Jews make good lawyers? Why may not the Jews indulge in scientific research and do very good work in the field of medicine?

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This week, from the J-Vault: Jews in Commerce and the Professions (1934)

In 1934, a City College professor of philosophy named Morris R. Cohen addressed the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service in an erudite and wide-ranging discussion of American Jews' employment patterns, dwelling on the area he knew best: the professoriate.

I was once lecturing at one of the eastern universities, and was staying overnight with a friend, a dean of the university. The next morning, in the intimacy of the breakfast table, he turned to. me and said, "Why do you Jews crowd so much into the professions? Why don't you go into industry and agriculture?" Well, as a Jew, I naturally answered by asking him, "Is that what you think of my lecture last night?"...

...The conversation changed, the way it will, but a little later I asked my host: "By the way, what is your boy doing at Princeton? Has he decided whether he is going into the teaching of philosophy or into the ministry ?"My host replied: " No, he has decided to take up law. You see, his mother's father, and his uncles are in this law firm, and the family has been in that firm for quite a while. His mother thinks it would be a good thing for him to continue.in the family tradition." Whereupon I asked: "Well, have you ever thought of sending him into industry or agriculture?"...

...how can you ask a Jewish college graduate to become a stevedore or a truckman or to go into any of those occupations which non-Jewish college graduate do not enter? Why should you expect, that Jewish college graduates will enter into those occupations which non-Jewish- college graduates do not enter? It is absurd to expect it and it doesn't seem to me that we should urge it. It is true that in the old world you will find Jewish scholars who are also workingmen. I have known a tailor who was regarded as one of the most learned men in his town. That is undoubtedly frequent, in Europe and to a certain extent it may even be true in this country, until we become thoroughly Americanized. The delight in learning for its own sake enabled the Jews to bear their hard economic lot in the Ghetto without being degraded by losing their self-respect. And even in this country I have known a Jewish peddler who wrote a book on Spinoza in Hebrew—I don't know whether he ever had it published or not...

...Those things are much more common, I think, among Jews than among other people, although I think you will find similar situations among the Scotch and among the modern Greeks. I once met a modern Greek who was selling peanuts and also had a copy of Sophocles in the ancient Greek in his pocket, occasionally looking into it when he thought his customers wouldn't notice it...

...[S]o long as we have our present democratic system of politics, where the Jews have any considerable vote there will be no open discrimination against them and they will get some opportunity, and that I think is the fact today. With regard to college teaching it seems to me the situation is different because the traditions are different. The tradition of teaching in the public schools is the feminine tradition, that is to say, public schools were regarded as the place where the children were to be taught and generally the men were too busy with important things to do and the women had to teach the children. In the colleges the American tradition is somewhat different. The colleges were never run by women, but they were run by clergymen, the next best thing.

Few adequately realize the significance of that and I think it rather important to dwell on it for a moment or two... You see, the American colleges were founded as ancillary to the theological seminaries, and were originally intended to train ministers... Up to the year 1900, almost every professor of philosophy in an American college, outside of a few exceptionally enlightened institutions in the East, was a clergyman...

...What, now, has happened in recent years? Some years ago Mr. Carnegie, who was an old fashioned radical, believed that it was a good thing to separate religion from education, and he devised what he thought was a very shrewd scheme. He said that he would give certain moneys for pension funds for teachers in non-denominational colleges or universities. Whereupon a great many denominational colleges became overnight non-denominational.

But while you can change the denomination of a college, you cannot change its traditions overnight, and the result is that these colleges and universities are still largely dominated by the old traditions. I will not say that there is discrimination today against Jews as teachers in all colleges. Let us leave that out of the discussion. But it is quite obvious that all other things being equal a gentleman who belongs to the denomination which has fed the college from its beginning, which has supplied the college with all its distingushed professors and presidents, will get preference, and according to the prevailing mores quite rightly...

There is much more worth reading in this fascinating speech.

See other installments in our J-Vault series here.

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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.

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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: 41,000 Glasses of Milk

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Since this week Jews will celebrate Shavuot by eating cheesecake and other dairy delicacies, there is no better time to enjoy this gem from the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities.

This week, from the J-Vault: Penny-a-Glass Milk Station (1914)

"It was found," wrote Philip L. Seman, "that there were many puny children that were brought by their mothers to enjoy the free open space that the [Chicago Hebrew] Institute offers the neighborhood, by means of its park and playgrounds, and to whom the opportunity of procuring such milk would prove a great service."

Besides this, the sale of milk tends to counteract the desire on the part of the younger children to purchase from the filthy wagons that are stationed near the entrance of our grounds the cheap and much-adulterated, therefore, very harmful, so-called ice cream and scrape ice balls, generally saturated with chemically colored flavors...

...One need only watch the lack of care given the average infant in the congested districts of any large city, because of the lack of knowledge that the mother has of the danger of not properly looking after the child's feeding for the first two years of its life, to see the enormous amount of good (if from no other point of view than this alone) our milk station is bound to do...

...The milk station, which has now been operated a little over a month, has grown to proportions beyond even our own expectations. We have sold over 41,000 glasses of milk the first month...

...We found many persons taking advantage of the sale of the milk and crackers, and regularly making at least one meal a day on this splendid substitute, especially during the hot summer months, for meat and other heavy foods.

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Chag Shavuot sameach!

 

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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.