Beggars approaching visitors at the gate of the Jewish cemetery, Płock, Poland, 1938. Photograph by Sport Films. (YIVO)

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Beggars and Begging

In PolandLithuania, the emergence of Jewish beggars as a large group with its own subculture can be traced to the Khmel’nyts’kyi massacres of 1648, which destroyed much of the Jewish communal wealth and infrastructure. It has been estimated that up to 20 percent of the Jewish population belonged to the class of beggars at the end of the seventeenth century. East European governments regularly harassed the Jewish poor. In March 1773, Habsburg authorities ordered the expulsion of Betteljuden, Jewish beggars, from Galicia. At the same time, Poland closed its borders to impoverished Jewish refugees. Residents of Oświęcim, a town close to the border of Poland and Prussia, witnessed “caravans of beggars” who were expelled from Galicia but were not admitted to Poland. In 1898, a total of 35 percent of Russian Jews depended on charity institutions to maintain their existence.

Large numbers of Jews turned to begging during the aftermath of World War I; their presence stimulated worldwide fund-raising for relief efforts. In Soviet Russia, the crisis associated with Jewish youth beggars led to the establishment of a number of Jewish orphanages, some of which (including the Labor Colony for Jewish Delinquents in Malakhovka) became models for Communist upbringing of orphans in the 1920s. While the economic situation of the East European Jewish community improved in the 1920s and 1930s, begging was often the only way of survival for many Jews in the ghettos during the Holocaust.

Hebrew Rosh Hashanah greeting card depicting beggars approaching a man and boy who are on the way to synagogue during the High Holidays. The Hebrew passage, meaning “Penitence, prayer, and righteous acts avert the severe decree,” is drawn from the U-netaneh tokef prayer, recited in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Published by Verlag Jehudia, Warsaw. (YIVO)

For centuries, East European Jewish communities maintained numerous institutions to provide for the poor. In fact, the act of hekdesh, which originally meant setting aside for sacrifice on the Temple altar, came to connote donating and helping the poor in post-Talmudic times. The hekdesh was administered by a local society, usually named bikur ḥolim (society for helping the sick), which maintained a local hospice for the poor, supervised by the kahal (Jewish community council). In addition, acts of charity included systems for feeding and sheltering the poor. For example, in Dembitz, Poland, in the interwar years, a communal charitable trust was established especially to distribute money to beggars, together with the Khevre Mezonos (Food Society), which distributed food. In this and other towns, hostels for the poor operated as part of synagogues. Memoirs suggest that Jewish families maintained a custom of donating food to beggars on Thursdays to enable them to have festive Friday night meals to honor the Sabbath.

The diversity of Yiddish vocabulary that describes the nuances of various types of Jewish beggars illustrates how intimately the community knew its underprivileged members. The Groyser verterbukh fun der yidisher shprakh lists more than 15 terms for beggars. A shnorer is a professional beggar, who maintains a gentlemanly appearance and can solicit help on behalf of others; a betler and a shleper are more conventional, door-to-door beggars. A medine yid (lit., a state Jew) and a medine geyer (state-wanderer) refer to homeless beggars. Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, in his “Fishke der krumer” (Fishke the Lame; original story 1869, exp. to novel length, 1888), which is fully devoted to the life of Jewish beggars, offers further classification, including “foot paupers,” “horse-paupers,” “town-bread paupers,” “paupers of the field,” “holy-service paupers,” “do-gooders,” “hidden paupers,” “beggars-at need,” and many others. The novel ridicules the Jewish society of the nineteenth century that is unable to properly support its poor. The image of the luftmentsh, literally, a person of the air, a man without a clear profession or sources of income, firmly entered Jewish imagination. Paintings by Marc Chagall (1887–1985) allude to the luftmentsh by depicting men floating in the air. Similarly, the stories of Menakhem Mendl, by Sholem Aleichem, are centered on a classic luftmentsh who fails in all his five vocations.

American tourists besieged by beggars at the Jewish cemetery, Łódź, Poland, 1930s. Tourists standing next to a vehicle owned by a Lines ha-tsedek, a voluntary society to aid the sick. Crowds in the cemetery. (Amateur film shot by American Jewish travel agent Gustave Eisner.) (YIVO)

The prominence of beggars in folklore, including in songs and fables, is a distinct feature of Yiddish folk culture. Various songs romanticize the image of beggars as wanderers and sympathize with their poverty and hunger. Helping beggars in folktales enables protagonists to succeed in their own efforts, ranging from earning a fortune to conceiving a child. Those who ignore, or (worse) abuse paupers are severely punished. Folktales even attribute divine characteristics to beggars. For example, Elijah the Prophet, the beloved protagonist of numerous Yiddish legends, is almost always disguised as a beggar. Naḥman of Bratslav created images of beggars as embodiments of seven aspects of the messiah, in his story Mayse vegn zibn betler (Story about Seven Beggars; first published in 1816).

Numerous other Jewish authors, including Y. L. Peretz (1852–1915), Perets Smolenskin (1842–1885), Avrom Karpinovitsh (1918–2004), Elie Wiesel (1928– ), Itsik Manger (1901–1969), and Isaac Babel (1894–1940) featured beggars in their works, often as central figures. After seeing child peddlers during the German occupation of Grodno in 1922, Herman Yablokoff (1903–1981), a popular Yiddish poet and composer, was inspired to write the song “Papirosn” (Cigarettes; 1932), about a Jewish child beggar. The song eventually became one of the most popular in the Yiddish repertoire. Yiddish films also depicted beggars as signifiers of the social, political, and cultural tensions experienced by East European Jewry. For example, the film version of S. An-ski’s play, Der dibek (The Dybbuk; 1937), features a powerful scene in which the young bride dances with beggars and then performs a Dance of Death with a beggar in a death costume. Though the scene was professionally choreographed, it was based on actual traditions recorded by An-ski during his ethnographic expeditions.

Suggested Reading

Mendele Mokher Sefarim (S. Y. Abramovitsh), Tales of Mendele the Book Peddler: Fishke the Lame and Benjamin the Third (New York, 1996); Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, ed., Yiddish Folktales, trans. Leonard Wolf (New York, 1988), pp. 7–10, 77–79, 107–112, 155–158.