I was looking for an article about early 20th century Orthodoxy and in the process I found the following article on Jewish Hobos. I have especially selected the paragraphs that deal with religious life and Orthodox hobos. The article was written in 1928 and the problem of homeless vagabonds got worse in the 1930’s. Does anyone still remember Red Skelton’s character Freddie the Freeloader? Many rabbinical sermons of the 1950’s exhorted the congregation by claiming that a Jewish way of life prevents one from becoming a hobo or Bowery bum. As late as the 1970’s Jewish English still had the phrase trombernick as for someone vagabond, undisciplined or even for a hippie. Notice how the homeless think they can judge a community’s customs or have a self-perception as defenders of the faith. Also notice the tone of the author, which would not be accepted in social science today.
“TROMBENICKS ” OR JEWISH HOBOES, RALPH ASTROFSKY
Cities with old orthodox constituencies like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, attract religious itinerant mendicants in the practice of making regular week-end visits. They attend the synagogues to pray for departed souls at so much a prayer, deliver lectures (droshes) and pass judgment on differences concerning various religious customs and observances. In return they are invited by the members of the synagogue to their homes for the Friday evening meal or to dinner following the Saturday morning services. Some of the religious travelers possess vast knowledge in their specific field and an excellent oratorical delivery, but many of them are rabbis who are ignorant of the Law, melamdim (teachers) who know nothing about pedagogy, and chazanim (cantors) who cannot sing.
They consider themselves entitled to reduced transportation rates and an unqualified welcome by the local hachnosas orchim, and usually do receive special attention. They generally shun the offices of case working agencies and prefer contributions from private individuals, benevolent aid societies made up of members from their home towns, and friendly orthodox synagogues in the poor sections of the city. In their journeys to small communities they occasionally do strike desirable jobs and settle down, but such examples are rare, indeed.
To meet the above situation Dr. Bogen has suggested that “a better organization of our synagogues, an absolute refusal to permit the traveler the use of the pulpit unless by previous engagement through a central agency, are possible ways to reduce the number who are dependent upon charity. Then the situation will be easily controlled and the traveling chazan will be considered just as legitimate a proposition.
They will search telephone books for a “noch” (hachnosas orchim), a Jewish shelter for transients, or a “pay station” (a social agency or central almsgiving society). If there is no established “pay station” in town, he feels at liberty to work “factories” (synagogues where collections might be made), store keepers whose names end in “stein,” “baum” or “berg,” and, of course, junk dealers of any nationality, a never failing source.
No wonder the Jewish hobo prefers the “noch” with its simple precept not to make oneself too well known to the janitor or caretaker. Wise old beggars have sometimes manipulated a two- and even three month extension of time at a hachnosas orchim, a feat quite impossible at a publicly maintained lodging house. “You know how it is,” explained one experienced schnorrer,”with Yiddin you can always come to terms.” Another young hobo, an habitué of the Bowery, lacking “two bits” (25c) for a “flop,”refused to associate with the”goyim” and bums at the city shelter and requested permission to stayat the hachnosas orchim, pronouncing that difficult name flawlessly, though unable to utter another Hebrew word. There are “nochs” famous throughout Jewish hobohemia for their abundant fare on the High Holidays, particularly on Passover.
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.
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.
At one such party I caught notice of a “trombenick” clandestinely tugging carrots from his pockets, unwilling to participate in the prize dish because it was not kosher, as he declared to me later
Many a young fellow has been hounded out of home for his laziness or queerness. There may be a marriageable daughter at home, or a son about to enter an honorable profession, when it becomes essential to sacrifice the pariah to the road rather than jeopardize the social ambitions of the other members of the family.
Many a runaway lad will discover the Bowery, that Alsatian den of misery and despair. Only recently a boy of fifteen who had refused to “leigen t’filin,” told me how he had lived on the Bowery during his entire absence from home and associated with the human riff-raff who make that street their winter headquarters.
One pitiful old vagabond called himself the “Defender of the Jewish Faith,” and so offensive were his letters to public men that he was finally held for observation and sent to a state institution.
Close observation of the homeless, their examination by competent psychiatrists, have indicated that a large number of them are either mentally unbalanced or of defective intelligence.
The writer fervently hopes that his interest in this human debris will be retained at least until the time when opportunity will enable him to make a national comprehensive study to disclose more fully their character and needs, shedding light on the possible diminution of their number.
Full text here.