A society based upon living according to the precepts of an oral law in need of constant exposition has no choice but to place a high value on authoritative speech. Only the professional preacher (the bal darshn or magid) and wedding jester (badkhn) were actually paid to talk. The preacher delivered morally uplifting sermons enlivened and illuminated with stories drawn not only from Jewish sources but also from European folktales. While some larger or more prosperous communities employed a resident shtot-magid, a town preacher, most professional preachers made a living by traveling from town to town, preaching in local synagogues between the afternoon and evening prayers on the Sabbath, and depended on donations. Virtually all reputable magidim were ordained rabbis or highly learned laymen; however, not all itinerant preachers were reputable, and some of these latter were more confidence trickster than clergy.
Among the most famous preachers are Dov Ber of Mezritsh (d. 1772), a disciple of the Ba‘al Shem Tov, who helped spread Hasidism, and the Dubner Magid (Ya‘akov Kranz, ca. 1740–1804), who was admired by Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna. Salomon Maimon (1754–1800) visited the Magid of Mezritsh and recalls hearing him delivering a sermon at his tish (lit., “table”), a distinctive Hasidic gathering in which the rebbe presides over a meal. An awe-inspiring figure, the Magid of Mezritsh, dressed in white, sat at the table; following the meal, during which there was complete silence, he began to sing and then to call out by name each newcomer, who then recited a passage from scripture:
Thereupon the superior began to deliver a sermon for which the verses recited served as a text, so that although they were disconnected verses taken from different parts of Scripture they were combined with as much skill as if they had formed a single whole . . . every one of the newcomers believed that he discovered in that part of the sermon which was founded on his verse something that had special reference to the facts of his own spiritual life. (Maimon, 2001)
When asked how it was that he always had the perfect parable to illustrate his point, the Dubner Magid told a parable: a man walking through the forest asked an archer how it was that he always hit the bull’s eye, to which the archer replied, “First I shoot the arrow, then I draw the target.”
Zogerkes (prayer leaders) and klogmuters (professional mourners) in the cemetery, Vilna, ca. 1924. (Forward Assocation / YIVO)
A rabbi in Eastern Europe was at the head of the professional ranks in Jewish society. In addition to whatever teaching obligations he might have undertaken, a rabbi with a pulpit was expected to deliver two sermons yearly, on Shabat Shuvah (Yid., Shabes Shuve) and Shabat ha-Gadol (Shabes Hagodl), the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Sabbath immediately preceding Passover, respectively. He was also expected to speak during communal crises and at large community meetings. More importantly, a rabbi was expected to pronounce on questions of ritual and justice, either in his capacity as a halakhic authority empowered to pronounce on items or actions that were permitted and forbidden, or as a member—often as head—of a three-man bet din (bezdn) or rabbinic court, which could hear all manner of civil and occasionally even criminal cases. He would question witnesses and interrogate the principals. The verdict was always handed down orally.
The kheyder-rebe or (the elementary-school teacher) played a vital role in East European Jewish society. His work was almost entirely oral and much of the instruction was conducted in a classroom dialect of Yiddish known as taytsh, which was used for the translation of sacred texts. These men were almost never members of the clergy.
The zogerke or firzogern was the best known of female speakers. A cross between a prompter and cantor, her position was informal, honorific, and unremunerated, though indispensable; she led less literate women in Hebrew and Yiddish prayers in the women’s section of the synagogue or at such all-female gatherings as leygn kneytlekh, a group event at which pious women made candles for synagogue and ritual use. The wailing of the klogerns or klogmuters (also platshkes), professional mourners, who were indeed paid for their work, fell between song and speech. They would follow the bier to the cemetery. During the 1920s in Apt (Opatów), if someone were deathly ill, the family would hire such mourners as a last resort, to force open the gates (tsi raysn toyern) of heaven: the klogerns would run to the besmedresh, fling open the doors of the Torah ark, where the spirit of the Almighty was believed to reside, and cry and scream, “This poor man has a family to take care of! Dear God, be merciful for the family’s sake!”
Di platshkis (Professional Mourners). Professional mourners accompany a funeral bier to the cemetery. Mayer Kirshenblatt. Acrylic on canvas, ca. 1996. Memory painting by a native of Opatów, Poland. (Courtesy Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett)
The entire job of the shadkhn or marriage broker, who could be either a woman or a man, consisted of redn a shidekh (“speaking a match”), using words rather than pictures to convince the parents of two marriageable children to consent to their union. In an age before photography, words were the shadkhn’s only tool and his or her only way to earn a living. Hence the Yiddish proverb: God does not punish a shadkhn for lying.
During the twentieth century, with the rise of Jewish political culture, public speakers were highly valued. Zionist orators, the most important of whom traveled, gave speeches that could last many hours and were reported in the press. The passionate speeches of Yitsḥak Grünbaum, leader of the General Zionists in Poland, were described as hypnotic. Vladimir Jabotinsky, leader of the Revisionist Zionists, speaking in elegant German, electrified his standing-room-only audience in Katowice, Upper Silesia. During the 1930s, Mikhl Rotsztajn, leader of the General Zionists in Apt and a bookkeeper by profession, was considered a great orator, but reportedly would not stop speaking until everyone had fallen asleep. In Radzyn, Poland, Yudl Borokhovsky would speak on Saturdays to a packed house at the local meeting hall; announcers standing outside the hall would repeat his speech to the overflow crowd. Borochovsky, a yeshiva-educated local Communist, peppered his speeches with biblical passages.
With the growth of Jewish libraries and a Jewish reading public, lectures became popular and literary figures were in high demand. During the 1920s, the young “ultranationalist, red-haired” poet Uri Tsevi Grinberg traveled around Poland delivering an eccentric lecture on a bohemian-futurist theme: “When Mefisto Chirps on the Flute.” On a late Friday night in Żyrardów, he spoke and gestured with escalating force and fervor. As he ended each refrain with “And Mephisto chirped on the flute!” he stamped his feet so hard that the windows rattled and the tenants complained.
The lecture, whether by a famous literary or political figure or by local members of a club or political party, became an important part of the public culture of East European Jews. Delivered in various languages, often on Saturdays, lectures (as well as readings) held a strong appeal for Jewish youth, most of whom were not able to continue their formal education beyond primary school.
Mordechai Wolf Bernstein, ed., Pinkes Zhirardov, Amshinov un Viskit: Yisker-bukh (Buenos Aires, 1961), English translations of sections available at jewishgen.org/yizkor/zyrardow/zyrardow.html; Benjamin Jacob Bialostotzky, Di mesholim fun dubner magid un andere eseyen (New York, 1962); Josef Chrust (Yosef Krust) and Yosef Frankel, Katovits: Periḥatah u-sheki‘atah shel ha-kehilah ha-yehudit: Sefer zikaron (Tel Aviv, 1996), English translations of sections available at jewishgen.org/yizkor/katowice/katowice.html; Herman A. Glatt, He Spoke in Parables: The Life and Works of the Dubno Maggid (New York, 1957); Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust (Berkeley, 2007); E. Lifschutz, “Merrymakers and Jesters among Jews,” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Sciences 7 (1952): 43–69; Solomon Maimon, The Autobiography of Solomon Maimon, trans. J. Clarke Murray (Urbana, 2001); Ghizela Suliteanu, “The Traditional System of Melopeic Prose of the Funeral Songs Recited by the Jewish Women of the Socialist Republic of Rumania,” Folklore Research Center Studies 3 (1972): 291–349; Yitsḥak Zigelman, Sefer Radzin: Yisker-bukh (Tel Aviv, 1957), in Hebrew and Yiddish, English translations of sections available at jewishgen.org/yizkor/radzyn/radzyn.html.