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The Mishpacha


By: Samara Metzler

The Shtetl. Once muttered with a disparaging sneer by the rich Gentile bankers and robber barons who passed outside its borders, “The Shtetl” has become widely accepted as the semi-official title for the Jewish quarter of the City. Densely packed and raucous, its alleys and boulevards are full to bursting with shops, newspaper stands, theatres, synagogues, bakeries and kosher butchers, surrounded on all sides by a mixture of garment factories and tenement buildings. Though the majority of the Shtetl’s residents are poor Ashkenazim, newly resettled from eastern Europe, tensions have increased with the influx of wealthier German and Sephardi Jews exiled from other parts of the City. Nevertheless, spirits in the Shtetl are high, symbolized by the scraps of rainbow fabric and ribbon pinned to overcoats and hats or tucked into shop windows. Every resident knows that no matter how dark the world outside the eruv gets, they are protected by their Mishpacha.


Initially founded by a motley group of orphans living in the B’not Miryam Orphan Asylum, the Mishpacha (“Family”, specifically, extended family) has since opened its membership to any Jew who may wish to join its ranks. They have even accepted a few goyim into the fold, though these recruits are generally subjected to much more stringent vetting processes. Particularly welcoming to those who feel society’s judgment on multiple axes, most of the members are queer, disabled or otherwise considered “undesirable” by the City at large. The Mishpacha’s sole purpose is to protect the Jews of the Shtetl, by any means necessary. Regardless of gender, sexuality, ability, language or belief in the Almighty, all Jews are family. Over time, a few differing streams of thought have developed regarding this primary mission: some believe they are beholden only to Jews, while others insist their purview extends to all the City’s outcasts who have found safety within the Shtetl. So far, this difference of opinion has not grown into an all-out schism, though group leaders watch one another with caution.


Operating primarily out of the upper floors of Yeshiva Aqedah and the back room of Bialek’s Deli, the Mishpacha has its hands in nearly every aspect of life in the Shtetl. They hold a variety of classes at the Yeshiva in the evenings for those who work during the day, and offer subsidized meals through Bialek’s for those who cannot afford them. Members are frequently called upon to mediate disputes of all types, from business owners to quarrelling spouses, and operate as de facto law enforcement in the absence of help from the City. Despite its benevolent enterprises, it will not hesitate to use force if needed; the Shtetl has seen more than one corrupt factory disappear in what was later identified as a carefully controlled blaze, and abusive parents have been known to return to their homes with a black eye matching the one they’d given their child the week before. When justice is carried out in this way, individual members of the Mishpacha rarely take credit. Instead, these incidents are known as “visitations from the Lion of Judah.”


The one commandment the Mishpacha respects above all else is “Lo Tirtzach” -- “thou shalt not kill”. Members frequently resort to violence to achieve their goals, but murder is strictly prohibited and any combat engagements must be carried out non-lethally. Anyone known to have violated this rule may be summarily dismissed from the Mishpacha. However, if an enemy sustains an injury during an altercation and later dies of their wounds, it does not fall under the Mishpacha’s definition of murder.

Play a Member of the Mishpacha if…

  • You want to protect and defend those who have come to you for shelter -- at any cost

  • You seek to better the lives of your community through education and activism

  • You have a fierce, perhaps overdeveloped, sense of justice and have no qualms about being called a vigilante

 


Inspiration Notes by the Writer: 
Jewish quarter of the City known as the Shtetl
Main waves of immigration in the early 1800s (German Jews) and the late 1800s (Ashkenazi Jews), up until the Immigration Act of 1924 almost entirely cut off Jewish influx
Morality police shunting richer assimilated German and Sephardi Jews back into the Shtetl, causing crowding and friction
Essentially a densely packed factory district: shmata (garment) trade established by German Jews, populated by Ashkenazi Jews
Yiddish and English spoken day to day, Hebrew for holy texts only (this is before the modern revival of Hebrew as a daily language)


Faction: Mishpacha (“Family”, beyond blood)

  • Initially founded by orphans from the B’not Miryam Orphan Asylum, now open to all who adhere to their philosophies

  • Symbol is the rainbow, one of the oldest symbols of the covenant between HaShem and humanity (from the story of Noah)

  • Tension between assimilationists and isolationists within the group, mirrored in “take care of our own” vs ”take care of all marginalized people”

  • Takes “thou shalt not kill” extremely seriously and murder is grounds for exile (but dying as a result of earlier wounds is… fuzzier)

  • Often called to mediate disputes

  • Extrajudicial justice dispensed via the Lion of Judah


Locations of note within the Shtetl

  • Temple Ohel Sarah (Orthodox) and Temple Shalom (Reform) -- designated as neutral locations, safe from all gang warfare

  • Yeshiva Aqedah -- most prominent educational institution, also home to the majority of the Mishpacha’s meeting and planning spaces

  • Bialek’s Deli -- first kosher establishment in the City, with a large complex of stills in the basement

  • Kaminsky Theatre -- a vaudeville and Yiddish theatre building with a swanky little speakeasy hidden in the back


 

Helpful phrases and concepts
B’tzelem Elohim (“made in HaShem’s image”)
Hineini (“here I am”)
Tikkun Olam (“repair the world”)

Historical Roleplay Note: Please be respectful with any portrayals of or discussions regarding Zionism. This political movement developed in the late 1880s in Europe and precipitated several waves of Jewish immigration to British Mandate Palestine in the 1910s and 1920s, before the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. Due to the contentious recent history of the region, Zionism will not be a primary focus of any writing involving the Mishpacha. For the purposes of Velvet Noir, the residents of the Shtetl have chosen America as their new homeland and are dedicated to seeing the Jewish people blossom on these new shores.

Pronunciation guide (Hebrew): https://youtu.be/bEHd_LbfVyE
Pronunciation guide (Yiddish): http://dailyyiddishkeit.blogspot.com/2012/03/family-mishpocha.html



Research Links and Notes:

Research Links and Notes:

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-immigration-to-america-three-waves/

  • First wave: Sephardi immigration as early as the 1600s

  • Separated Jewish and secular life, greater participation of women in synagogue

  • Second wave: German immigration mid-1800s until WWI, escaping persecution, economic hardship, inciting political unrest (social reform and revolution)

  • Often started as peddlers, then set up stores

  • Founded Reform Judaism

  • Third wave: eastern European Ashkenazi, 1880s

  • Poor, worked in garment factories, cigar manufacture, food, construction

  • Yiddish culture flourished (theatre, newspapers, writing)

  • Strong lean toward communism/socialism

  • Established Conservative Judaism, reinforced Orthodox Judaism

  • Large-scale immigration ended in 1924 (Immigration Act, quotas)

https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/eastern-european-immigrants-in-united-states

  • Third wave immigration, 44% were women

  • Many came from urban environments in Europe, not villages

  • New wave worked in garment factories established by previous generations (German)

  • Men worked outside, women worked inside the home, or at mom and pop stores

  • 56% of Jewish homes had boarders

  • New York’s Hebrew Orphan Asylum

  • Girls gained significant independence due to joining the workforce

  • Active in labour movements, frequently confronting authorities and joining picket lines

  • Girls received more education than average, but still less than boys

  • Established Jews focused on immigrant women as agents of new assimilation

https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/polish6.html

  • “The Lower East Side could certainly be frightening, dangerous, noisy, and cramped. However, it was still a place of relative safety compared to the virulently anti-Semitic Russian Empire. And, however chaotic it might be, as some observers at the time noted, it was still the greatest concentration of Jewish life in nearly two thousand years.”

  • Jews had been banned from so many trades in Europe that they came over with comparatively few skills

  • Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, 1911, half of those killed were Jewish girls

  • Retail was key (peddling to corner shop to department store)

http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/jewishexp.htm

  • Huge population boom in 1900-1924

  • Concentrated Jewish life in East Coast cities

  • All strains of Judaism came together to help victims during WWI

  • “ Private schools, camps, colleges, resorts, and places of employment all imposed restrictions and quotas against Jews, often quite blatantly.”

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-garment-workers/

  • 90% of Lower East Side garment factories owned by Jews in 1890

  • By 1897, 60% of Jewish labour was in the garment industry

  • Home sweatshops -- pick up materials from factory, take home for family to sew

  • Europe was increasingly industrial, and so were the immigrants that came over

  • Bookbind­ing, watchmaking, cigar making, tinsmithing

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/yiddish-theatre-in-new-york/

  • Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg

  • Yiddish theater “resembled Italian opera without singing”, full of pageantry

  • Philanthropic organisations often sponsored events

  • Lively audience participation, ala Shakespeare’s Globe

https://www.britannica.com/art/klezmer-music

  • “Klezmer” was the general term for a musician (plural: klezmorim)

  • Not highly regarded until the mid-19th Century

  • Primarily wedding music, the genre gradually expanded to cover all facets of life

  • Usually hereditary and male, trained through apprenticeships

  • Folk music that absorbed elements of neighboring cultures/styles (particularly the Roma and Greek people in Europe and jazz in the US)

  • Violin, bass, cello, hammered dulcimer, flute, clarinet, brass

  • First led by violin, then clarinet took over at the advent of sound recording technology

  • Early recordings caught klezmer at its cultural height

  • Holocaust cut off immigration of new musicians, so the music faded

http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Music/Traditional_and_Instrumental_Music

  • In Europe, klezmorim were their own occupational caste

  • Usually had other jobs to tide them over during leaner times

  • Strong intermingling with Romani musicians, particularly in Hungary, Ottoman Moldavia, Russian Bessarabia

  • Klezmorim accepted into Russian conservatories in the late 19th Century

  • In Poland, klezmorim were allowed to play at Gentile weddings in taverns

  • Much of the music was not written down but passed from one generation to the next

  • Wealth of early recordings exist from both Europe and the US

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-gangsters-a-little-known-chapter-in-american-jewish-history/

  • Some indulged only for a short time to make some money

  • Some got involved in the mob, bootlegging, prostitution rings, gambling, racketeering, loan sharking, drugs, murder

  • Murder, Inc.

  • Organized crime flourished during Prohibition

  • Generally not particularly religiously observant, a few even eschewing Judaism entirely

  • Most still held a deep love for their heritage and communities

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/but-they-were-good-to-their-people/

  • Some rabbis and Jewish groups turned to gangsters to break up antisemitic rallies

  • Meyer Lansky broke up German Bundist rally at a NYC official’s request and refused to take any payment for the work, because he felt for European Jews

https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/176072/gangsters-on-yom-kippur

  • Many Jewish gangsters attended High Holy Days and Passover seders, wore kippot, married via rabbi

  • Sam “Red” Levine never carried out contract murders on Shabbat, and if he did have to, he put on tallit and said his prayers first

  • Immigrants to America were not part of their European communities’ religious elite

  • The more religious stayed in Europe, considering America a treyf medina

  • Immigrants maintained strong Jewish folk traditions rather than strict Orthodoxy

  • Mothers largely responsible for this strong Jewish identity in their gangster sons

  • In turn, the gangsters passed this identity to their own children

https://www.j-grit.com/criminals-murder-inc-brooklyn-1930s-1940s.php

  • Murder, Inc. headed by Jewish gangster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter

  • Loose coalition of Jewish and Italian gangsters active in the 1930s-40s

  • Based out of a 24-hour coffee shop in NYC, suspected for murders as far away as Detroit, LA, Florida

  • High-ranking gangsters assembled into a ruling body sometimes called the Syndicate

  • Two divisions, Jews and Italians, tasked with (mostly) killing members of their own ethnic groups

  • Group rarely knew their targets personally

  • Eventually Abraham “Kid Twist” Reles was arrested and flipped on the group

  • Reles died shortly after, still an unsolved mystery