THE LOWER EAST SIDE AND AMERICAN JEWISH MEMORY
I'm Jewish because love my family matzoh ball soup.
I'm Jewish because my fathers mothers uncles grandmothers said
"Jewish," all the way back to Vitebsk & Kaminetz-Podolska via Lvov.
Jewish because reading Dostoyevsky at 13 I write poems at restaurant
tables Lower East Side, perfect delicatessen intellectual.
Allen Ginsberg, "Yiddishe Kopf"
The poet Allen Ginsberg, born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, returned in his later years to a narrative style of expression, shifting gears from the anger and fire of his early career. In this poem from 1991 he also touched down again, after a long hiatus spent exploring Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, upon some Jewish themes, as a way of remembering the world of his youth. He described that world in one poem, "Yiddishe Kopf," literally, a Jewish head, but more broadly, a highly distinctive Jewish way of thinking, based on insight, cleverness, and finesse.
That world for him stood upon two zones of remembrance. The world of eastern Europe, of Vitebsk, Lvov, and Kamenets-Podolski gave him one anchor for his Jewishness. Thai space of memory gave him a focus for continuity and inherited identity, tied down by the weight of the past, by family in particular. The other, the Lower East Side, nurtured and fed him. It also offered him his passport out of and into the bigger world. Here he wrote his youthful poetry, he told his readers, at delicatessen tables, influenced by the great ideas of Western civilizationin this poem, through reading Dostoyevsky.
This formulation, while captivating in Ginsberg's distinctive rapid-fire, challenging style, was actually less original and much more formulaic than the poet might have thought. Since the late 1940s, American Jewish memory had been bounded by these two mythic places, eastern Europe and the Lower East Side. Each one stood, and still stands, as a point of memory, replete with an instantly recognizable set of images of people and places, described with a sensual trope built around sounds, smells, and tastes, stimulating a process of remembering even for those, such as the dean of the Beats, Allen Ginsberg, who did not grow up in either place and who lived for the latter part of his life in New York's East Village, not really part of the Lower East Side.
But he, or the masses of American Jews who have participated in the process of enshrining eastern Europe, usually described as a "shtetl" (small town), and the Lower East Side did not have to directly experience either place because the representations of both have played key roles in shaping American Jewish popular culture. They could be found almost anywhere. Their images ran through the imaginative world of American Jews as instant mnemonics of places that everyone knew, but, ultimately, few had lived in.
The American Jewish past, like all eras in the history of the Jewish people, exists as both history and memory. This past, as history, is the subject of scholarly inquiry and the focus of graduate and undergraduate courses, learned journals, and formal conferencesall dedicated to the proposition that the history of the Jewish people in America, like any other, is a measurable and changeable construct that can be known and, over time, known better and differently. American Jewish history's practitioners claim, by virtue of their academic training and emotional distance, the right to interpret the experience of the Jewish people in America.
Yet the past, as memory', exists also, but as a set of unshakable truths that inform American Jewish public understanding. It consists of a series of linked images that have grown organically out of the contemporary cultural needs of that public, however diverse it may be, as it defines and justifies itself and its present condition. Those themes, emphasizing the cultural richness of the (singular) immigrant experience, the inevitability and loneliness of success, the altruistic progressive Jewish social vision of the past, and the spiritual price tag attached to mobility, all resound in American Jewish folk memory. They provide the intertwined leitmotiv in American Jews' understanding of where they have been, where they are now, and, possibly, even where they might be heading. This bundle of memories plays a crucial role in the creation of an American Jewish narrative. Memory, after all, as the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski noted, functions as an "indispensable part of creating culture."
The culture that American Jews fashioned for themselves in the decades after World War II was shaped by the aftermath of that war, particularly the knowledge of the destruction of European Jewry. The memories were also shaped by a counterforce, the triumph of American liberalism, as it played itself out in the era of greater civil rights. American Jews experienced few liabilities as a result of being Jews, and they took advantage of the opening up of suburban communities and professional opportunities.
It was in the convergence of these two phenomena that the Lower East Side changed from being a place where many Jews had once lived to become the epicenter of American Jewish memory. The Lower East Side, a swath of lower Manhattan, has assumed that same kind of sacred status in the consciousness of American Jews. It is a place invested with deep memories of a shared past that offers them some ideas about their present.
In the narratives that American Jews tell about their collective past in the United States, the Lower East Side functions not just as a particular neighborhood where many Jews lived for some period of time but as exemplary of the Jewish experience in America. Refugees from the shtetl, they came to America and found instead the Lower East Side, a warren of crowded, dirty, and mean streets. In this slum, these impoverished Jews re-created the culture of eastern Europe, thick with the smells, sounds, tastes, and noises of life in the "Old World." But through the miracle of the American dream of mobility, their sons and daughters emerged from the Lower East Side as teachers, lawyers, doctors, movie makers, musiciansaggressive and assertive about their rights as Americans but more ambivalent toward the nature of their Jewish legacy. The memory of the Lower East Side assumed its power not only from the Jewish sojourn there but also from the drama of the exodus from it.
On one level the Lower East Side story as American Jewish memory reflected in microcosm the broad outlines of the metanarrative of the Jewish past. The recurrent themes of oppression, constriction, and danger, on one hand, followed by the expansiveness of liberation, on the other, run through it. In between, Lower East Side memory culture posited that immigrant Jews lived in a liminal state. In a kind of transitional zone, they underwent an ordeal of cultural reeducation as they learned to be free. The Lower East Side served as that metaphoric middle ground where Jews dwelled among themselves while waiting for permission to enter the real America. It served as their narrow bridge between slavery and freedom, between the Egypt of Russia and Poland and the promised land of America.
Significantly, the immigrants themselves, as well as their children and grandchildren, who then became both the historians and the participants in the memory culture, used historical analogies to describe Europe as Egypt (or other sites of Jewish suffering) in distinction to America as a place of freedom, opportunity, and promise. Jews, regardless of generation or nativity, transferred these metaphors to help them understand the momentous events of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, the period of the great exodus of 2.5 million Jews from eastern Europe to the United States.
Sometimes they associated eastern Europe with Spain and its grim history of expulsion and Inquisition. Sometimes the persecution in eastern Europe became linked to the very moment when Jews lost their homeland and national sovereignty, and became a diaspora people. A Mr. Katzenellenbogen, a Canal Street bookseller in the 1890s, explained to Abraham Cahan, then writing for New York's Commercial Advertiser, the reasons behind the impending fast of Tisha B'Av. "We mourn the loss of our Temple," he noted, referring to the destruction of the great Temples in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. "We sit on the ground," he continued, "reciting our tale of woe. Is there anything strange in the way our hearts break at the thought of the atrocities perpetrated on us in Russia, Rumania, Austria?" He then told the reporter, who knew all this quite well, "Well, when we sit down barefooted on the ground to tell the tale of famine and desolation, of the loss of our home, many a worshipper will think of Galicia and perhaps also the riots in Russia which drove him to this land of freedom."
Because the eastern European part of the narrative corresponded to Egypt's slavery (as well as other sites of Jewish sorrows), the migration, in American Jewish popular terms, had to be posited as a desperate flight from oppression, persecutions, and pogroms. In Russia, indiscriminately used in American Jewish rhetoric as a stand-in for anyplace in eastern Europe, Jews had been immured in their narrow ghettos, trembling in the face of oppresive czarist pharaohs. They had no option but to escape to freedom.
Anzia Yezierska's "America and I," a short story published in 1923, written for an English reading audience, gave voice to "one of the dumb, voiceless ones.... One of the millions of immigrants beating, beating out their hearts at your gates for a breath of understanding." An immigrant herself, who came as a teenager from Plinsk in Russia, Yezierska used biblical terms to contrast the "before" and "after" of her experience:
Choked for ages in the airless oppression of Russia, the Promised Land rose upwings for my stifled spiritsunlight burning through my darknessfreedom singing to me in my prison....
I arrived in America. My young, strong body, my heart and soul pregnant with the unlived lives of generations clamoring for expression.
What my mother and father and their mother and father never had a chance to give out in Russia, I would give out in America. The hidden sap of centuries would find release.
America, Yezierska rhapsodized, was "the golden land of flowing opportunities."
Because of both historical realities and the power of such rhetoric, American Jews, in their popular renditions of the past, have repeatedly contrasted their migration to America with that of other immigrants. In the process of positing that contrast, they strengthened the theme of the Exodus from Egypt and entry into the promised land. Others, the story went, chose to come to America for economic reasons; Jews, escapees from persecution, came in search of religious freedom and personal survival. Others had a home to go back to; Jews came for good. As such, we can understand how, in 1951, Oscar Handlin, a child of eastern European Jewish immigrant parents, could write a book about immigrants in general, which clearly did not fit the Jewish model and entitle it The Uprooted. Three years later he wrote a history of American Jews and entitled it, Adventure in Freedom.
By understanding their migration as singular and as an escape from oppression, Jews could actually link themselves to an American motif, that of the pilgrim. Thus one of the earliest excursions into American Jewish history was Lee M. Friedman's Pilgrims in a New Land. Friedman's use of the pilgrim analogy worked well in the context of American Jewish writing since the immigration era. He had most likely never read Anzia Yezierska, since her vast body of writing was discovered (or rediscovered) only in the 1970s, but she, too, had used that language. In "America and I," she boldly declared about America and herself, "And I, the last comer, had her share to give, small or great, to the making of America, like those Pilgrims who came in the Mayflower."
This understanding of the Jewish past has thoroughly become the American Jewish narrative and serves as the foundation of collective memory. Yet it defies the meticulous findings of historians who offer a more complicated and nuanced understanding of why Jews immigrated to the United States when they did. Historians have amply documented the complex class relations and religious divisions among Jews in eastern Europe. They have convincingly argued that the immigrants had long been exposed to cities, industry, mass culture, secular ideas, and other elements of modernity well before their arrival in America. Additionally, we have a large corpus of material that demonstrates the economic impetus to the Jewish migration, and, finally, evidence from around the world points to the fact that Jews from eastern Europe went to all sorts of places, not just to America. The power of the "America" idea in this memory culture jars with the fact that most Jews did not leave eastern Europe. Most of them opted for better opportunities in the large cities to be found on their side of the Atlantic, indeed, their side of the Elbe River.
But popular Jewish audiencesconsumers of lectures, public programs, films, and novelscontinue to insist on the memory of the tradition-bounded shtetl Jews who chose America as they fled pogroms. In the face of a large body of historical evidence to the contrary, Irving Howe, in a 1984 essay, created an archetypal eastern European Jewish immigrant, "your barely literate Jew, with his few scraps of Hebrew and his kitchen Yiddish," who "ran away from pogroms."
The idea of America as the newest promised land and, as such, the sacralization of America, suffused American Jewish culture and extended far beyond the realm of the immigrant eastern European Jews. The Passover Haggadah (the book used at the seder) issued by the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1923 concluded the ritual event with the singing of "America." A photograph of the statue Religious Liberty, dedicated by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1876 as the Jewish contribution to the grand celebration of American independence in Philadelphia, graced the page opposite the text and music to the patriotic hymn. Lest this be considered further evidence of that movement's desire to distance itself from Zionism and the long-standing dream of the Jewish people to see their homeland restored, the Reconstructionists in their 1942 Haggadah also venerated America. In this text, the words to "America" appear on the same page as those of the traditional "L'shanah Habah b'yerushalayim" (Next year in Jerusalem) and the Zionist anthem, the Hatikvah. Rather than being just another example of Jews identifying with and praying for the good fortune of the country in which they lived, this liturgical twist allowed American Jews a way to link America, their home, with the drama of enslavement, liberation, and revelation that had been marked that very night.
To fully capture this trope, the sacred memory of American Jews needed one more key element. Before the newcomers from eastern Europe could enter America in earnest, they had to experience a kind of journey through the desert in which a new generation, born into American freedom, would learn the rules. Milton Hindus, writing an introductory essay for a Lower East Side anthology of the late 1960s, described the liminality of Jewish life in the neighborhood as "an ordeal, a transition, a painful initiation, a trauma which accompanied passage from the old world shtetl to the sense of a privileged new nationality and status which has come to American Jews in the last fifty years or so."
These children would be the ones to actually cross over. While the streets of the Lower East Side in no way resembled the sandy wilderness through which the children of Israel stumbled for forty years, waiting for the waning of the generation that had known slavery, the terms of the American narrative boldly resemble the Jewish rendition of the mythic wandering in the desert. The narrow streets, the crowded tenements, the congested sweatshops played, in the American narrative, the analogous function of that seemingly endless desert. Grinding poverty, rampant illness, industrial accidents, and exploitation by merciless bosses show up repeatedly in the memoirs of life on the Lower East Side. So do the images of desperate parents fretting over the dangers of the city's streets, its lures and temptations lying in wait to ensnare their children. They describe the breakdown of authority, and, depending on who did the telling, they bemoan or celebrate the pitfalls of America for Jewish tradition.
In the Bible the descendants of the former slaves had to prove themselves capable of freedom and had to have the memories of Egypt erased from their consciousness. In the American story they had to go through as profound a transition. They had to become modern and refined, internalizing new ideas about decorum and behavior that would distinguish them from their parents, who, in one way or another, could never really leave the Lower East Side borderland.
Children, the key players in the narrative of the "Lower East Side as desert," got their first glimpses of the real America that awaited them as they sat in the classrooms of public schools, in the hushed stillness of the reading rooms of the neighborhood's libraries, and in the horizon-expanding programs of the settlement houses. They learned about the world they were going to enter when they journeyed out of the Lower East Side to summer camps provided by charitable societies. The young Morris Raphael Cohen, who later, as a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, would shape the intellectual orientation of thousands of other young Jewish men, wrote at length in his autobiography about the tremendous influence of Thomas Davidson, a teacher at the Lower East Side's Educational Alliance. Davidson arranged for Cohen to attend a summer camp in the Adirondacks. this immigrant's first venture beyond New York City. Here he encountered not only nature and fresh air but also a "breakfast of oatmeal and cream, bacon and eggs and coffee." This obviously nonkosher breakfast "was a novel one to me." The camp, Davidson the teacher, and the Educational Alliance provided models of mainstream American habits and behaviors.
In the retelling of the immigrant Jewish saga of the Lower East Side, the last step on the journey from desert to promised land took place, for boys, when they went uptown to attend City College, a central icon in the story. In Abraham Cahan's fictionalized version of this transformation, The Rise of David Levinsky, the book's main character described the public university as "My Temple." "The ghetto," he wrote, "rang with a clamor for knowledge." Working in a cloak-making shop, Levinsky made the acquaintance of two young men, both students at the college, one supported by a father, a presser, and the other by an aunt, a "bunch-maker in a cigar-factory." Listening to them talk, witnessing the struggle of the older generation to educate the younger, "made me feel as though I were bound to that college with the ties of kinship." For them and for the others, "poor Jewswage-earners, peddlers, grocers, salesmen, insurance agentwho would beggar themselves to give their children a liberal education," the attainment of college status represented the real journey "across the river."
All of these sites helped the immigrant Jews remake themselves so that they would be worthy of entry into America. The archetypal story of the process of remaking the children of the immigrants usually involved certain stock characters. The Old World parents, who could never really learn the rules, stood for the bonds of the past. The children, Jewish adventurers, would make the transition outward. The "German" Jews, condescending and patronizing, disliked everything about these newcomers. Americanized Jews derided traditional Judaism, feared radical socialism, worried about assertive Zionism, and loathed the crudeness of their "Russian" charges. They hoped to hold on to communal power despite their numerical minority. Few non-Jews made it into Lower East Side stories, for this is a Jewish narrative. Gentiles appear in the classic renditions of the saga only when the American children take their first steps out of the Lower East Side cocoon.
Finally, the Jewish metaphor of Egypt-Russia, desertLower East Side, and promised landAmerica required one more rhetorical element to make the analogy work. As the metaphor went, in the process of making their final transition to the good life, the Jews inevitably needed to give something up. Admission to America came at a steep price. This, too, paralleled the metanarrative of the biblical tale.
The years of wandering in the desert described in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, while arduous and full of danger, represented a period of heightened engagement with God and with the realm of the spiritual. Upon entry into their promised land, however, the Jews lost the keen spiritual edge that had been theirs in the desert. Once settled amid the prosperity of the "land flowing with milk and honey," they fought and bickered among themselves, became too comfortable, lusted after local gods, and wanted to be like the nations around them. The voice in Deuteronomy, offering Moses' parting prophecy, admonished the people to think back to their years of wandering. "Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations," he ordered. He reminded the children of Israel who stood poised to cross the Jordan River that "the Lord's portion is his people.... He found him [the people Israel] in a desert land, and in the waste, a howling wilderness, he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye" (Deut. 32: 7-10).
But then Moses foretold the future in terms that would resound in the postLower East Side narratives about the loss of cultural authenticity as the immigrants' children opted for America over Jewishness. "But Jeshurun [Jacob/Israel's third name] grew fat and kicked." God came to despise the wickedness of the people. because "you have forgotten the God that formed you." They were, he thundered, "a perverse generation, children without faith" (Deut. 32:15-20).
So, too, in the hundreds of reminiscences, recollections, and renditions of the Lower East Side, and indeed in the writings of intellectuals and literati: the neighborhood did not just come to stand for what urban historians call "the area of first settlement" for many eastern European Jews in America. Rather, it was Jewish cultural authenticitypure, untarnished Jewish cultural honesty. In their Lower East Side desert immigrant Jews may have been poor, but they were real and lived intensely Jewish lives. And like the children of Israel in the biblical verses, the American children of the eastern European Jewish immigrants, when leaving the neighborhoods, inevitably lost touch with tradition. They, too, would become "a foolish nation," a "nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them."
Since so much of the invention of the Lower East Side developed after the majority of Jews who had ever lived there had moved beyond its borders, it was in their memoir literature that the notion of loss sounded most sharply and ruefully. Harry Golden, publisher, editor, sole writer, and voice of the Carolina Israelite from the 1940s until his death in 1981, had grown up on the Lower East Side, having been brought to America from Galicia as a young child in the early years of the century. While he made a notable career for himself as a southern Jew, he participated, through his columns in the Carolina Israelite and books such as Only in America, in the romanticization of the neighborhood he had left for the very different clime of Charlotte, North Carolina. While the vignettes in that book focused on warm, tenderly remembered anecdotes of the amusing people and situations of his youth, it was in another work that he most perfectly captured the trope of lost authenticity that went in tandem with abandoning the Lower East Side. In his preface to the 1965 reissue of Hutchins Hapgood's 1902 book, The Spirit of the Ghetto, the Jewish sage of Charlotte, wrote: "In retrospect, I would say that I am happy to have grown up on the Lower East Side of New York. I believe it was a happier time to have grown to manhood than that in which my three sons grew to manhood. It was more vigorous, it contained a higher sense of involvement, and a wider feeling of hope."
The "in retrospect" suggests that Golden may not have felt so spiritually charged when he lived there; his feelings about the intensity of life were less benign after he fled. But as remembered life, the very challenges of Lower East Side life offered those who had endured them a heightened consciousness. Other memoirs, including many of Golden's journalistic ramblings from below the Mason-Dixon line, depicted the difficulties of the earlier Lower East Side days in the context of heightened senses: smells, tastes, sights, and sounds. Everything stood out more boldly, was felt more sharply.
Emma Beckerman's 1980 memoir of hard times as an immigrant girl on Rivington Street at the turn of the twentieth century easily conflated descriptions of hunger with memories of food. Although she presented herself and her siblings as "often hungry" and her mother as scouring "the neighborhood for day-old bread," she sounded her memories most loudly in the sensuous tropes of plenty. As she recalled, "When I revisit the Lower East Side ... I can almost smell the conglomeration of garlic, gefilte fish and cabbage." Dedicating the book to her American-born son, she, like Golden, proclaimed, "Of course there were hard times. But looking back ... I can truthfully say, `It's a great life.'"
If the Lower East Side narrative conformed to a classic Jewish formulation, it also had a distinctively American tenor. Certainly, the "pilgrim" language connected the Jewish and American ideologies. Furthermore, the terms of Lower East Side rhetoric offered a particular version of the often-repeated American success story demonstrating how, through hard work, a person could go all the way from poverty to plenty. It offered a twentieth-century Jewish rendition of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography: the tale of the young man who bucked traditionand hierarchy, set a series of goals for himself, and with just the right blend of determination, luck, pluck, and sacrifice, remade himself exactly as he, not anyone else, wanted. The Philadelphia printer began his autobiography in terms that would resonate in Lower East Side, American Jewish memoir literature: "Having emerged from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred to a state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world and having gone so far through life with a considerable share of felicity, the conducting use I made use of, which with the blessing of God so well succeed."
Told either directly or indirectly, in fiction or in tales of "how it really was," the Lower East Side testimonies presented their narrators' experiences as stories of rebirth. The young woman, or man, born in eastern Europe but nurtured in America found herself constricted both by the poverty with which she lived and by her father's (and sometimes, although less often, her mother's) rigid and unyielding traditionalism.
On the Lower East Side of Anzia Yezierska, for example, the fictional daughters of "Old World" parents were reborn as their American selves. In her own life, as in her fiction, Yezierska was determined to shape her options, set priorities, devise a strategy to get there, and become whatever she wanted. Her most widely read work, Bread Givers (1925), focused on this self-creation; she subtitled it A Struggle between a Father of the Old World and a Daughter of the New. Abraham Cahan's eponymous hero in The Rise of David Levinsky traversed the path from Talmud student in Antomir, in the "Northwestern Region, Russia," to a man "worth more than two million dollars and recognized as one of the two or three leading men in the cloak-and-suit trade in the United States." The Lower East Side served as the transitional space between these two selves. There Levinsky learned to shed the trappings of the former to become the latter. He reflected on this, looking backward at the book's beginning: "Sometimes, when I think of my past in a superficial, casual way, the metamorphosis I have gone through strikes me as nothing short of a miracle." In terms not so different, Yetta Helen Dine, who came to America from a small town in Kovno in 1890, remembered that September 22, the day her ship, the Rhineland, docked at Castle Garden happened to be her twenty-fourth birthday. That was "the day of my rebirth and my real birthday. I regret that 24 yearsthe best part of a lifewere wasted," presumably because they had been spent in Lithuania rather than the United States. Morris Raphael Cohen also linked his arrival in America with a metaphoric moment of self-creation. Not sure about his actual birthday on the Gregorian calendar, he recalled that he had to pick a date: "I chose July 25 because that or some other day in the summer of 1892, my mother, my sister and I reached the harbor of New York and a new chapter of my life began."
While most of the rhetoric of re-creation among eastern European Jewish immigrants involved the children who soared beyond their parents' restrictions, sometimes the immigrant parent underwent this kind of metamorphosis. In a poem from 1938, Delmore Schwartz allowed his grandfather to experience firsthand the transformative power of America:
O Nicolas! Alas! Alas!
My grandfather coughed in your army.
Hid in a wine-stinking barrel
For three days in Bucharest,
Then left for America
To become a king himself.
While Jewish immigrants told these stories from and about other spots around the United States, such as Mary Antin's Boston or even Sophie Turpin's rural home described in her Dakota Diaspora, more such memoirists found their voice on the Lower East Side than any other place. The other places where those stories were told came to be viewed as interesting because they were not the Lower East Side. They achieved their edge from the novelty of being about places other than the Lower East Side, which became the cultural metaphor for any place in America where Jewish traditionalism inevitably clashed with American opportunities. The neighborhood meant the zone of contest between these two forces, where it became clear that the former would triumph and exact a price from the latter.
Even personal narratives of American Jews shaped by other places echo the Lower East Side narrative. These stories of growing up as American Jews and moving out into the wider world take the Lower East Side as the marker of place of origin and as the handy point of reference that all are assumed to understand. In the opening text panels for a retrospective exhibit, A Voice of Conscience: The Prints of Jack Levine, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999, the artist recounted his early life in Boston, where he was born in 1915. "The area," as he described it to the exhibit's curator, "was teeming, full of pawnshops. It was very like Hester Street." The recognizably Jewish phrase "Hester Street" brought to mind a set of pictures, the details of which could then be superimposed upon the idea of "Boston," a less widely recognizable immigrant Jewish space, less linked to fixed images.
The name "Lower East Side" contains meaning that is automatically understood by all as distinctive, replete with a set of icons associated with it, and usually with it alone. Tenements, pushcarts, sweatshops, and synagogues inhabited by old men are the images that come instantly to mind with the evocation of the Lower East Side, along with pungent smells, loud noises, crowded spaces, and good, rich food. Pious elders, rebellious children, passionate socialists, aggressive union women, and supercilious German Jewish uptown philanthropists people the canvas of Lower East Side memory. These icons have become firmly fixed in the American Jewish consciousness as synonymous with the American Jewish experience. They have become so thoroughly reified that the neighborhood has assumed the status of American Jews' cultural homeland, which they seek to connect with both physically and metaphysically. The Lower East Side has as such entered the realm of the sacred.
Whereas the word sacred usually carries with it connotations of religiosity or a connectedness to some belief in a divine being, its other, and broader, meanings make it an apt concept for the Lower East Side. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sacred as "dedicated, set apart, exclusively appointed to some person, or some special purpose" as its second usage. Likewise, in Hebrew the word kadosh, usually defined as "holy" and having to do with God and to those practices specified in halakah (Jewish law), can mean "dedicated" or "distinctive," "separate" or "set apart."
Sacred has meaning beyond the realm of formal, institutionalized religious practice, not just as a matter of dictionary definitions. Scholars of religion have long acknowledged the breadth of the concept and its many manifestations beyond the confines of church or synagogue. Georg Simmel, a German sociologist, described sacred as the experiences people encounter in "a certain inner mood," which "stir relations, meanings, sentiments, which of themselves are not yet religion ... [but] they become religion." Likewise, the Romanian-born Mircea Eliade considered any time as potentially sacred, as long as it functioned and was commonly used as wholly different from ordinary time. As long as groups of people mark off moments as fixed, distinct, and meaningful, Eliade considered them worthy, in his intellectual schema, of being designated as sacred.
For a time, place, or object to acquire sacred status, it must become separate from others that initially seemed very much like it. It must traverse a path from ordinariness to distinctiveness, from optional to fixed. It needs to be connected intimately to identity, on either a personal or a communal level.
An example might help to demonstrate this process. Almost all Americans mark off the last Thursday of November as a Thursday unlike all others. They travel, sometimes vast distances, to be with family. They "gather together" to eat a formulaic mealturkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin piethat varies not a bit from year to year.
But this sacred moment has a history. It went through a historically specific process of moving from the ordinary to the sacred, from being celebrated only by some Americans until the time of the Civil War, when President Lincoln issued an official National Thanksgiving Proclamation. Lincoln was influenced by the ardent campaign of Sara Joseph Hale (also known for composing "Mary Had a Little Lamb"), the editor of Godey's Lady's Book who advocated such a day as an addition to the American calendar, a new holiday or, better, holy day. She advocated its universalization as a sacred day by writing: "The last Thursday in November, let it be consecrated now to our Father in heaven, for His bounteous blessing bestowed upon us, as the perpetual Day of Thanksgiving for the American people." That is, then, the last Thursday in November became sacralized.
The Lower East Side has also moved along this path. American Jews have constructed it as singular and special. It is paradigmatic of the Jewish narrative in America. As such, it has also become sacred in the sense that it is reenacted through ritual, visited as pilgrimage, and invoked as a shorthand way of encapsulating an entire trajectory of Jewish history.
The specialness of the Lower East Side manifested itself throughout American Jewish culture of the postWorld War II era. In representations of Jews in America, the Lower East Side served as the standard of Jewish measurement. A 1980s "docudrama" about a young Jewish peddler who learned about America and about himself while on the road bore the title West of Hester Street, obviously a big swath of geography.
Irving Howe, the great literary critic who in the 1970s turned to the Lower East Side for his magnum opus on immigrant life in America, and Kenneth Libo, a popular writer, collaborated on two photodocumentary books on the history of Jewish immigration. These lavishly illustrated books made their way to numerous synagogue libraries and American Jewish coffee tables. By their very titles we can see the Lower East Side as normative, and elsewhere as exceptional. How We Lived: A Documentary History of Immigrant Jews in America, 18801930 (1979) focused, not surprisingly, on the Lower East Side. Despite the word America in the title, the book captured the sights and words of the Lower East Side only. The Library of Congress cataloged it under the heading and call numbers for "New York," the designation in the title of "America" notwithstanding. Five years later, Howe and Libo turned to the rest of the story. We Lived There, Too: In Their Own Words and PicturesPioneer Jews and the Westward Movement of America, 16301930, informed the incredulous that some Jews had willingly crossed the Hudson.
Late-twentieth-century American Jewish rhetoric as reflected in journalism carries forward the normative nature of the Lower East Side as the marker against which all American Jews must measure themselves. An article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that was picked up by Jewish newspapers around the United States and the world, described an effort to save and restore the Breed Street Synagogue in Los Angeles. The article, published in July 1998, explained the importance of this shul, its association with some of Hollywood's legendary figures, and its setting in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, "which was dubbed the Lower East Side of Los Angeles." The few written histories of the Jews of Los Angeles do not claim that residents of Boyle Heights in the 1920s, for example, ever compared their neighborhood to the Lower East Side. At its apex in the 1920s, the neighborhood housed ninety-thousand Jews, which would certainly qualify it as a major Jewish enclave that probably did not need to be justified in terms of another Jewish neighborhood a continent away.
Los Angeles Jewry in the 1920s experienced a golden age of cultural productivity. Here immigrant and native-born Jews created a society in a climate notably unlike the ones they had left on the other side of the Atlantic, and the other side of the American continent. They picked up on that physical distance and difference to celebrate the uniqueness of their communities in the diaspora. The Yiddish poet Joseph Katzenogy waxed eloquent about Los Angeles in 1925:
from the narrow New York streets, Chicago clouds,
You are intoxicated by the smell of orange blossoms,
blinded by the towering mountains, refreshed by the
straight proud palms.
Thus, a Los Angeles Jewish Yiddish-language poet in the 1920s did not feel compelled to single out the Lower East Side from the rest of New York or to celebrate the Edenic qualities of California as opposed to only New York. Seventy years later, however, after the construction of the Lower East Side as the central metaphor of American Jewish memory, the wire service article could not help but link Breed Street with the Lower East Side.
Indeed, so sacred is that imagery of the Lower East Side that it actually blurs the line between the tenacity of memory and the writing of history. Historians use the phrase "Lower East Side" as an understood point of reference without exploring exactly what or where it was. They do so for a good reason: more Jews lived in New York City than anywhere else in America. Indeed, more Jews lived there than in any other city in all of Jewish history. The most important port of disembarkation of immigrants from Europe, New York attracted more Jews than any other American city, and it attracted Jews to a degree unmatched by any other immigrant group. Jews, more than most other immigrants, stayed put in New York, and from the 1880s until the 1920s, most settled in the area that came to be known as the Lower East Side. In 1890, close to 75 percent of New Yorkers who listed their mothers' birthplace as somewhere in Russia or Polandalmost all Jewslived in the three wards that constituted the Lower East Side.
These historians, almost exclusively American Jews themselves, certainly have been justified in focusing on New York and the Lower East Side as the key geographic zone in their attempts to understand American Jewish history. The ways they have focused on it, and the ways in which they articulated their findings, demonstrate the gravity of Lower East Side memory.
A few examples should suffice. In 1954 the United Jewish Federation of Buffalo, like a number of other Jewish communities at that time, commissioned a book to chart the history of the local Jewish community, inspired by the 1954 tercentenary of Jewish settlement in North America. The book, From Ararat to Suburbia, published in 1960, offered readers a dense base of information about the history of the Jews in this upstate New York city. Its authors narrated the experience of the Jews who came there, the institutions they built, and their activities as Jews and as citizens of the city. Amid the many specific, localized details of Buffalo Jewish life, the book informed its readers that "the William Street area of that period was, in miniature, every bit as picturesque as the Lower East Side of New York City."
In a history of the Jews of Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn where Jews made up a larger percentage of the population than they ever did on the Lower East Side, the title of the first chapter is "Brooklyn's `Lower East Side': Brownsville before the Boys Club." Likewise, a history of the Jews of Denver used words and pictures to prove that even in the Rocky Mountains, where eastern European Jews settled, their communities "soon resembled the lower east side of New York with its many synagogues, small businesses and adherence to an Orthodox Jewish tradition."
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