I spent part of this afternoon reading the first few chapters of Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America by Hasia R. Diner a professor of American Jewish history at NYU. I’ve had it sitting around for a while and all this time assumed that it was simply another book describing the Lower East Side and its history as an enclave for Russian Jewish immigrants. But, much to my surprise, it’s actually an examination of the mythical status the Lower East Side of Manhattan has attained in the Jewish American experience. It particularly questions why this small area of New York City has become romanticized as the liminal space between the Russian shtetl and achievement of American success. I don’t know that Diner answers those questions, but they’re certainly intriguing and, for me, an interesting way of thinking about the neighborhood I’m writing about. It’s important that I neither perceive nor present the neighborhood as a picturesque place of pushcarts and pickle barrels. It’s also important to remember that the neighborhood, while predominately Jewish, was made up of other ethnicities, a point brought up during my thesis defense.
Diner also brought me back to my childhood with one of her points of reference for the romanticization of the neighborhood – Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series. I can remember devouring those books when I was in fourth grade and it’s possible that they set me on the path of the book I’m working on. They tell the story of a close-knit Jewish family living in the Lower East Side during the early part of the 20th century, mostly through the experiences of the children (all girls until, I believe, a baby boy comes along in the third or fourth book). They were a wonderful introduction to a place and religion that I knew nothing about. Even today I recall the story about the girls’ cousin whom they refer to as a greenhorn and the story in which one sister stains a borrowed dress and dyes the whole dress with tea to cover her tracks. I can’t remember any algebra, but I remember that. I suppose that’s why I’m writing about the Lower East Side and not about a math professor.