instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

author's blog 

SOME STORIES OF JEWISH MMIGRANTS IN THE LOWER EAST SIDE

I blogged back in August 2013 on Moyshe-Leyb Halpern (1886-1932). He wrote about New York in the time of immigration, neon, the El and its noise and grit, poverty, ragtime, the heat of August sticking to the body at manual labor. An immigrant, Halpern contrasts the small Polish town and the Lower East Side with images as powerful as Pound's, and as brief. Here is “Tuesday,” – in a sweatshop.
[Will] the prince from Neverland / Come to that one, always dreaming? / And if she who dreams no longer/ Always clothed in yellow flowers, / Will sit there, her bright braid greying/ Hunched forever over sewing.

The fascination is that these immigrants, slaving in tenements which today are gentrified, isolated high end towers, were so different in humility, health, ambition, and possessions from us, their descendants. Not so much more pious, patriotic, or contented with their accomplishments, but so much more vulnerable. Today, Jewish sons and daughters study for careers at Wharton Business, Yale Law, MIT, or FIT. Or perhaps with a famous literary critic or historian at Stanford, Harvard, or for a career in international relations at Michigan or Georgetown. In 1915, parents were willing to be a “lost generation,” hanging their harps up on trees, so that a son might enter CCNY, or a daughter a normal school.

Alter Brody was another East Side poet. His “A Family Album” begins by recalling an actual album his sister bought with an “open bosomed female on the cover. It is sinful to have such a picture in a Jewish home,” said his father. But her brother spent many hours staring at, touching “the yellow threads of her hair,” and kissing the image. Later in the poem, he remembers his mother and her burdens, one of which is “Seeing your old faith cast off and trampled under foot / Ignored and derided by your own children.” That contrast between a religious and secular existence is most powerfully evoked by Anzia Yezierska, whose success as a writer was derided by her father, especially when she went to Hollywood. “Poverty,” he said, “becomes a Jew like a red ribbon on a white horse.” The shot story “The Day of Atonement” also depicts the clash between parent-child love and the need both feel to disown the other or lose their way. The story was made into classic film The Jazz Singer.
Brody’s “Album” talks of his mother, at 57, washing clothes while her son tells us of her “battling with poverty, death, and disease for thirty years / “following some [of her children] to their little graves, /In their birthplace across the sea” and having to do the same with her first born, “Burying half your heart, Under a tombstone in Brooklyn.” The family slept in the kitchen with several borders while others occupied the bedroom. Such was Brody’s mother’s “Red ribbon on a white horse.” All he can do is open the door for her when her youngest children return from the schoolyard to their Cherry Street tenement. Re Cgherry Street, see Harry Roskolenko's great memoir.

A century has grown into another, and a people into a generation so removed from their family predecessors that the character and passions of their grandparents is often lost, as if they might as well have been part of an ancient tribe who walked with Abraham. The history of one’s people should be as ever-present as the eternal light in the front of the synagogue ark.

Here is one more reason, a short story by Avrom Reisen written about 1920. I end with it b/c some readers might think the “Shop Girl” of the title is a failure to be easily written off. Can she?

Dvoyre came to the US at 20. She was still a shopgirl. She had saved up $400 to buy a bridegroom. Her two girlfriends were both pretty, and with her they had attended lectures and dances. One got all the attention, the other sat with her and gazed. “Somehow, people are strange. When they feel good they forget all about [other people]. Why are people so bad? …. She liked to admit that people preferred happy, pretty, and healthy girls. . . “
She had a handsome, friendly cousin. “But its only pity. When young pretty Bella shows up, he gets gussied up like a king and goes out with her. . . . But to go so far as to invite her someplace . . .”
Dvoyre sits with his parents, “trembling for fear of breaking down in tears. . .. . His parents ask, Do you still work in the same shop? “
Going down the stairs, she pauses and repeats, as if in answer to the general question – “Still in the same shop.”


Be the first to comment