How a faraway girlhood became part of my own
It is December 1912, and in the front room of a tenement flat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan an eight-year-old girl named Sarah is dusting the piano keys and the lace doilies, the intricately carved heavy wooden table legs and knicknacks from the “old country,” with the greatest of care and even a little bit of enthusiasm. She’s playing “find the buttons,” a kind of work-as-treasure-hunt game devised by her clever Mama. The mother of five girls ranging in age from four to twelve, Mama is a master of making life simultaneously instructive and fun in spite of her large family’s rather precarious financial situation amid the pickle barrels and clothing vendors of New York’s crowded immigrant enclave. As usual, this particular diversion—one of many in Mama’s arsenal for getting her girls to complete their daily chores without grumbling—proves to be a winner. “I found them! I found them all, every single one of them!” Sarah cries out joyfully as she bursts back into the family kitchen, her dreaded task complete. Dusting will never be the same again.
Or it is the late 1940s in Manhattan, and Sydney Taylor—Sarah Brenner before she changed her first name at the age of twelve and her last name when she got married—is telling her young daughter, Jo, amusing stories about her childhood. Among them is the story of “find the buttons,” and all of the tales feature herself and her four sisters: Ella, Henny, Charlotte and Gertie. Taylor and her family are fully assimilated Jews who no longer keep kosher or observe the Sabbath, and Jo has become curious about her heritage. “Mommy, why is it every time I read a book about children, it is always a Christian child,” she asks. “Why isn’t there a book about a Jewish child?” Jo is an only child, and Taylor, who grew up with three brothers in addition to her four sisters, wants to compensate for both her daughter’s isolation and the lack of a vibrant Jewish community around her. So, she digs deep into her memory to “try to make up for the lack of a big family by telling her about my own…[Jo] was delighted with the tales of our good times together and the enjoyment of simple pleasures. She loved the stories so much,” Taylor recalled years later, “that I decided to write them down for her. The manuscript went into a big box and stayed there.”
And then it didn’t. Because now it is the late 1970s, still Manhattan, and I am an eight-year-old tucked into my bed, reading about Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie in a book called All-Of-A-Kind Family, the first in a series of five that Sydney Taylor eventually published, beginning in 1951. Though I am far, far away from the turn-of-the-century and the wide starched pinafores and solemn Sabbath dinners the children experience—not to mention the nickel fare on the subway, which, much to my shock and admiration, they ride alone—I am enthralled. I’m not Jewish, but there’s something about these girls and their upstanding parents—Mama stays home, Papa runs a junk shop—that makes me love and relate to them from the instant I open the pages of the first book and go along on their weekly trip to the library.
Maybe it’s Henny’s mischievous streak, which makes me feel better about mine. Maybe it’s Charlotte’s daydreaming, which later in the series will get her into trouble when she empties a pile of jewel-like burning coals from the kitchen stove into her apron, enraptured by their glowing beauty. It could be Ella’s natural elegance, or her lovely singing voice that draws me in even though I can only hear it in my own head. Or Sarah’s love of school, so much like my own, or maybe even Gertie’s comic desperation at being the youngest—something I understand viscerally even though I only have one older sister. It may also be the fact that even though the girls have to share a single bedroom—I have recently been given my own room, in no small measure to prevent my sister from killing me in my sleep—and big double beds (except for Henny, ever the rebel, who gets her own twin), they somehow lack for nothing and live in a world filled with imaginary games and adventures, a world in which everything—from dusting to appearing in a Hebrew school play—is touched with magic. Their Mama actually puts them all to bed at the same time, in spite of their age differences, in order to encourage this fanciful behavior, and there they lie awake for hours, building castles in the air and decorating the interiors of imaginary houses. I envy their camaraderie, which seems to come naturally to them despite the close quarters in which they live.
That I learn about Jewish celebrations from Yom Kippur to Purim to the simple Friday night prayer is just a fringe benefit of the books as far as I’m concerned, though I’m fascinated by them. These moments of rich family life reverberate with calm, quiet well-being. “In the lovely hush of the Sabbath eve,” Taylor writes, “they
once more gathered around the table, the children with their books, Mama with her magazine, and Papa with his Jewish newspaper.” Who wouldn’t want to be part of such an inviting scene? Over the course of the five books, the family does everything from explaining to their Catholic neighbors (a useful foil if ever there was one) how to make meat kosher, to showing them how to celebrate a bris and how to build a sukkah. In return, the neighbors invite them to see their first Christmas tree, which Papa tells the girls they can look at but not help decorate. I have plenty of Jewish friends, but, this being the 1970s, most of them are reform, and with the exception of a Bar Mitzvah or two I haven’t been exposed to any of these traditions.
Certainly no one around me speaks Yiddish, a decline that was already apparent when Taylor wrote her books, and one of which she tacitly approved. She makes a point of saying that “In this foreign land [the Lower East Side], it was Mama’s girls who were the foreigners since they alone conversed in a foreign tongue—English.” So when the girls venture out to spend their allowance pennies and the street vendors call out to them—”a nickel a schtickel!”—it’s like going on a tour of a strange land with happily familiar guides.
For their author, however, the Jewish aspect of the books was more than just a means of time travel. It was a way of preserving the past she had willingly given up, even though she never originally intended for the stories to be published. It was her husband who took that first manuscript out of its box and sent it off, unbeknownst to his wife, to a contest. “No one was more surprised than I when I received a letter from [a children's book editor] telling me she wanted to publish All-of-A-Kind Family,” Taylor recalled. “I didn’t know what she was talking about.” Thus was Taylor, who had been a Martha Graham dancer in a previous life, reborn as a best-selling children’s book author. Her books were the first to deal with everyday life in a Jewish family, and some fifty years later, they are still beloved by Jewish and non-Jewish children alike.
The secret of her books’ success, of course, lies in the truth that while they are steeped in Jewish culture and ritual, and serve as loving documents of a time and place now lost to a wave of trendy bars and boutiques, they also transcend it. They are deeply Jewish, but they are also about that great universal: childhood. The five sisters, and the brother who eventually joins them, get scared on the playground swings, lose their library books, and get in trouble with their parents. They even, in Ella’s case, have crushes on boys (her romance with Jules Roth, who takes her to eat in her very first restaurant and later goes off to fight in Europe, remains, in my opinion, one of the great literary love affairs though I’m willing to admit my judgment may be clouded by nostalgia).
In addition to these more obvious attributes, the All-of-A-Kind Family books also deal in a more subtle commodity, one that children never tire of reading about, as it forms the very foundation of their small worlds and in doing so allows them to venture forth. They tell readers, over and over again, that not having enough of some things in life—money, space, clothing—is more than made up for by having plenty of another thing, namely, the love of your family. In the same way that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books have enraptured generations of young readers with their descriptions of the sacrifices the Ingalls family makes in order to forge a better life for themselves in a strange new part of their country, Taylor’s books bring their readers along on another odyssey, one of assimilation in the promised land that America represented to European immigrants at the turn of the century. It’s a gentle ride, buffeted by trips to the penny candy store and other childish pleasures, but it leaves an indelible mark.