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How To Give Your Kids a Taste of the Jewish Immigrant Experience

Even though it’s just a few blocks from our home, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum gave my girls a chance to time-travel

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A costumed interpreter portrays Bridget Moore in a program for school groups at the Tenement Museum. (Courtesy of the Tenement Museum)
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When my daughter Josie was 6, I took her on the Confino Family Apartment Tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. In this tour, a costumed interpreter plays a 14-year-old Sephardic girl, Victoria Confino (an actual person who lived in this building in 1916), giving museum visitors (who’ve been told they’re a boatload of new immigrants) a look at her home and a sense of what life will be like for them in this intimidating new country. I was transported. But Josie was antsy. The museum recommends the tour for kids age 5 and up, and though like all Jewish mothers I’d love to think my daughter is insanely advanced for her age, she was fidgety. The actress playing Victoria was on it. Noting (with only the slightest hint of accusation) that this unexpected group of clueless new immigrants was preventing her from getting her chores done, she begged Josie to do her laundry. Plunked down at a tub with an old-fashioned washboard, Josie enthusiastically scrubbed clothes while the tour went on.

The actress was amazing—she really looked 14, and she was very funny. Looking skeptically at one visitor’s cargo shorts, she stage-whispered, “In this country only little boys wear short pants! You need to get some trousers. People will think you are … slow.” On a roll, she then frowned at his Birkenstocks: “And your sandals? This is the city. There are no goat-herders.” She also confided that we could cheat the apartment’s gas meter by carving quarter-sized tokens out of ice and putting them into the machine. “But don’t do it too often, or it will rust!”

Between 1863 and 1935, 7,000 people lived at 97 Orchard Street, the five-story building where the museum is located. Museum staff have researched and created apartments representing the lives of several of them, including the Confinos. (The only way to see the building is with an advance reservation, so check out the website for times and options.)

There’s something visceral about actually seeing what life was like for immigrants a century ago. We can read books like All-of-a-Kind Family and Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 to our kids. We can look at family photos of our great-great-bubbes and zaydes and tell stories about what life was like when they first came to this country. But there’s a deep-rooted, emotional power in being plunked into an actual vintage apartment and getting to talk to (a simulacrum of) the actual human being who lived there. It’s as close to stepping into a time machine as a modern-day kid can get.

***

A couple weeks ago, I returned for the museum’s Family Day, when a bunch of tours were stitched together—a sort of Whitman’s Sampler of lives, time periods, and stories. Josie, now 12, couldn’t join me—she had a previously scheduled playdate (ironically, perhaps, it was with an Indian family in Queens, which is for new immigrants what the Lower East Side was a century ago). When I teased her that she’d be missing the museum’s post-party gift bags, she snarked, “What will be in them? Poverty?”

Pfft. Maxie, 9, had a great time without her sister. When we arrived, we were given little notebooks and told we were going to be journalists writing a story on the residents of 97 Orchard Street. Max volunteered, “I have the Rebecca books! Rebecca’s friend lived on Orchard Street!” (Thank you, American Girl.) She was particularly interested in discussing when the building got indoor toilets (1905, two per floor) and the history of fire escapes. (She just kept talking about fire escapes. Another mother whispered to me, “Your daughter is very interested in safety!” This is apparently what happens when you have a mother obsessed with the Triangle Fire.)

It seems we were time-traveling journalists, because we visited the apartments of residents who lived in the building in different eras. Bridget Moore arrived in the United States in 1863, the year 97 Orchard Street was built. Our guide asked the group why someone might have left Ireland then. “I know!” yelled a kid on our tour. “Too many potatoes!” So close.

Mrs. Moore turned out to be a fresh-faced young woman in a starched apron. She hesitantly invited us into her apartment. “I used to live in Five Points, so I don’t quite trust strangers at my door,” she apologized. Her husband Joseph still worked as a barkeep in the old neighborhood, she told us, but she was happier now that the family lived on the Lower East Side (which she called Kleindeutschland, little Germany, the name it was known by then). She told us that she used to be a domestic for a rich lady, but now she has three kids of her own to take care of. We admired her clean home, with its striped rag rugs, cast iron stove, and cheery blue-and-white dishware. As we left, she told us she was starting to cook dinner. “I’m making Murphys with the Coat on!” she said. At least, I think she did. I may have misunderstood her brogue, because when I got home and Googled “Murphys with the Coat on,” I got nothing.

We also visited the home of Rosaria Baldizzi, who lived in the building from 1928 until the landlord evicted everyone in 1935. (New regulations enacted by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia were designed to make buildings safer, but during the Depression few landlords could afford to make the necessary improvements, so buildings like 97 Orchard wound up shuttered.) The Baldizzis hailed from Palermo, Sicily; the actress playing Rosaria, with black hair pulled back in a severe bun, had an excellent Italian accent. And at the end of the tour, when we saw pictures of the real people the actors were portraying, we discovered that she looked shockingly like the real Rosaria!

The Baldizzi apartment, like that of the Moores, was only around 325 square feet, but Mrs. Baldizzi had decorated it with beautiful lacy curtains and patterned fabrics. Noting the wooden radio in the kitchen, one of the journalists asked, “Do you like listening to the radio?” Mrs. Baldizzi beamed. “I love to listen to my stories—you don’t want to write that down! I love my radio. My children make fun of me, how much I love my radio.” Her voice was so wistful, we could imagine her in the grip of her soap operas as she cleaned the floor with Bon Ami and cooked pasta for her family. On the kitchen table next to the radio was a Chinese checkers game; none of the children on the tour knew what it was. “Is that a Star of David?” one asked curiously. The actress improvised, “Mrs. Rosenthal down the hall asked me the same question!”

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How To Give Your Kids a Taste of the Jewish Immigrant Experience

Even though it’s just a few blocks from our home, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum gave my girls a chance to time-travel