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
As we roamed from floor to floor and apartment to apartment, we wandered through bits of the building that looked exactly as they had in the 1980s, when the museum bought the property. It had been empty since 1935; with coat upon coat of chipped, scarred paint, ripped layers of patterned linoleum and faded wallpaper strata, it looked decrepit, beautiful, and haunted.
Our final apartment visit was my favorite—we met Harris Levine, who’d left Plonsk, Poland, in 1890 (“because the Russian Empire was mean,” one kid astutely noted). Unlike Mrs. Moore, Mr. Levine was eager to invite us in. “I got shpilkes waiting for you!” he exclaimed. Mr. Levine showed off his apartment, which he and his wife Jennie used as a garment factory—there were seats for three girls to baste, sew, and finish clothing, along with a pile of sleeves and one nearly completed pink-and-black gown. One of the little girls on the tour admired it. “You like?” Mr. Levine asked. “Is an American color!” He told us about his business—rent was $2.50 a week; he and his wife and the girls could make 12 dresses a day; a dress sold for $10; he got 25 cents per dress. “And from that I got to pay the girls,” he said. I asked where he saw himself in 10 years. He pointed to a picture of a rural scene on the wall. “Right there! Williamsburg!” He hoped to move to Brooklyn and become a custom tailor. (The real Mr. Levine achieved his wish.) He also told us about his family. “Pauline is a shayne punim, she got six years, and Hyman got three years,” he said, with perfect Yiddish syntax. A little boy asked him whether his wife was Jewish. Mr. Levine, baffled, looked around into all our faces, paused, and then laughed. “Is a joke!”
After the tour, we sat in the museum’s Visitor Center, looked at pictures of the real Moores, Baldizzis, and Levines and learned more about the stories of residents after they left 97 Orchard. When a picture flashed onscreen of Harris’ grandson’s bar mitzvah in 1910, a little kid gasped and repeated what he thought he’d heard: “Vomits-va?” (Hey, I think I misheard “Murphys with the Coat on.”) Another child explained: “A bar mitzvah is when you read Hebrew and they throw candy at you.” Indeed.
We exited through the museum’s fabulous gift shop (where you can buy many of the great Jewish children’s books I’ve written about in Tablet, along with grownup books, paper goods, kitchen wares, jewelry, paper dolls, handbags, and 19th-century games and toys). We didn’t shop, though. Maxie scooped up her gift bag, which contained a coloring book, a lollipop, and a finger puppet shaped like a pickle. Inspired, we went around the corner to The Pickle Guys, a fabulous old-fashioned emporium full of barrels containing every kind of pickle you can imagine, as well as pickled tomatoes, tomatillos, mushrooms, olives, peppers, okra, and turnips. And we hit Economy Candy, an old-fashioned bulk candy store that’s been on the Lower East Side since 1937. (When friends visit us—we live a few blocks uptown from the museum—I also send them to the 65-year-old Kossar’s Bialys and to Doughnut Plant, a relatively new addition that uses the baker’s grandfather’s doughnut recipe, so I think it counts thematically.)
Shortly before our visit, the neighborhood—where these old-guard businesses are now outnumbered by swanky bars, hipster clothing stores, and spiffy restaurants—miraculously spiraled back in time. Suddenly the museum’s environment matched its interior; for two days, a film crew took over the corner of Orchard and Broome streets and turned the block into its turn-of-the-20th-century self for The Knick, a Steven Soderbergh series that will air on Cinemax next year. The crew removed parking meters and bike racks, covered the asphalt with dirt, turned posh storefronts into ramshackle kosher butcheries, fabric shops, and fruit stands. The streets were crammed with hundreds of extras in vintage clothing, wooden pushcarts, horse-drawn wagons, and even a (fake) dead horse. A friend and I spent a thrilling morning watching the transformation and imagining ourselves in the Lower East Side of our predecessors, and of Harris Levine. We can’t really time-travel, and we rarely get to see a massive historical film shoot. But a visit to the Tenement Museum is the next best thing.
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An ambitious new park is set to transform the dilapidated neighborhood that was once the Russian capital’s first Jewish quarter