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.
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.
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
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.