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!”
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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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.