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Strolling Through the Lower East Side With ‘All-of-a-Kind Family’

A mother and daughter—both megafans of Sydney Taylor’s timeless kidlit—take a tour of Manhattan’s historic Jewish neighborhood

Marjorie Ingall
May 16, 2016
Flickr / Whit Andrews
Flickr / Whit Andrews
Flickr / Whit Andrews
Flickr / Whit Andrews

“I’m totally a Henny,” I told my daughter Josie.

“Everyone thinks they’re a Henny,” Josie told me, with the implicit eye-roll only a 14-year-old girl can deliver without actually eye-rolling. “Everyone wants to be the bad girl. But you are so completely a Sarah.”

This was super-hurtful, because while every girl who has ever read the All-of-a-Kind Family books has her favorite among the five sisters, no one’s favorite is Sarah. You remember her: The middle sister, best known for freaking out about a lost library book and sobbing when faced with soup.

Josie and I were finally taking the All-of-a-Kind Family Walking Tour at the Museum at Eldridge Street, which I’ve been meaning to go on with Josie since she was old enough to become an All-of-a-Kind Family megafan herself, but they always sold out too quickly. (They happen every few months; the next one is August 7.) (UPDATE: Sold out! But they’ve added an additional tour on September 25! Hurry!)

If you’ve been living under a goyish rock, AOAKF, as we fangirls call it, is the story of five sisters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century. So beloved are these books, the Association of Jewish Libraries’ awards for the best Jewish children’s books of the year are named after AOAKF’s author, Sydney Taylor.

It’s basically impossible to overstate the meaning this series has had for generations of women. The first volume is on Tablet’s list of 101 Great Jewish Books (not children’s books, mind you, but ALL books!), and friend-of-Tablet and AOAKF-ultrafan Lizzie Skurnick has reissued the out-of-print later volumes of the series under her eponymous imprint, so let’s all raise our cones of hot chickpeas to her.

The tour over the weekend did not begin auspiciously. It was winter-coat-weather in May; the sky was as dark as a pickle barrel; and the tour consisted of around 40 people ranging in age from a toddler to three elderly grownups who’d gone to Camp Cejwin with the All-of-a-Kind sisters. As it turned out, our charismatic and funny tour guide Judy Greenspan, the Director of Education at the Museum at Eldridge Street, was up for the challenge of keeping everyone entertained.

Carrying a tote bag that said “shlepper” in Yiddish on it, she led us through the streets where the family worked, shopped, read and played. As we stopped near locations that played a role in the books, Greenspan read aloud the relevant sections of the stories.

“There were no flowers except those one saw in the shops of the few florists,” she read, as the kids watched her, rapt. “There were no tall trees lining the streets. There were tall gas lampposts instead. There was no running brook in which the children might splash on hot summer days. But there was the East River. Its waters stretched out wide and darkly green, and it smelt of fish, ships, and garbage.” As Greenspan described people sleeping on fire escapes and the family pulling all their mattresses into the marginally cooler living room, we all desperately longed for a breeze despite it being freezing and rainy in our actual, modern-day Manhattan.

We stopped in front of PS 42, and Greenspan explained what school was like in those days. Up to 60 kids shared a classroom and up to three kids shared a desk. They learned practical skills: sewing and hatmaking for girls, furniture-making and bookbinding for boys.

A little girl on our tour was dressed as Henny, in a pinafore with white apron and a ribbon in her blonde hair. “Are you going to run away to Coney Island?” I asked her, referring to the chapter in which Henny gets lost on the Boardwalk and is rescued by an Irish policeman. She gave me a condescending look. “We’re nowhere near Coney Island,” she said. Josie could take lessons in deadpan from her.

Greenspan showed us blown-up illustrations from the books and photos of the neighborhood in the olden days, painting a picture of a long-ago time superimposed over where we stood. “The pushcart peddlers, usually bearded men in long overcoats or old women in heavy sweaters and shawls, out did each other in their loud cries to the passers-by,” she read, as we stood in front of The Pickle Guys. “All promised bargains—bargains in everything—in fruits and vegetables, crockery, shoelaces, buttons and other notions, in aprons and housedresses, in soap and soap powders, and hundreds of other things.”

We visited the first public playground in the country, Seward Park, and learned why playgrounds were deemed essential for kids in the filthy Lower East Side strewn with horse corpses and crawling with gangs. Greenspan quoted a New York Times story about the playground’s opening in 1903. (“Thousands of Children Sweep Away Policemen and Establish Themselves According to Their Inclinations,” the headline said, which proves that The New York Times has always sounded like The New York Times.) “Twenty thousand children took matters into their own hands, mobbed the gates, and swarmed in…not being able to get within reach, crowds went on to the house tops, climbed on to the fire escapes, and stormed every available vantage point.”

We learned about Seward Park Library, the Italianate Renaissance Revival building next to the park, which opened in 1909. Greenspan talked about how important the library was to Taylor’s family and other Lower East Siders. In its first month of operation, the branch lent over 12,000 books, more than any other branch in the NYPL system. “Almost no East Side child owned a book when Mama’s children were little girls,” Greenspan read. “That was an unheard-of luxury. It was heavenly enough to be able to borrow books from the public library and that was where the children always went on Friday afternoons. Right after school, they rushed off happily to get fresh reading material for the week end. Even Gertie who was not yet old enough to ‘belong’ took the weekly trip to look at the picture magazines.”

As we trooped to the ornate and disintegrating Loew’s Theater on Canal Street, designed by Thomas Lamb (who also designed the Boston Opera House), Josie whispered to me, “Look how engaged the kids are! It makes me so happy! Now I’m excited to read All-of-a-Kind Family to my future children!” When I beamed at her, she said, “Just kidding. Kids are disgusting.”

The theater was built in 1926 as a neighborhood movie house; comedian Jerry Stiller used to hang out all day watching serials as a kid. Today, the 2300-seat auditorium is used as a warehouse. But the façade is still astounding, featuring a cornice on which “griffons, eagles, and fanciful sea monsters are interspersed with garlands, festoons, and other foliate motifs in an exuberant explosion of terra-cotta decoration,” noted the landmark commission when it protected the exterior (though not, alas, the interior).

We concluded the tour at The Sweet Life, an old-fashioned candy store featuring windows full of glass apothecary jars full of bright-colored sweets. Greenspan presented each child with a penny, in tribute to Charlotte and Gertie’s expedition to a similar shop long ago. “When they reached the candy store, the two little girls stood before the glass cases so full of chewy and sucking delights and could not make up their minds,” Greenspan read. “They looked at the red cherry hearts, the yellow and orange ‘chicken corn’ candy, and the different-colored jelly beans… ‘Mrs. Blumberg!’ [Charlotte] called out, ‘Could we buy a quarter of a cent’s worth of candy?’ ‘Woe is me! Haven’t I got trouble enough giving you half a penny dis and half a penny dat?’ ”

Josie and I got malted milk balls, which we both love. They cost more than a penny.

At home, I took Buzzfeed’s “Which All-of-a-Kind Family Sibling Are You” quiz. Yup. I got Sarah.

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.