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The Lower East Side of New York City

On the Jewish Plymouth Rock of New York's Lower East Side, Jewish immigrants began their new lives.

By Moses Rischin

For Jewish immigrants, as well as for immigrants of myriad other religions and ethnicities, the Lower East Side was a communal point of departure in their American experience. Today, the neighborhood is home to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, among other immigration-oriented tourist institutions. Reprinted with permission from Remembering the Lower East Side, edited by Hasia R. Diner, Jeffrey Shandler, and Beth S. Wenger (Indiana University Press).

 

To its most recent historians, it seems axiomatic that for the last half century the Lower East Side "has become the most popular locus of American Jewish memory," as Beth Wenger has intimated, and, in some measure, as Jenna Joselit has reminded us, our vision of the Lower East Side has been "a deliberate, willed act of creation," as in greater or lesser degree, are so many of our memories, at least in their details.

Without pretending to address the mythopoesis [myth making] of place directly, let me proceed to outline, describe, and analyze the steps that led to the emergence of the proverbial Lower East Side before it became prover­bial and a cynosure of the collective American Jewish memory. Then let me suggest the need to appreciate a heretofore little, if at all, per­ceived defining historic moment in that development when its prede­cessor, the Great New York Ghetto, was vested with a freshly perceived modern élan, voice, and cultural dynamic that was to give new energy to immigrant Jewish life for decades to come.

Needing an "Emotional Point of Reference"

Since its heyday in the first decade of the 20th century when its 542,000 inhabitants constituted the densest and most visibly vola­tile critical mass of immigrants in the nation's history, the Lower East Side has come to cleave to the Jewish and larger American imagina­tion. With the end of World War I, the stark decline in Jewish immi­gration pending its virtual cessation; the backlash against all things foreign and not so incidentally, Jewish; the murderous East European pogroms; the ongoing threats to displaced loved ones almost every­where; and a historic sea change, all combined to generate a profound need for an "emotional point of reference," as Deborah Moore has put it, one close at hand, that propelled first- and second-generation Amer­ican Jews to hearken back to the Lower East Side for succor and service and the sheer sensation of Jewish connectedness.

Even as so many Jews uneasily sought to put its telltale marks be­hind them, to shake off every trace of foreignness and to distance them­selves from its ever more seedy precincts, many more eagerly laid claim to that venerable, avidly American and avidly Jewish halfway house that tenuously linked them to the hundreds of ever-more-remote shtetls [Jewish villages] of their birth and the larger immigrant and post-immigrant Americas of their dispersion.

A Shared Address

Purely and simply, it was for most Jews the only American address of all their sharing, however fleetingly. There, by virtue of all of their individual acts of migration, the many had elected, in their fashion, to become one. So epochal a rite of passage needs no explication. At that moment in its history, fact not figment, reality not fantasy, was conspiring to vest the Lower East Side with an ever resurg­ing metropolitan élan. Still radiating outward to the whole Jewish uni­verse and beyond, it bespoke the creation in just a few explosive de­cades of a world-centered American Jewish hub in a country and a city like no other.

In that "womb," as Kate Simon once called the Lower East Side, more Jews had sojourned and entered upon a new life than at any other time or place in all of Jewish history, exceeding by far the momentous mass migration of so many hundreds of thousands to the new State of Israel between 1948 and 1951, as well as the Israel-bound latter-day mass migration in the l990s, totaling more than 800,000, from the former Soviet Union, which quadrupled the number of Rus­sians coming to Israel after 1970, when emigration from the Soviet Union was first permitted.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the time for the Lower East Side's sanctification had come. With the Federal Writers Project taking charge, a formidable cut-rate WPA dig into all aspects of the New York cosmopolis was assured. The full-blown stocktaking that fol­lowed, energized by an unprecedentedly inclusive American sensitivity to ethnic democracy, made certain that generous attention would he given to the story of the Jews of New York and of the Lower East Side. By the 1960s, 80 years and more after the onset of the great Jewish migration, the Lower East Side, with a Jewish remnant of but 20,000, at last was ripe for canonization and full-bodied historical analysis and retrospection, as it has continued to be ever since for fresh-eyed walk­ers in the city and zealous interrogators of the historical record.

"American Strand"

Presumably, as one of the canonizers, this historian has been ex­pected to reflect on that canon. For one who is completing a biography of Abraham Cahan [the immigrant novelist who founded the Jewish Forward newspaper], the symbolic and existential centrality of the Lower East Side in the American no less than in the American Jewish consciousness has been inescapable. Both in its acceptance and in its rejection, the ceaseless dialectic of that special place has embedded itself into all discourse.

This has been most pronounced when it comes to addressing and re-addressing the themes of community and of iden­tity, of place and of person in the modern world. As a student of immi­gration as well as of Jewish immigration, this historian has been keenly aware, no less than was Cotton Mather--the third-generation historian of New England "From Its First Planting in the Year 1620, Unto the Year of Our Lord 1698"--that he too was writing about immigrants "flying from the depravation of Europe to the American strand." For America's Jews, the Lower East Side's granite stone and asphalt, rather than Plymouth Rock, have constituted that "American strand" from which so much has followed.

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