Second Home

Photo Essay

By Alexa Bryn

Published September 12, 2007, issue of September 14, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Although he never actually lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, for much of his life, Isaac Bashevis Singer visited almost daily, and the neighborhood became his “second home.” The relationship between writer and geographical muse is the focus of the exhibit Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Lower East Side, a series of nearly 40 images taken by photographer Bruce Davidson between 1957 and 1990, at the Jewish Museum in New York City from September 16 to February 3, 2008. The images were first shown in 2004 at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, and they were highlighted in a catalog that includes critical essays, an interview with Davidson and Singer’s story “The Beard.”

Known for his socially conscious photographs of East 100th Street in Harlem, New York City subways, and the civil rights era Freedom Rides, Davidson was naturally drawn to the denizens of the Lower East Side and began photographing them in 1957 — almost a decade before he met Singer. These early photographs, such as “Jewish Schoolboy and Girl With Doll,” reflect the immigrant’s nostalgia. Just as the young boy looks back at a girl as he runs, and she looks back at her doll, immigrants who fled Eastern Europe both before and after World War II were transfixed by their pasts.

Ironically, it was through Singer that Davidson encountered, and began to photograph, a more modern Lower East Side. The two artists met in 1965 when Davidson photographed Singer in his Upper West Side apartment. In 1972, after collaborating on “Isaac Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard,” a film based on Singer’s famous short story, Davidson began following Singer on his regular journeys to the Forverts’s offices at 175 East Broadway and then to the cafeterias where Singer wrote and, as Ilan Stavans described, “held court.”

Davidson’s Garden Cafeteria series, completed in 1973, grew out of these forays. While it was the cafeteria-goers’ “loneliness” that initially attracted Davidson, his “Garden” photographs — a cashier dancing the tango, men intently reading newspapers, two women giggling — convey a different reality: one of comfort, of home. Davidson’s 1990 series reveals the changing faces and increasing religious and ethnic diversity of Essex and Orchard Streets.

Like the residents of the Lower East Side, the portraits of Singer are also a study in contrasts. Davidson captures him in color and in black and white, but always in different shades: stubborn; excited; contemplative; incisive; distinguished in his well-appointed apartment, yet equally comfortable in the cafeteria with a spoonful of rice pudding in hand.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.